Sunday, January 24, 2010


Burning One's Ships
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
few months ago a member of our congregation told me that, prior to the establishment of the State, she used to spend Passover with her family in Cairo. She would take a train from Tel Aviv and reach the capital city of Egypt within twelve hours.

How would you travel nowadays from Tel Aviv to Cairo? Which is the shortest way?
It is, without a doubt, the same way described in Exodus 13, 17 as "through the land of the Philistines".

"And it came to pass, when Pharoah let the people go, that God did not lead them the way through the land of the Philistines, because it was near; for God said: Lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt. But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea" (Exodus 13, 17-18).

That journey in the desert did not take twelve hours, but forty years. In any event, even though the journey was not supposed to have been a long one in the first place, God preferred to choose the long way (through the desert) and not the short way ("through the land of the Philistines"). Why? God feared that the nation would want to return to Egypt "when they saw war".

To enter the country via the land of the Philistines would not be an easy feat. Nor would it be an easy task to enter via the Jordan. Would the way there be free of wars?
There would also be wars across the Jordan. There would also be wars in the land of Israel…

So what was the difference then between the long and the short way?

Perhaps the answer lies in Rashi's explanation:-

"Had they travelled the straight way they would have returned (to Egypt). Now, if when He led them by a roundabout way they nevertheless said 'Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt' (Numbers 14, 4) Had they gone on a straight way certainly [they would have returned to Egypt]".

Apparently God wanted to prevent them from even wanting to return to Egypt. God knew that with any sign of trouble the easiest way in their eyes would be the way back. It is always harder to deal with new problems than to go back to one's former problems.

A story is told of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, who arrived with his army at the Phoenician coast in the 4th century BC. He very quickly understood what the outcome of this war would be. The Phoenician army was three times larger than his own and the war would be totally asymmetrical. The soldiers despaired even before the battle began.

So Alexander of Macedonia planned a brilliant strategy. He asked his men to burn the ships in which they had arrived at the Phoenician coast, then gathered them together and spoke to them: "Look how the ships are burning…just because of that we will have to win the war. There is only one way to return home, and that is by sea. And after we win the war we will go there in the only remaining way: in the Phoenicians' ships!".

Facing a new reality is a long and complicated journey. The way from which there is no going back. That is the desert path. The path chosen by God to teach that particular generation which had not yet reached maturity that sometimes the only way to face challenges is to burn your ships.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


With our Young and with our Old
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
The departure of the children of Israel from Egypt already appears in Parashat Bo. After years of suffering and tears, and under the heavy pressure from his slaves, Pharoah the king of Egypt allows the people of Israel to leave for the desert to worship G-d.
However, a very tense dialogue takes place between Pharoah and Moses. Pharoah asks Moses: "But who are they that shall go?" and Moses answers: "We will go with our young and with our old." Pharoah is not overly enthusiastic about this idea: "Not so, go now you that are men and serve the Lord for that is what you desire." (Exodus 10:8-11)
It is possible to say a great deal about Pharoah king of Egypt. He was cruel. He was a child murderer. He was an egoist. But he was very astute. The condition that he lays down is brilliant in terms of preserving his own interests...
But Moses is stubborn and insists on going out to the desert with both the young and the old.
Why was it so important for Moses to leave Egypt with everyone? Why did Pharoah object? Two questions and one answer.
Both Pharoah and Moses knew that it is impossible to go very far without a new generation. Perhaps one of the most brilliant definitions of youth was given by Rabbi Yosef Kahanman from Ponivez when he said "A child is an orphan when he does not have parents. A people is an orphan when it does not have sons and young people."
And what about the old? Can one say that the future of a people is dependent on them? Definitely yes. The old people constitute the roots, the source of traditional practices and texts. When Pharoah said to Moses that he will not allow the young and the old to leave, he said to hin: "Your hope and your roots remain with me! Let's see how far you'll get without them...".
It is impossible to build a people without a past and without a future, without roots and without hope, without tradition and without dreams. The moving force of any people lies in these two extremes. And without a moving force,it is impossible to achieve anything...
Both Pharoah and Moses were aware of this.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


A hard-of-hearing people
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
It's true that Moses had severe speech difficulties, but there was an additional problem in Egypt. The real problem wasn't that Moses couldn't speak well. The real problem was that that the people of Israel didn't want to listen.

To leave Egypt??
The G-d of our fathers?
Who are you, Moses?

Moses was right. Those slaves were never convinced that it was preferable to be free men in a desert than to be the slaves of the pharaoh in the most important empire in the world. Already at the beginning of their journey in the desert , the first feelings of regret appeared, because at times there are people who see freedom as a real threat.

Some time ago I read about a new immigrant from the former Soviet Union who wanted to buy a pair of shoes in Natanya. She was very confused. She entered a store where there were twenty different kinds of shoes. What should she do? In the Soviet Union it had been easier. When she wanted to buy shoes, she bought the only model that was available.

To become a free person is a serious challenge. It break's a person's routine. It changes one's life completely. Moses began to understand that his brethren would have preferred to remain stuck in the past with the illusion of the fleshpots, rather than face the challenges that accompanied freedom.

There is a story about Rabbi Nahum of Chernobyl who once came to an inn and decided to spend the night there. When it was time for the evening prayer, maariv, the landlord, a simple Jew, saw the Rabbi praying with great concentration and reverence.

The Jew, who scarcely knew how to read, asked him, "Rabbi, what are you doing?"
"I am praying that with the help of God we will soon see the end of our exile, that the Messiah will come soon in our time and we will all be able to go to the Holy Land, the land of Israel."

The landlord was in shock. He went upstairs and told his wife.
"My dear, do you know that the Rabbi who arrived today just prayed for the end of our exile? Soon the Mashiach will come and take us all to the Holy Land, the land of Israel."

"The end of exile?! The Mashiach? The land of Israel?" said his wife. "Have you thought what we will do with our cows if the Mashiach comes tomorrow? And what will we do with the horses? And what about our inn?"

Again the man was in shock. He went downstairs to Rabbi Nahum and asked him, "Tell me…If the Mashiach comes and we go to the land of Israel, what will we do with our cows? And what will we do with the horses? And what about our inn?"

"Is that what you're worried about?" asked Rabbi Nahum. "Tell me: when the Cossacks come and chase you down the streets of the shtetl, do you like it? Don't you understand what I'm telling you? When the Mashaich comes, there will be no more Cossacks. We will all go to the land of Israel."

Again the landlord went upstairs and told his wife, "My dear, Rabbi Nahum is right. When the Mashiach comes, that's it! No more Cossacks! We will all go to the land of Israel!"

His wife looked at him and said, "I understand. But you go downstairs and tell this Rabbi Nahum that tomorrow too he can pray for the coming of the Mashiach, but ask him to tell the Mashiach to take the Cossacks with him to the Holy Land and leave us here in the shtetl with the cows, the horses and the inn."

Not everyone sees the coming redemption as a blessing.
The real problem was not that Moses couldn't speak well. The real problem was that the people of Israel didn't want to hear him.

Friday, January 08, 2010


I and Thou

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

In 1923 Martin Buber wrote his book I and Thou in which he developed his Dialogic Philosophy. Buber maintains that in the system of relationships between human beings, there are two completely different views regarding our attitude towards our fellow man. We can see him as an object without a soul (like an orange that can be squeezed, for example) or we can see him as "Thou" (as a subject).

Without doubt it is easier to regard the other as object. The world of objects does not demand love, compassion, devotion or commitment. But the source of morality, according to Buber, is in the ability to realize this dialogue, to see the other as "Thou".

This is not only philosophy. Buber's Dialogic Philosophy sheds light on our relationships and makes us consider our attitudes to our children, our parents and our spouses.

The Torah portion Shemot tells of Moses' entrance to the Biblical stage and opens a new page in the history of the people of Israel in general and in the life of Moses in particular. The spoilt boy Moses, who grew up in Pharoah's palace, starts moving towards the great enterprise of his life: leading the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to redemption.

We know in retrospect that Moses had several essential leadership qualities. But the question is what G-d saw in Moses before choosing him. Our Sages say that G-d examined Moses through the flocks. When Moses was Jethro's shepherd in the desert, a kid ran away and he ran after it till it reached a pool of water and wanted to drink. "I didn't know that you ran because you were thirsty…you are tired", said Moses and carried the kid on his shoulders. G-d said, "You have compassion in leading your flock; thus will you lead the flock of Israel." (Shemot Rabbah, 2,2)

Devotion, compassion and love are required qualities for every leader. But Moses had an additional advantage. The Torah portion tells us of three events that serve as background to the choice of Moses as leader.

The first encounter was with the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. "And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren and looked on their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his brethren. He looked this way and that and saw there was no one; he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand." (Exodus 2, 11-12)

That event, which changed his life completely, is a prelude to the second story. "And when he went out the second day, he saw two Hebrews fighting, and said to the one who was in the wrong, 'Why do you strike your fellow man?' The Hebrew said, 'Who made you a prince and judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?' Moses feared and said, 'This thing is known.'" (Exodus 2, 13-14)

Two verses after that, we have the third story. "Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father's flocks. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them and watered their flocks." (Exodus 2, 16-17)

We have three different stories, but in substance they are identical. The central motif is caring about the other person, no matter who he is. In the first story he is a Jew; in the third he is a Midianite.

It does not matter who your fellow man is. The main point is to see him as "Thou", as Buber defines him. Only someone capable of seeing the other person in this way is capable of leading an oppressed mass of people, that mass without shape or distinctiveness, from slavery to redemption.

Previous Drashot

Shemot 5766 – The Eternal Burning Bush