In Parashat Beshalah, the Israelites are finally freed from slavery in Egypt. But neither the nation of Egypt nor the house of Israel is ready for the events now unfolding. The Israelites, having lived in slavery all their lives, were naturally fearful of freedom. It makes sense then, that they would need to be rescued against their will. The Egyptians, meanwhile, have reason to feel even more overwhelmed than the Israelites; they have been caught up in a process in which each ill-concieved decision breeds another calamity, and yet, they can find no way out of the cycle. How do we reconcile this seeming lack of free will with the Torah’s usual insistence that humans are free to choose?
One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.