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The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea

Interior of one of the barracks at Atlit containing original artifacts of refugees.
The ship at Atlit which offers an experiential visit simulating a sea voyage and that demonstrates the hardships endured by the immigrants on their way to the Land of Israel.
This week is the moment of truth for our ancestors at the Sea of Reeds. They could not return to Egypt, where the harshness and cruelty of their bondage had become unbearable. And, they really had no way of knowing exactly where they were going – they themselves had no familiarity with a “promised land,” which to them was probably little more than a pipe dream. They were trapped, as the expression goes, between the devil and the deep blue sea. But miraculously, according to our text, the Sea split apart, and with the triumphal Song of the Sea that is the centerpiece of our Torah portion, Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in a paean of praise to God as they crossed through on dry land, emerging safely on the other side.

Time and time again in our history, we have relived that experience in one form or another, as we have fled from oppressive regimes and dangerous environments, often literally into the seas and the oceans. Our only hope was to find refuge in some far off place. As the Second World War loomed larger over Europe, and the Nazi concentration camps became the most feared places on Earth, our people looked for any way they could find to escape the threat that hung over them in Europe. Even after the War itself was over, our people were herded into DP camps, still hoping to find refuge and breathe the air of freedom.

Those of us who traveled to Israel together last May visited the grounds of Atlit, some 15 km south of Haifa. Atlit was a British detention camp, where Jewish refugees and survivors were interned during the years between 1940 and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. One year before the camp was opened, the British published a “White Paper” which limited the number of the Jewish immigrants allowed to enter Palestine to 75,000 over 5 years: 25,000 immediately and 10,000 for each of the following 5 years. Those caught trying to enter the country illegally were captured and interned at Atlit.

One of many period photos in a display at Atlit.
The disinfecting showers at the Atlit detention camp.
The illegal activities increased exponentially after 1945 when the Palmach commandeered a number of ships of refugees now interned in Displaced Person camps, particularly on the Island of Cyprus. The ship that we know as “The Exodus” was only one of dozens of such ships bearing human cargo that had lost everything they had. It should be noted as well that many refugees came in ships from Italy and North Africa, and a number of Arabic countries as well. The journeys were dangerous and punishing. Many did not survive. Many who did were re-deported to Cyprus by the British. Those who were caught were sent to Atlit, where the men and women were separated and sent to showers. We can only the imagine the paralyzing horror they felt as survivors of Nazi death camps when they entered the rooms with the showers. With barbed wire and guard towers, Atlit bore many resemblances to the camps the Jews had managed to survive. But, in fact, the British were NOT Nazis, and the showers really were – showers.

Atlit is an interesting place and an important piece of pre-State history. But it also is a stark reminder of the desperate plight of refugees, particularly as they travel the seas, searching for safety and security. While I’m sure many of our people on those refugee ships were hoping for a repeat performance of the splitting of the Sea, ultimately they had to rely on the courage and compassion of human beings. The message for us today is painfully clear. “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Over and over again our Torah reminds us of the compassion that is required of us.

In The Name of God

Chicago-museum-Tetragram

Tetragrammaton in stained glass from the former Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows in Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Last week our sidra reviewed the birth and early life of Moses, and the first revelation of God through the burning bush on Mount Horeb. Three names are used for the Divine Presence: אלהים – Elohim – God; יהוה – YHVH – pronounced euphemistically as Adonai, and translated euphemistically as “The Lord,” or in more gender neutral terms, “The Eternal;” and אהיה – Ehyeh, which is actually the first-person future tense of the verb “to be.” Of these, it is only the third which is new, as the first two are introduced in the Book of Genesis in God’s communication with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In this first theophany, God self-identifies as אהיה אשר אהיה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I will be what I will be.”

At the beginning of this week’s sidra, Moses experiences a second theophany, in which God self-identifies definitively as יהוה – YHVH – Adonai. It is יהוה who renews the covenantal promise with Moses, and charges Moses with the mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt in the name of יהוה , with extraordinary miracles and chastisements.
Our sacred history, then, holds that Moses undertook his mission in the name of יהוה, or, in more contemporary usage, “in the name of God.” Regardless of the degree to which we take this story at face value or not, we generally do accept the underlying values of this text, one of which is the rejection of cruel slavery and oppression. Nevertheless as we know, history is filled with groups who have perpetrated cruel and brutal acts, claiming, and most probably believing, that it was “in the name of God.” Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others as well, are all guilty of appropriating this theology in the commission of heinous acts. And of course, when we look around at our country and our world at this time, we are all too cognizant of the fact that there are individuals and groups who commit horrific acts – evil acts – in the claim and belief that they are acting “in the name of God.”
As the heirs to a rich and wonderful religious tradition, we nevertheless need to be on our guard in a world that all too easily claims that it acts “in the name of God.” As liberal Jews, we look to our tradition for the values of benevolence and humanitarianism that are certainly abundant within it. Yet we understand that the world and milieu that produced the Biblical texts was also filled with violence and vengeance. Our responsibility is to cast off these destructive impulses, and uphold and promote those values that will lead to greater respect for the dignity of human beings, and a state of peace and wholeness for those who live on this Earth. These are lofty values to be sure. But we cannot afford to relinquish them, or to cease our pursuit of them.