The Dangers of Freedom (Speech)

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Early in this week’s Torah portion, the Bnei Israel (Children of Israel) find themselves trapped by Egypt.

Pharaoh has brought his entire army, and no fewer than 600 choice chariots.


It seems like the Jewish people are in a hopeless position.


But think about the numbers.

The Bnei Israel have 600,000 men alone.

There are 1,000 men for each choice chariot.

1,000 men.

And they are frozen in fear.


I think this is what the Torah is referring to when it calls them Chamushim – fivers.

Five is not a number that comes up much, but perhaps it refers to the Fifth Day of Creation.

The day insects were created.

At the beginning of Shemot (Exodus), we read:

וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ

The Jewish people were fruitful and teemed – Shirtzu – like insects.

In a way, before the crossing of the sea, the Jewish people were lower than animals.

We lacked the independence of a wolf or a jackal.

Our slavery was complete.


And then, in a moment, everything changed.

The Sea split and Hashem (G-d) let the Bnei Yisrael through.

And then that same sea destroyed our oppressor.


The song we sang right afterwards was summarized by Miriam in only one pasuk:

שִׁירוּ לַיקוָק כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.

“Sing to G-d because he is pride of prides. The horse and rider he throws into the sea.”


Speaking of the French-Algerian conflict, Satre once wrote: “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man.”


Through the miracle of the sea, Hashem destroyed two peoples: he destroyed the domesticated horse the Jewish people had become and he destroyed the rider who had controlled them.

What emerged was a free people.


But freedom is never enough.


We have seen, again and again, that freedom can lead to horror.

Haiti was freed. Hungary was freed. Egypt and Lebanon and Libya were freed.

But their freedom led to collapse and to the embrace of new oppressors.


I think the reason is simple.

Freedom is not easy.

A life without responsibility can be far simpler to accept.

If you are not free, then you sacrifice the pride of your accomplishments – but you also have no responsibility for your failures.


So, the Torah Portion does not stop with our freedom.

Instead we are taught three lessons.


First, right after the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people are desperate for water.

When they are nearly overcome by their thirst, they find bitter waters. Waters they cannot drink.

Is it then that G-d commands Moshe to carry out a chok.

He is to toss a tree into the waters.

And with that, the waters will become sweet.


In the Chumash, waters refer to spirituality.

Water cleanses and renews our spirits.

And in the Chumash, trees are gift from Hashem.

The fruit of the Garden required no effort.


The newly freed people, brought to life in a way, are searching for spirituality. But when they find it, it is bitter to them – just as responsibility can be to the newly emancipated.

A chok (a symbolic command) rescues them. A tree, a gift of Hashem, is placed in the waters – and the waters become sweet.


What is Hashem’s gift to us?

What is the tree that enriches our people?

It is, of course, His Torah.


As I see it, when we act on Hashem commandments, and bring his chukim (symbolic commandments) into our spirituality, we bring sweetness to our freedom.


The second lesson is the lesson of the Mahn (Manna).

Through the Mahn, the people are taught trust in Hashem and are granted true satisfaction with Shabbat (the Sabbath).


And then finally, we test Hashem.

We wrestle with Him.

And we learn of Him.

When Moshe then strikes the rock with the staff of G-d, that which was dry, that which lacked spirit, gushes with water.


In our striving, born of our freedom, we learn.

And when we learn, we yield waters of our own.


Freedom is a wonderful thing.

But it is never enough.

Without some greater purpose, freedom leads to chaos and war and destruction.


We may think these are abstract concepts.

After all, we have never been slaves.


But consider this:

Every blessing we receive is a new freedom.

Every blessing is a new responsibility.


We can be burdened by our blessings.

We can be weighed down by the expectations they bring.

We can frightened of failure; and we can run from responsibility.

We can fail to live up to opportunity.


Or, we can embrace the lessons of this Torah portion:


We can embrace the Mitzvot (commandments) and taste the sweetness of our freedom.

We can trust in Hashem and be blessed with true satisfaction.

And we can learn of Hashem and be a source of holiness for all who surround us.


This week we are celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of Dalia.

A Bat Mitzvah represents a step change in freedoms and responsibility.

Dalia is a joyful young woman who loves to dance.

I am sure I speak for the community when I say that we expect she choose the path of sweetness and of satisfaction and that she grow into a source of holiness for all those around her.


Shabbat Shalom


Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.

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