This lesson is part of our continuing series on Moses our Mentor: Lessons in Living from Israel’s Great Teacher.
Today’s lesson consists mainly of practical lessons for living with other people, in addition to practical advice for living with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, all from Parashat Bo, Exodus 10-13. Your benefit from these points will be multiplied if you will take the trouble to look up and read the Scripture texts that are referenced here. But either way, there is no doubt that there is something here for you and for those you know and love.
My friends, make the best of the opportunity. Come and get wise with some of the wisdom embodied in Torah and in the life of Moses.
I. When you are going into negotiations, it is crucial that you be absolutely clear as to what are your non-negotiables. See Exodus 10:7-29.
Here we see something that is apparent from the beginning of Moses’ dealings with Pharoah—that even under intense pressure, he wants to give to Moses less than Moses is demanding, less than God wants, less than will be satisfactory. It was crucial for Moses and Aaron to be clear about their non-negotiables or, under the pressures of negotiations, they could have compromised where they should not have. So will it be for us. Never go into negotiations unless you are clear on where you can and cannot compromise. Again, that clarity must be established BEFORE you go into negotiations.
II. Being consistent in doing what you said you would do, and in the consequences you foretell will earn the respect of people on the other side of the dispute. See 10:7; 11:1-3.
Even though Pharaoh was an intractable foe, his people were watching what was happening. Moses and Aaron and the Israelites won their grudging respect as the Egyptians saw that God was with them, and as Moses and Aaron maintained a consistent way of life and a consistent message. The same will be true for us: if we maintain consistent conduct and a consistent message, and certainly, if God seems to be backing our act, we will win the respect of many who are opposed to us or strangers to what we stand for, whether in politics, business, or matters of faith. So the moral of the story is: stand for the right things, and keep your message and your conduct consistent with those things.
III. Although life is the same for all of us, when people ally themselves with God in the long run, things will things turn out differently for them. There is a distinction of some sort. Read 11:4-9.
We find sprinkled throughout these plague accounts that HaShem makes a distinction between his people and the others in the story. When we are faithful to God, inevitably and eventually it will become apparent that something or Someone was at work in our lives for the good. It may be a long and difficult time before that difference becomes apparent, but it will.
It was confidence in this that emboldened some religious Jews in the concentration camps to speak with contempt toward their executioners while on the way to their deaths: they had faith that God would vindicate them and would judge their enemies. Such faith is precious and will in the end be rewarded. One should always do the right thing because it is the right thing, knowing that eventually the truth will come out, principled living will be rewarded, and those who chose another way will have to give an account of themselves.
IV. Sometimes God has reasons for things not working out—Moses went to Pharaoh nine times, and nine times got some form of a no. But if you know that the game plan is good, you should stick with it. [Read 11:4-10]
Moses continues going back to Pharaoh despite nine refusals. God knows all about the refusals: He is even using these against Pharaoh, and for His own purposes.
So if your game plan is right, and/or if you are as certain as can be expected that God is pleased with what you are doing, keep on keeping on despite the apparent set-backs.
V. It is crucial for the morale and cohesion of a group that there be events that highlight its successes and memorialize its particular history. Read 12:1-13.
When you are leading or attempting to influence others, whether a family, employees, colleagues, or a religious, communal, or political group of any kind and size, it is crucial to have events, often recurring events, that put the spotlight on things that should be noted and remembered.
Many people are forgetful, preoccupied, ungrateful and amazingly unaware. Part of the job of a good leader is to elevate and instruct people’s awareness. This will not only benefit the individuals, it will also add cohesion to the group. Cohesion does not come by magic: it is just such measures as are being suggested here that group cohesion is built.
Keeping Passover and Shabbat are two of the means that God used down through history to create and maintain Jewish communal cohesion despite exile, scattering, and persecution.
VI. When giving directives to subordinates, be specific about days and times. Good intentions are nice but essentially useless. Before your meeting breaks up, nail down the due dates and expectations, then hold family members, friends, coworkers, partners, subordinates, and even bosses accountable for specific deadlines. Read 12:14-20.
God knew of course that keeping of the Passover and commemorating it yearly is going to be crucial for his purposes for his people. Therefore, his directives to them are very explicit, not general. If you seek to coordinate the efforts of others, it is crucial that you be explicit about what is to be done and when.
In addition, when dealing with yourself, and committing to do something, always determines on what date and at what time you are going to do this. Research demonstrates that people who set specific deadliness are far more likely to do what they resolved to do than those who neglect to be specific.
VII. There should be markers in our lives that cause others to ask “What is this?/Why do you do this?” and which give us occasion to intelligibly give honor to God. Read 12:21-28; 13:1-16.
These remarkable passages highlight one of the keys to Jewish community survival and cohesion. There are a variety of recurring practices mentioned here which are signposts to the Jewish people’s history and experience with God.
As the people of God, there should be something different about us. If we are just like everyone else, we will disappear as a distinct people. This is one reason why cultural assimilation is so stigmatized in Jewish life. It is not a matter of prejudice and it is not a matter of considering ourselves better than others. In addition to being a matter of fidelity to God, it is also a matter of community survival. If we forsake our distinctive way of life, not just our beliefs, but also more importantly, our behaviors, we will simply cease to be.
This is one or the reasons why I am passionate about Torah living for Jewish people, especially including Messianic Jews, because we Messianic Jews are especially in danger of assimilating due to rhetoric surrounding us that negates Jewish life, or treats it as purely a matter of personal choice rather than communal survival.
In 1997 Elliot Abrams wrote a brilliant book, Faith or Fear, in which he discussed Jewish community cohesion and survival, showing one by one how various popular means toward these ends have failed. By a process of elimination and skillful argumentation, he demonstrates that there is only one means toward the cohesion that has succeeded in the past and will continue to succeed. Here is what he says:
The substitute faiths American Jews devised in an effort to stay Jewish while achieving success in America are failing. [Here he is speaking of secular causes like liberal politics, support for the State of Israel, fear of anti-Semitism]. Far from saving American Judaism, they threaten its future. [He says this because none of these causes has any shelf life for keeping the American Jewish community cohesive and vibrant].
For people born in immigrant communities or to immigrant parents and saturated with Jewish culture, it was possible to feel ‘Jewish’ and stay ‘Jewish’ even without any involvement with Judaism. But it is now clear that it is not possible to transmit this irreligious ‘Jewishness’ successfully . . . from one generation to the next. Such ‘Jewishness’ is a counterfeit faith, a passing phenomenon that will outlast the immigrants by only a few generations. The demographic data already suggest this, and the sense of crisis within the community reflects the increasingly widespread conclusion that it is so. In the end, as always in Jewish history, substitutes for Judaism are false idols and following them is a path to ruin.
The exact opposite of what American Jews expected is now happening. Jewish life that is not centered on Judaism is already disappearing in America, while traditional Judaism—and above all, Orthodoxy—which was expected to disappear, is stubbornly holding on.
I recently had an interchange on the Internet where someone opined that it is God and not Jewish practice that maintained Jewish community cohesion. I disagree. God uses means, not magic. And the means he has used to maintain Jewish community cohesion is the maintenance from generation to generation of Jewish practice—living as our ancestors lived in the patterns of Torah. Just the kinds of rituals mentioned in these passages from Exodus. Again, it is not simply Jewish ideas that hold us together, nor Jewish sentiments, foods, or tastes in movies, comedy and literature. It is religious Jewish practice. I am committed to its revival among Messianic Jews—I suggest you join me.
VIII. Often one must wait a long time for God to take action in the matters that concern us and him, but when he acts we must be ready to respond. In fact, when his initiatives occur they often seem sudden. Therefore, always be prepared to be available and responsive to the doors he opens to you. Read 12: 39-42.
The Israelites had waited 430 years to leave Egypt and go to the Land of Promise. But when God took action, they had to pack and go in one night. So will it be for us. Sometimes we wait and wait and wait for God to act, but when He does, we need to be ready to respond quickly. Dawdling that night would have been fatal for any Jews who did so. Similarly, it IS possible to miss the opportunities God opens up for us: we should remain attentive, have good advisors as to whether the door that opens is a mirage or an opportunity, and not fool ourselves into thinking that later is just as good.
Yeshua makes the same point, and in a typically arresting manner, as is necessary in transmitting oral instruction. In Luke chapter nine we read this:
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Yeshua said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Yeshua said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Yeshua said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The point here is the same as the Shema: that we must treat first priorities as first priorities, and that anything that takes precedence over taking such first priority actions negates our claims about prioritization.
A number of Yeshua’s parables emphasize the same point. Apparently, due to human nature, it is a point that needs emphasizing.
IX. Sometimes, God leads us the long way around, even to the things he has promised us, because he knows it is better that way. Read 13:17-18.
Recently I was counseling a friend who was inclined to lament a period in her life where she felt she took a wrong turn. However, sometimes the wrong turns in our lives are necessary from God’s point of view to get us where he wants us to go in the condition he wants us to be in when we get there. In other words, delays and detours can be just as much the will of God for us as instant solutions. In fact, he seems to prefer delays. Remember, he left Moses stewing in Midian, shepherding his father in law’s sheep, for forty years!
X. Even with God leading you, you should always be prepared for what you are going to face. Read 13:18.
Yes the miracle working God was leading the people of Israel out of Egypt . . . finally! But also, knowing what they were likely to face, they went up out of Egypt armed for battle.
Similarly, we must never think that reliance upon God is a substitute for due diligence. God may want you to go to a given university, and you may be convinced He has you there to graduate with high honors. But you had better do the work too! You may believe God has a job out there for you, but you had better knock on some doors, send out some resumes, contact some friends, make some phone calls and be interview-ready. There is no substitute for God. But neither is there a substitute for due diligence.
Our text reminds us “the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.”
We should do the same. In every area of life.
A Lesson for Living from the Sages of Israel
Even from such hardened sinners as Pharaoh and the Egyptians God did not withhold the opportunity of mending their ways. Before a plague was sent their way them Moses warned them of its coming tomorrow, if they remained unyielding [Exodus Rabbah]/
So God always confronts us with two paths; the path of blessing and cursing, of good and evil, of wisdom and folly, of life and death. His desire is always that we choose life. Perhaps more than anything else, the Bible sees human beings as creatures of choice, and human destiny as being wrapped up in our choices.