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Parashat Beshallach / Shabbat Shira 5779 — 01/19/2019

Shemot 13:17-17:15
And it was when Pharaoh sent out the people, Gd did not lead them by the way of the Philistines [RAR: i.e. up the Mediterranean coast through what is now the Gaza strip] although / because it was near, for Gd said: “Lest the people reconsider upon seeing war, and return to Egypt.” (13:17)
Moshe said, ‘Gd will fight for you and you shall be silent. And Gd said to Moshe, ‘Why are you crying out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and have them journey forth!’ (14:14-15)
Behold, I will rain down for you food from heaven; and the people will go out and collect each day’s portion on its day, that I may test them – will they follow My teaching or not? (16:4)

When Israel was a group of downtrodden slaves, Gd took full control of the situation, striking Pharaoh and all of Egypt with a series of plagues, which devastated the country, and for which, surprisingly, nobody blamed the Jews. Now the Jews left Egypt chamushim, which is generally translated “armed,” and “with a high hand.” While the process is going to be a long one, the nation is changing from one that passively relies on miraculous rescue by Gd to one that is a partner with Gd in its own salvation and the salvation of the world.

The process begins with the actual Exodus from Egypt, as Gd leads the people away from the short route so they will not have to fight the Philistines:
With the Exodus, the rules begin to change. Until now, before His people set out upon their journey towards freedom, Gd fought on their behalf. Now, the transition to independence requires that the Israelites must learn to fend for themselves. Even later, when the last act of the Exodus unfolds and Gd does intervene to complete the destruction of Egyptian might in the waters of the Reed Sea, Gd does not act until the Israelites take their destiny into their own hands and begin to move into the sea.

R. Goldin is referring to the well-known Midrash that the Sea did not begin to split until the leader of the tribe of Yehudah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, went into the sea up to his nose. The miracle was waiting to take place, but it took human action to trigger it. In fact, Gd explicitly tells Moshe that it was going to require human action. Moshe is praying for the Sea to split. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) relates:
Gd said to him [Moshe], “My dear ones are about to drown in the sea and you are engaging in prayer?” “What then should I do?” asked Moshe. Gd responded, “Speak to the children of Israel and have them journey forth!”

R. Goldin comments:
… Gd implicitly chastises Moshe: “Moshe, why do you cry out to Me? There is a time and a place for everything. Do not counsel the people to stand silently and wait for My intervention. You can no longer rely on Me to save you without your own initiative. … Tell the people to arm themselves with faith and move forward into the sea.

It seems that the opposite message is being conveyed with the manna. The manna was completely miraculous food – it tasted like whatever you imagined it would taste like, it was completely absorbed by the body (no waste was produced), and it fell in the exact amount for each person, each day (with twice as much on Friday because there was none on Shabbat). Furthermore, except for the Friday portion meant for the next day, you couldn’t store up the manna – it would rot and get wormy overnight. The entire nation was completely dependent on Gd for its basic sustenance for 40 years in the desert. And R. Goldin comments: Whether we are wandering in the wilderness or living in a highly urbanized society, we are dependent upon Gd for our sustenance each and every day.

What is the takeaway then, from these seemingly mixed signals? Are we supposed to be passive recipients of Gd’s bounty? Are we supposed to go out and actively rule over and subdue the earth and nature? R. Goldin gives three approaches. On one extreme, R. Yehoshua posits that one must never just passively rely on Gd’s Providence. Individual effort is also necessary. At the other extreme is R. Shimon bar Yochai (perhaps the most famous mystic in the Talmudic era, to whom the authorship of the Zohar is attributed), who insists that one study Torah all day and rely solely on Gd to provide sustenance. The sage Abaye a couple of centuries later is quoted as saying, “Many have tried [this path] but very few have succeeded.”

I think the approach we take is based on our level of spiritual development, the level of our consciousness. In the most elevated state of consciousness we are totally identified with the infinite, eternal basis of life, which is transcendental to all activity. We do not act at all, even when our minds and bodies continue to act – it is just that we don’t identify ourselves with these changing aspects of our personality, as the vast majority of us currently do. For such a person, Gd carries out all action. Furthermore, since one’s thoughts are projected from this deepest level, they are infinitely powerful, and any need that we have is fulfilled almost before we become aware that we need it. This is the kind of life that R. Shimon bar Yochai envisioned, and probably lived.

For the rest of us, however, who are not on such a level of consciousness, we still have to work for a living. Since we are identified with action, and project our thoughts from a more superficial level, our activity is only partially successful, and often comes at the expense of stress and strain. Even for us, the underlying truth is that all our sustenance comes from Gd; it is just less obvious to us. The way we get from here to there is to train ourselves to see and experience the lessons of our parashah.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Beshalach
Gd commands Moses to raise his staff and split the Red Sea so that our ancestors could pass through it on dry land.

This is an example of how Gd sometimes performs miracles through human hands, to allow us to participate in Gd’s Greatness.

We can look at the Red Sea as what at first seemed to be: another obstacle that arose just after our ancestors felt they had become free from the slavery in Egypt. But the obstacle turned out to be a Blessing when Gd’s Power expressed through Moses allowed our ancestors to pass through while Pharaoh, the King of Enslavement, and his army drowned, thus freeing our ancestors not only from the land of slavery but from pursuit by the slave master.

In our own lives, we may often find that we escape one difficult situation and after only a short time of relative peace find ourselves in another one, one which may even seem worse.

We might quit a job in which we feel we are treated unfairly but then begin to run out of money without yet having a new job.

The same type of situation might happen with relationships, contracts, hobbies, travel plans, shopping trips.

The miracle that saves us happens when we are guided by our own wisdom, by Gd, to relax into our situation, not to become frightened but just to innocently become aware of the possibilities within us and outside us, and then to act on some good possibility and to cross over the obstacle into a new freedom. Having gained confidence and lost fear.

Our religion helps us to trust that Gd is always present and Gd is always making possibilities available to us even when at first glance none seem available. With this trust, we let go our nervousness and deepen our ability to perceive opportunities, to act on them, and to cross whatever sea of obstacles seems to be presenting itself.

Baruch HaShem