The Waters Are Divided (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)
Beshallach: A Journey Through The Sea And Life
Rabbi Judith B. Edelstein, D.Min., BCC
Beshallach (“When he let go”) refers to Pharaoh’s sending out the enslaved Israelites from Egypt. This parashah describes the splitting of the Reed Sea, and includes the ancient poem/song the Israelites sing, known as Shirat haYam or Az Yashir Moshe, while crossing the sea. Once they arrive in the desert, when the Israelites complain of thirst, God sweetens bitter water for them to drink and provides manna and quail for them to eat. The parashah ends with the victory of the Israelites against an attack by the Amalekites.
I have been fascinated by this parashah for years as it strikes me that it is a paradigm for life, beginning with infancy, continuing through older age.
The range of childbirth experiences is vast, as all parents know. While premature infants seem to burst forth, roaring to go, at the other extreme are mothers who require Pitocin and/or perhaps a C-section to facilitate their babies’ exit from their comfortable, protective womb.
The Israelites follow the paradigm of the latter, actually reluctant to depart from Egypt, even thought they were enslaved. They were so accustomed to their lives in Egypt–despite their hardship–that they could not believe or even imagine an alternate way of life. When Moses tries to persuade them to go, “…The Israelites would not listen to Moses, because of their distress and hard labor” (Exodus 6:9). Moses, filled with doubt himself, had an uphill job to convince them.
Immediately following their departure, we are told that “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was the shortest route; for God said: ‘the people might change their minds should they encounter war, and return to Egypt. And so God led them round-about…’” (Exodus 6:17-6:18). Rashi, the classic 11th century scholar, comments: “They might have second thoughts about going out, and set their hearts to return [to Egypt].”
So it is with all of us. As toddlers we learn to walk by repeatedly taking steps and falling down. After the first fall, some little ones cry: “Pick me up,” and cling to their parents, before taking the next step. Others, bursting at the seams, hoist themselves to a standing position, returning to their unsteady feet and continue moving – up – down – up – down, resisting consolation, daring to be on the move, self-directed. The Israelites were like the former; they required continuous coaxing.
God had to watch over them “in a pillar of cloud to lead them on the way and at night in a pillar of fire…(Exodus 13:1). Resembling the clinging toddlers above, the Israelites were dependent upon Moses to lead them and also quick to attack him when the going got tough. We all recognize our tendency to blame and scapegoat when we feel vulnerable and fearful, regardless of our age. How much easier it is to find fault with the other than to look within ourselves, to face our own demons? The more challenging the situation, the more adamant we become.
As they saw the Egyptians approaching they panicked. “…They were frightened and the children of Israel cried out to God. They said to Moses…What have you done to us bringing us out of Egypt? This is the thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians… (Exodus 14:10-12)
Moses, the appointed guardian, (read godparent) assures them, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and you will see the deliverance of God” (Exodus 14:12). At this point, God gets annoyed with the Israelites, as well as Moses, and says to him, “Why do you cry to Me? Speak to B’nei Israel and tell them to move on. (Exodus 14:15) And so, God, portrayed as the ever-compassionate parent, pushes aside frustration and annoyance at the children’s behavior and hovers over them in an effort to protect them from the Egyptians. “…The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and it stood behind them. It came between the Egyptian camp and the camp of Israel. There was cloud and darkness [for the Egyptians] and it [the pillar of fire] lit up the night [for the Israelites” (Exodus 19:19-20).
Like the B’nei Israel marching through the desert, we all eventually learn to walk, regardless of our injuries. Yet we still feel the need for someone to take care of us throughout our lives, just as the Israelites relied upon Moses and God.
With blind trust “The Israelites went into the midst of the sea…The Egyptians pursued and followed them…into the middle of the sea” (Exodus 14:22-23). They reached the point where there was no turning back; they had to jump into unknown, terrifying waters. We, too, so like our ancestors, move from one challenge to another in our lives. Just being alive requires that we take constant risks and ignore trepidation, learning to walk is only the beginning.
Faith, emunah, the knowledge within ourselves that yes, we can return to a stable surface, enables us to survive the depths and still flourish. Emunah is not magic; it is a trait to be cultivated; it is the recognition that we are not alone. It is the source of confidence that enables us to march into the Reed Sea, even though our courage may be flagging. May emunah give us the strength to face whatever adversity we encounter.
Rabbi Judith B. Edelstein, D. Min., BCC, a native New Yorker living on the Upper West Side, received rabbinic ordination from The Academy for Jewish Religion and a Doctor of Ministry from Hebrew Union College. She has served as a congregational rabbi and a chaplain. Currently she teaches, focusing on Jews by Choice and Mussar; counsels; officiates at life cycle events; and writes articles, most recently a chapter in the Mussar Torah Commentary, put out by the CCAR Press. She has been married to Jim Meier for 46 years and is blessed with two wonderful children, Joslyn and Jacob Meier, their spouses, Nir and Staci, two extraordinary grandsons, Stahv (8) and Reah (4) as well as two granddogs.