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Title: Stand Up To Them And Fight!

Major Focus: Freedom

Minor Focus: Slavery

Abstract: How could 600,000 Hebrew men fail to stand up to the army of Pharoah? How could millions of civilians fail to stand up to the Nazi tormentors?

Format: Midrash

Crimes Against Humanity

"As Pharoah drew near, the Israelites caught sight of Egypt advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to God. And they said to Moses, 'Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in this wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?'"

Exodus 14:10-11

The Torah tells us (Exodus 12:36) that 600,000 men escaped from Egypt with Moses. How could it be that with a multitude so large, they were terrified as the Pharoah's army advanced on them, trapping them at the seashore? Why did they not stand and fight for their lives? Could dying in defense of freedom be worse then slavery in Egypt?

Ibn Ezra comments that the Israelites had been oppressed by their Egyptian masters for so many years, they simply did not know the meaning of standing up for one's rights or fighting for freedom. That whole generation of adults had only known slavery and the Egyptian yoke from childhood. They were a meek, brow-beaten lot, easily frightened.

It was heaven's will that all the adults of that generation were destined to die in the wilderness. As events transpired, that whole generation was to prove their unworthiness to God, their lack of commitment to freedom, their unwillingness to risk all for a land of their own and national security.

The whole generation of adults who had been slaves in Egypt died in the wilderness. It was the children of that generation, those who grew up in the wilderness, who were to battle the Canaanites and conquer the Promised Land. It took another generation, one that had never bowed its back to toil under a slave-master's whip, to win freedom, independence, and security.

The same question is often asked of the events during the Holocaust in Europe. How is it that hundreds of thousands of people could be stripped naked, marched into open ditches, and slaughtered like an infected herd of cattle? How is it that millions of people could be marched naked into gas chambers with only prayer and song on their lips before dying? Surely they outnumbered their tormentors hundreds to one. Perhaps we can even understand women and children dying passively, but what of the men and boys?

Part of the answer must be reflected in what Ibn Ezra had written five hundred years earlier. How can we expect people who have lived in cities and little towns all their lives, who have known nothing but their families, business, and trades, who have never been trained in how to hold a rifle much less use one, how can we expect such people to turn on savage dogs and cruel soldiers with weapons, soldiers who have been schooled in military discipline, who have been allowed to unleash the lowest, most evil instincts harbored in the human mind? Is that really a fair expectation? Is that really a proper response, to blame the victims for their own victimization and death?

For those who escaped somehow, for those who survived the European Holocaust, particularly for the young people, it was a very different story. They were the ones, both boys and girls, who made it, one way or another, to Palestine. They were the ones who took up arms to conquer back their ancestral land. They were the ones who joined the Hagganah and Palmach, to fight for freedom, to expel the British, to let the Arabs know that the land was not theirs exclusively. They were the ones who died defending the settlements, opening the roads, and building the cities. It took a new generation, one who had never known the easy luxuries of Europe, or the yoke of Nazi enslavement, to establish, defend, and build the Third Commonwealth of Israel.

Challenge Questions

  1. How do you think you might have reacted if you had been among the Israelites trapped between Pharoah's army and the sea? Would you have been most influenced by the leadership in charge, by the will of the masses, or by your own inner convictions?
  2. How do you think you would have reacted if you had been among the Jews rounded up by the Nazi death squads, marched to fields, ordered to strip naked, and walked into mass graves for slaughter?
  3. Why was it primarily the young people who were allowed to participate in the conquest of the Promised Land? Why was it primarily the young people who retook the Promised Land back from the British and Arabs after World War II?