a 19th century painting of the scene
"The Children of Israel Crossing the Red Sea" by Henri-Frederic Schopin

The monumental things that happen in the in-between

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 13:17–17:16

In this Torah portion, the Israelites are finally allowed by Pharaoh to leave Egypt — and their long enslavement there.

Many important things happen in the final moments between slavery and freedom. It is an in-between time, neither here nor there. It is reminiscent of the time the Talmud calls bein hashmashot, a mystical twilight time just before the first Shabbat began.

In a famous passage from Pirkei Avot (5:6), the Talmud posits that 10 things were created during this first twilight time, including the rainbow and the font used by God for the writing of the Ten Commandments and the Torah. It was during this in-between time, this transition time, that powerful and important things became real.

When I first learned about bein hashmashot, I was reminded of my high school photography class. Our teacher gave us an assignment to shoot during the “magic hour,” as she called it — a beautiful time just after sunset when the light in the world is dusky and shifting rapidly.

She wanted us to really see the changing light and the various views it would provide. Sometimes, those in-between moments are very important ones. Perspectives change. There is space for newness. And the world can be seen completely differently from moment to moment.

In our Torah portion this week, our ancestors find themselves in one of these in-between times. They are about to leave behind hundreds of years of slavery, along with their identity formed during that difficult time.

Soon, they will begin to create an autonomous society. They will receive the Ten Commandments and build a moral code that will guide them. They will make choices about how they want to live. They will always remember their past, even as they create a new future.

As the Israelites begin their journey to freedom, we read this verse, powerfully linking past and future: “Moses took Joseph’s bones with him” (Exodus 13:19). As the Israelites were fleeing Pharaoh’s army, running through the Red Sea and eating unleavened bread, Moses took Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Though Joseph had risen to great power in Egypt, he was always an Israelite. He asked that one day, when the Israelites would return to Israel, that they take his bones with them.

And after hundreds of years of slavery, the Israelites were finally returning home. They could honor Joseph’s wish to be buried in the Land of Israel. This act is a poignant reminder that our present is inextricably linked to our past.

The language used in this parashah also links us to Genesis. Remember back a few weeks in the Torah reading cycle (or a few months to Rosh Hashanah) when we read the Akeda, the story of the binding of Isaac?

Abraham places his son Isaac on a rock and prepares to sacrifice him. He raises the maachelet (knife) above his son. “Vayisa Avraham et einav,” and Abraham lifted his eyes. And what he saw before him changed the course of history: A ram rustling in the thicket. The ram is sacrificed in place of Isaac.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the ram’s horn precisely because it is necessary for all of us to remember the story. It instructs us to wake up and live with intention.

This week’s Torah portion tells a parallel story. Pharaoh regrets his decision to let the Israelites go free. He harnesses his chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and chases the Israelites to the sea. In fear, the Israelites look up and see this massive army approaching. The Torah tells us, “Vayisu b’nei Yisrael et eineihem.” The language here is parallel to the words we find in Genesis 22:13.

As the Israelites stand on the edge of the sea and lift their eyes, what they see before them also changed the course of history. They look up, “V’hinei Mitzrayim.” And behold, Egypt!

Just like the ram whose presence was announced with the same phrasing, “v’hinei ayil,” we have an announcement of a moment which will transform our people forever. With these two words — “Behold, Egypt!” — all the lessons of slavery stand arrayed in front of us. In the moment that the Israelites looked at the charging chariots, they saw one thing with clarity: They had to cross to freedom; they could not go back.

Little did they know that they were living the great moment when the foundation story of our people was taking shape. We would suddenly go from slavery to freedom; we would be reborn as a new nation.

In the instant between slavery and freedom, our ancestors look back at Mitzrayim and forward to a future in the land of Israel.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.