April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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This week’s Torah portion as depicted in the “Prince of Egypt” and in the imaginations of Jewish children gives you the sense of a dramatic and heroic story. The young Israelite nation, thirsting for freedom, seems to finally have freedom in their grasp, yet at the last moment are chased by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. God comes in, splits the sea through Moses, and God and the Israelites head off to the Land of Israel in the proverbial sunset, realizing the power of their faith in God.

A close reading of the text, however, paints a very different picture. The first two verses in Beshalach state:

“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt. So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 13:17-18).

In this moment of foreshadowing we learn two important things. The first is something that God sees, that the Jewish people may not have the heart to continue escaping, may not have the heart to confront having to fight for their place in the world, and may simply want to return to Egypt—the place of a more dependent existence. The second is that the Jews were armed—at the very least, not in a state of pure helplessness against potential threats.

So God seems to not have faith in the Jews’ ability to respond, even though according to some interpretations they are armed and prepared for conflict. The budding Israelite nation, however, seems to not only complain about their hardships, but always turn their eyes back to Egypt when the going gets rough:

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Exodus 14:10-12)

While it is easy to criticize the Israelites for complaining, it is hard to judge their knee-jerk reaction to seeing their most recent captors show up, ready to recapture or kill them. A fear response would indeed be appropriate. Yet, this is not purely a fear response; the Israelites parrot a common refrain, that it is better to serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness. Lest we think this is a direct response to being chased by the Egyptians, see what happens multiple times following the splitting of the sea while the Israelites are traveling through the desert:

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:2-3)

The people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:2-3)

The young Israelite nation seems to be obsessed with Egypt. Their complaints often take on the expression of a wistful desire for Egypt; not that it was good in Egypt, but it was surely better than where they are now. From God’s perspective, the Israelites are now free from captivity, free to fully choose and embrace their own destiny, free from any human captivity. Yet, an analysis of these verses show the pull of Egypt, the pull of safety and structure, overshadows the desire for Israelite freedom, hanging over them and remaining inside their subconscious, ready to come up for the slightest bit of difficulty.

For some students in education systems, the struggle is not fitting in or not succeeding with too narrow of an educational experience. Often, these students do better with additional assistance and/or more freedom to showcase their gifts that may not translate well to a transcript in a traditional school system. There are, thank God, more and more institutions providing a wider array of educational experiences to help these students. However, there is a more subtle challenge many students face: the struggle of fitting in too well, of not having the space and opportunities to allow their unique selves to find expression.

I teach a class called Inquiry at The Idea School. Inquiry is more than a class; it’s a mindset and style of learning. In our inquiry classes students are encouraged to pursue their passions, take creative risks, push themselves to learn new skills and bring their creative ideas to life, as we often eschew a traditional textbook-based curriculum and syllabus. In our classroom, in the words of Neil Postman from his book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” students generate their own stories syllabus, and a successful outcome is not mastering the story the teacher seeks to share but rather noting whether they have succeeded at their own challenges, be it learning how to draw, developing a new sensory-based phone case to help those with anxiety on a daily basis, or doing a deep analysis in to a Jewish text and sharing a shiur with their community. A grade in this course is based on demonstrated behavioral changes: Does the student ask more insightful and relevant questions to their projects? How does the student re-adjust in the face of unexpected obstacles? Has the student demonstrated growing skills of collaboration and communication?

One of the things we speak a lot about in our classes is creative confidence—having the confidence to push through with your own unique ideas, and bringing them to fruition in the real world. Oftentimes it is easier to return to what feels easy, comfortable or familiar, the Egypt of our minds. As a progressive educator, I find the difficulty most prevalent not in the challenges faced when veering from more structured and set curriculums to more open styles of learning, but rather in how easy it is for both student and teacher to return to the familiarity of a set curriculum. While there are many benefits to a traditional curricular system, at some point, every student, whether in high school, college, or any other educational institution must ask themselves: What is my calling? What is my destiny? Do I have the courage to pursue my creative visions, the courage to overcome the self doubt and roadblocks on the way to seeking my own destiny, the courage to ask myself the hard questions about where I am going?

As a nation, the nascent Jewish nation could realize their collective mistakes in conversation with God. Yet, as an individual, it is rare that someone can grade you on whether you are truly leaving your Egypt behind, leaving your familiar yet limiting comfort zone, and bringing your unique gift and passion to the world. Ultimately, this is the most important question that we may ask ourselves, and it is a question that cannot be graded, judged or determined by one person to another. I think the final word of this reflection belongs to a quote by Howard Thurman that I often say over to my students: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”


Aryeh Laufer teaches inquiry engineering and inquiry beit midrash at The Idea School, but mostly teaches students. He is passionate about democratic schooling.

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