Parshat Beshalach: Give me freedom — not death


By Rabbi Avi Billet

Issue of Feb. 6, 2009 / 12 Shevat 5769

If you’ve never read Virginian Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in its entirety, your time would not be wasted if you read it at the webpage (or see excerpts below).

Its relevance becomes quite clear when we note a most odd paradox in this week’s Torah portion. In 14:10 “Paroh advanced, and the children of Israel raised their eyes to see Egypt chasing them. They were quite fearful, and the children of Israel cried out to G-d.” In the next two verses “They said to Moshe, ‘Are there not graves in Egypt that you had to take us to die in the wilderness? Why did you take us out of Egypt? This is what we told you in Egypt when we said we’re better off serving Egypt than dying in the wilderness!’”

For a people who had experienced hundreds of years of slavery and were now living their first days of freedom, this hardly seems like gratitude.

Surely a people who cried out to G-d in Shmot 2:23-25, 3:9, 6:5, and who so appreciated Moshe’s arrival in 4:31 could not be saying such things! While they may not have wanted death in Egypt, surely to die as a free person was better than the slavery of Egypt.

It is for this reason that Ramban introduces the idea that there were different groups who had different reactions to the events as they transpired. For example, the children of Israel who cried out to G-d in 14:10 are not the “They” who spoke to Moshe in 14:11-12.

Many commentaries, such as Rabbenu Bachya and the Shakh, jump on Ramban’s initiative and speak of the presence of the Erev Rav, who were introduced in 12:38, as a thorn in Moshe’s side. The Erev Rav (no –– not the rabbi who checks the eruv) were a group of Egyptians who cast their lot with the children of Israel, after having seen the Israelite G-d destroy Egypt. As the midrash develops their identity, it is clear they wanted to be in the same camp as the Israelites, but not on the same page religiously, or even in their support of Moshe.

The midrash rabba (21:5) notes that Paroh helped the Jews achieve more than what they may have achieved with 100 fasts plus prayer in his military advance in 14:10. When they saw him coming, they cried out the most heartfelt prayers to G-d, and repented in the most meaningful way, out of fear of what Paroh might do to them.

Were they really fearful that Paroh would kill them?

Ramban, Rashbam, Seforno and others suggest the fear was not that Paroh would kill them, but that they would die in the desert of natural causes, such as hunger and thirst.

So now we wonder what was Paroh’s intent? In 12:33, Egypt did what it could to send the Israelites out speedily. In a fit of obstinance, Paroh made the impulsive decision to chase the Jews with his army (14:5-8). According to Josephus (quoted in Aryeh Kaplan’s “Living Torah”) Paroh’s army numbered 600 war chariots, 50,000 horsemen, and 200,000 foot soldiers.

The Torah tells us (13:18) the Israelites left Egypt “Chamushim,” which many take to mean they were armed for battle. While they may not have been trained in warfare like the Egyptians, their numbers (600,000 of fighting age –– altogether 3 million people) were far superior to Paroh’s army, and they were to be fighting a battle for their survival, the kind of battle they could not afford to lose, being the only protection for their families behind them.

Did Paroh mean to fight? Was he planning to bring his slaves back? Or was he not sure what he’d do once face to face? Were the Israelites afraid of battle? Or were they afraid of the dangers of the desert? Was Paroh chasing them to be sure they would not return? Was he trying to drive them into the sea?

There is no question in my mind that the Ramban is correct in stating there were different groups talking to Moshe. Ramban says the Erev Rav were sure that G-d was strong, but they had doubts about Moshe’s leadership prowess.

Perhaps he had led them in the wrong direction and he would be an ineffective leader. But only they could have preferred Egyptian servitude over being led by G-d’s servant through the wilderness.

Like many of the founding fathers of the USA, Patrick Henry was a religious man who invoked G-d and G-d’s will in his speech. In their quest to break from British oppression, many of them viewed the new land as a sort of “promised land” apart from the “Egypt” that was Britain. This is one of the reasons why many New England cities have Biblical names: Goshen, Bethlehem, Mt. Zion, Jericho.

The fair-weather fans (Erev Rav) wanted to be with the stronger side and gravitated toward the imposing Egyptians.

But those who were dedicated to the cause were ready to fight. When your very survival is at stake, you don’t have a choice. When Paroh’s army approached, they knew their weapons would be needed. At the same time, they were inspired to pray.

In their case, they were told “G-d will fight for you” (14:14). We pray that He continues to help our soldiers in the field (Israeli and American), who do what they can so the rest of us can continue to go about our lives in relative peace.

Excerpts of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech, edited by Rabbi Avi Billet

Note the way he refers to G-d, and note the number of people living in America at the time.

Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings… Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? …These are the implements of war and subjugation –– the last arguments to which kings resort…If we wish to be free … we must fight! … An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak –– unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? …Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.

The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! …The war is inevitable — and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

…What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! –– Patrick Henry, March 23 1775 (21 Adar II 5535, which was a week after Purim. In a non-leap year it would have been 21 Nissan, the date of Kriyat Yam Suf).

Avi Billet welcomes your comments and thoughts at avbillet at or comment here.