Space Tourists, the Splitting of the Sea, and Yizkor

 [From tonight until after Shabbat we observe the final two days of Passover, a time commemorating the Splitting of the Sea.] Recently, a crew of four private citizens traveled to the International Space Station. Three of them, including one Israeli, each paid $55 million to go on this trip. The fourth, Former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría now works for the company that organized this trip. But López-Alegría takes offense at the term “space tourists” to describe this group. In an interview before the flight, he said “This is too often called space tourism. This is real work that is requiring a lot of preparation, and I don’t think it’ll be relaxing. I think it’ll be an amazing experience, but one that is fulfilling because of not only the environment you’re in, but also what the private astronauts will accomplish.” There appears to be a distinction between “tourist” and “traveler.” While this distinction doesn’t appear in the dictionary, numerous online articles make note of it. What is the difference? The tourist goes on a trip for personal pleasure. This is reflected in the fact that they won’t make a great effort to learn the language or follow local etiquette/customs. The traveler’s trip is for a greater purpose. When we visit Israel, we aren’t there as tourists, but as traveler’s trying to connect to the experience. The story of the splitting of the Sea involves the convergence of two different trips: the Jewish people’s journey out of Egypt and the pursuit of the Egyptians. There seems to be a three-way conversation taking place in the leadup to the splitting of the sea. (1) As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to G-d. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?  (2)…But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which G-d will work for you today…(3)Then G-d said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. (Exodus 14:10-15) First the people cried out, then complained to Moses, and then were told not to worry. Finally, G-d asked Moses why he is crying out. The problem is that we don’t find Moses calling out to G-d; the people were calling out to Him. Why then does G-d tell Moses to stop crying out? Sforno (1475-1550) suggests that initially Moses had no reason to cry out and he was prepared to lead the people forward. However, once people complained, he was worried that they were a lost cause. There is no way that a people that just issued such a complaint will follow into the Sea. Therefore, he cried out to the Almighty and was told to tell them to go, and they would follow. The underlying message to Moses was that he wasn’t giving them enough credit. What motivated the Egyptians to pursue the Jewish people? Was it simply the hardening of their hearts or was it something else? In the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), it says, The enemy said, “I will pursue them, and I will divide the spoils…”  Who is the “the enemy?” Is it Pharaoh or is it his soldiers? If it’s the soldiers, why is it written in the singular? Furthermore, this should have been at the beginning of the Song because it was the first thing that happened — the enemy decided to attack. Why is it presented in the middle of the Song? R. SR Hirsch (1808-1888) explains that the Song first captures the perspective of the Jews. They saw the Egyptians drown at sea and how they had been saved. Then the Song tells us the other perspective. The Egyptians saw the Sea miraculously split and instead of thinking “this is a clear trap to drown us when we enter,” they said to themselves “if we catch them, we can get all their gold and silver.” They ignored the miracle in front them and attributed it to nature because all they saw was an opportunity to get rich. The enemy is not Pharaoh and is written in the singular because this was the imagination of each Egyptian who pursued. Tourists discovering major challenges set to occur on an impending trip will most likely turn back and cancel the trip—and this was Moses’s impression after the people complained. What he didn’t realize was that they were in it for the long haul. They were travelers. Being nervous about a crisis is normal and during those stressful times, the people’s complaints sounded terrible, but that didn’t take away their commitment or what they were trying to accomplish. By contrast, the Egyptians were not fighting for some greater cause; they saw an opportunity for easy profit and were just in it for themselves. Like all tourists, the ultimate goal was what was best for them. Paying $55 million dollars for a short trip to space may give the impression that the goal is merely personal pleasure but one shouldn’t be quick to judge. It would be more productive to focus on our own lives, trying to approach our Judaism as travelers, rather than tourists.  And even if we sometimes complain about the high price of kosher food or some other “sacrifice,” we need to pause for a moment and realize that we and the communities we seek to build are founded on the idea that we are on a journey with many bumps along the way. Tourists don’t necessarily commit (and change directions when challenges occur) but we continue to go on the well-travelled road of thousands of years. Indeed, as we commemorate our loved ones at Yizkor, we remember the legacy they left as they traveled through this temporal world. The road forward is paved by their sacrifices and selflessness. May we merit to continue on that road and continue their legacy.  Chag Samayach/Happy Passover
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