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Beware of “Back to Normal”

April 2, 2021

This week’s drash for Shabbat Pesach.

On Shabbat Pesach, we suspend the regular weekly Torah reading cycle in order to retell the climax of the Exodus story, the joyous song we sang when we passed through the parted Red Sea into freedom. When we read this passage, and the chapters that surround it, we tend to focus on the beautiful poetry of Mi Chamocha, the undulating motion of the text in the Torah scroll, and the women dancing with their timbrels.

But we must not ignore the tense moments that lead up to this moment of jubilation. With the Egyptians in hot pursuit, the Israelites find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the Pharaoh’s army. They do not know whether they are about to be saved, slaughtered, or returned to slavery. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that, to our ancestors, the latter seemed more likely.

We read in Exodus 14 that: Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Eternal. 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).

So first, we have sarcasm, as one commentary points out that Egypt was “the classic land of tombs” (Etz Chayim 402).

But then, we see a very real, very troubling mindset: We’d rather be slaves in Egypt than take our chances out here on our own. We’d rather have the devil we know than the devil we don’t know.

And this feeling doesn’t go away, even when we are safely on the other side of the sea. Only one chapter after we praise God for defeating the Egyptians, we once again start our grumbling, not because we are in mortal danger, but because we are hungry:

The Israelites groan: “If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!” (Exodus 16:3). Even though this grumbling is met with the miracle of manna, literal bread falling down from the sky, the Israelites periodically resume their complaining, because they don’t like what’s on the menu (honestly, six days into Passover, I absolutely understand this):

“If only we had meat to eat,” they say. “We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4-6).

The rabbis noticed how strange it was to claim that the food in Egypt was “free,” when the Israelites themselves were not. By the end of their enslavement, the Egyptians would not even give them the straw they needed to make bricks for the Egyptians. “How, then, are we to understand “free”?” the rabbis ask. “Free” of mitzvot (sacred obligations)” (Sifrei Bamidbar 87). The Israelites missed Egypt because all of their decisions were made for them. They only needed to keep their heads down and do what they were told. In that way, it seemed easier to serve Pharaoh than God.

Nechama Leibowitz suggests that, “This is the trick that memory plays to make life bearable. We remember the good and forget the painful” (Etz Chayim 827-828).

This grumbling resonates with me at this particular moment when we are finally talking about going “back to normal” post-pandemic. There are many things to look forward to. We are close enough to the end that I’ve started making lists of what I’m going to do first: the top slot is usually a competition between kissing my niece’s belly and having an hours-long greasy diner breakfast with friends.

But we need to be mindful that we don’t fall into a “take us back to Egypt” mentality. We need to remember that not everything about “normal” was good.

Last week I spoke to some of my friends in the corporate world about what it might look like when they go “back to normal.” People who have been told for years that remote work and flexible schedules were impossible have proved for a year that they aren’t. In fact, some of them reported increased productivity during the pandemic. Many don’t want to return to the “normal” of long commutes and constant work travel. Some individuals and institutions have even considered relocating to more affordable locations, which means that we may soon have new definitions of what the professional and personal “Promised Land” looks like.

This morning NPR reported that colleges and universities—particularly public and community colleges—are concerned that enrollment numbers have dropped. Many students are choosing to defer or not to attend college at all, which will have long-term effects on both the colleges and the students. Studies show that it’s difficult for low-income students to return to college after taking time off. But perhaps the “fix” for that isn’t only encouraging students to continue going to college right from high school as they “normally” do, but rather figuring out ways for students to return to college at any stage of life. Perhaps we could encourage more students to pursue higher learning by providing more financial support for low-income students, and addressing the mountains of debt that students were already taking on to pay for college when things were “normal.”

I think about the “back to Egypt” mentality when I talk to my friends with children. There is a tremendous desire to get children “back to normal,” and this is a real and urgent need. Our children need routines, socialization, in-person instruction, and extra-curricular activities—and their families need villages to help raise them. But this time has taught some of us that some aspects of “normal” weren’t great. One friend noticed that, while their child struggled so much with online learning that they had to withdraw from school, this year they managed to teach themselves to draw at a near-professional level, something that “normal” school didn’t necessarily give them space for. Another friend observed that their child was much more agreeable when they weren’t constantly being told to hurry up and get ready to be shuttled from one activity to another. On a more serious note, though online learning has been far from ideal, neither were our “normal” overcrowded classrooms and underfunded schools. Not to mention that a year without school shootings has reminded us that “normal” was never safe.

Meanwhile, some of the worst parts of “normal” have persisted through this year: inequity, ignorance and injustice; prejudice, hatred, and violence towards marginalized groups. In our rush to resume our everyday activities, we must continue to work to make sure these will not be a part of our “new normal.”

We can look back at the Israelites and judge them for their grumbling, because we see their choices as black and white: slavery versus freedom. But their choices, in the moment, must have felt much more complicated than that to them: certainty versus uncertainty, the ease of free food versus the burden of having free will. It sounds crazy that they would choose to go back to Egypt. But at that moment, it probably sounded just as crazy that they would cross the Red Sea to freedom.

Nachmanides suggests that there were two groups of people calling out at the Red Sea: righteous people who were praying to God and wicked people who were complaining to Moses (Ramban on Exodus 14:11). But I can imagine that there were plenty of Israelites who were doing both. We, too, can hold onto multiple truths, and feel all of these feelings at the same time: nostalgia for the past and hope for the future, wanting to move forward and fearing change.

May our awareness of this tension help guide us as we move forward out of this narrow place. May it inspire us so that we might work to ensure that the world we re-enter looks different than the one we left, and that it looks more like the Promised Land than like Egypt.