When the Israelites moved out of Egypt, they left the world’s dominant empire by simply crossing a “sea of reeds.” Which route over which reed sea is still an open question (www.mainemediaresources.com/redsea.gif), and it’s no mean feat to move 600,000 Israelites any distance. But the world was so “small” and undeveloped then that our ancestors were able to enter a wilderness by simply leaving Ramses and/or Pithom. While the Torah describes a 40-year odyssey of wandering before bringing Moses to Mt. Pisgah, overlooking the Promised Land, one could walk the 300-odd miles from Ramses to Pisgah in about three weeks — at 15 miles a day.
We perceive the world simultaneously as big and small. On foot, bicycle or horse, it’s still big. In a car, train, boat or plane, it’s “small.” Most adults in the “developed” world complain about walking half a mile to the store; their children complain of walking five blocks from home to the morning school bus. Most of us don’t even explain distances in miles or kilometers anymore; we do it in time, as in, “That’s about a half hour away.” Today, you can fly from Cairo (near Ramses) to Jerusalem (near Mt. Pisgah) in 45 minutes; to Cairo from Seattle in 15 hours, to there from Brisbane in 20, and to Brisbane from Jerusalem in 18. That’s around the world, more than 24,000 miles, in just over two days.
Our ability to move people and goods speedily in machines, and connect ourselves instantaneously through Internet-linked computers, has “flattened” our world, says Thomas Friedman. There are many good things about our “globalized” world: We can inform and educate humanity as never before, and join minds across the globe to solve problems. We can partner with manufacturers and suppliers, and connect ourselves to markets almost everywhere, and we can improve our lives with their now-accessible goods and services. Anywhere in the world someone can carry a cell phone, she or he can send a photo or video of the location, so anyone with access to the Internet can see that place in “real time.” The infrastructure that makes all this possible is stunningly complex, yet we can access it at the push of a button.
The globalization downsides are that it’s all powered by fossil fuels, and driven by cost-cutting. On the fossil fuel side, we’re depleting oil, and spending more and more to extract and refine it; we’re burning coal, overlooking its massive mercury output, and lying that its carbon can be sequestered “cleanly”; and we’re pretending that the nuclear power option is safe and economical. On the cost-cutting side, as we outsource services and offshore manufacturing, we eliminate higher-priced domestic services and production and put our security at risk as we mortgage public money and depress wages to “compete” in our own country. In the bargain, we put more of what gets produced out of affordable reach of our own citizens.
On the optimistic side, we may sort all this out. When you consider our trajectory from the muscle-powered days of the Torah’s Israelites, to the fossil fuel-powered Israelites of today, it’s as if we have changed planets. And in a way, we have. It’s still possible to leave the city behind by moving 300 miles into the wilderness. But it’s something mostly adventurers do now, and they generally take “civilization” with them, in the forms of GPS units, cell phones, modern provisions and equipment. They don’t walk in sandals, herd livestock, carry seed, and dress in rough-spun garments. Even in the Outback, however, they’re still bothered by periodic sightings of thin, white jet contrails overhead, and sounds of faraway engines.
Basically, no 300-mile journey will get us away from civilization any more. Civilization does save us from much of what burdened and plagued our Israelite ancestors: Spending most of each day hunting, gathering, preparing, preserving and serving food and water, making our own clothes, tending pasture animals and fields; and the dangers of disease and superstition. But, with so much done for us, our attention focused on technology, and so many tasks eased and eliminated by machinery, we have lost touch with the present moment, and with each other.
This Passover, as you gather around the seder table to retell the stories of Moses and the Exodus, recognize it as an opportunity to appreciate the advantages of past and present, and take joy in gathering together. There are advantages from long ago that we can still enjoy in our high tech lives today: Connections to family and community; security in a local-based economy and food supply; self-reliance, ingenuity, and great stories to tell. And at seder’s end, when you declare, “Next year in Jerusalem,” notice how far we’ve come since we crossed the Sea of Reeds.