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February 7, 2020
12 Sh'vat 5780

Parashat Beshalach
Exodus 13:17 - 17:16


Dear Friends,

Are we slaves or are we free?
Do we have choice or is all preordained?
Why does what we do matter?

At this precise moment, as we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt, witnessing the Israelites standing by the waters of the sea of reeds, one is struck by Moses' initial response to his people. To paraphrase, “now that we’re at the water's edge, let’s see what God does next.” Moses is responding to the deep fear of the people -- the fear that what they left behind was the better choice and that going forward is simply too difficult. After all, the Egyptians are right behind them and there is water in front of them. It appears that there are no choices available.

There is something about this moment on Moses’ part that makes one realize how dependent he has become on Divine assistance in all that he does. But the Divine is not a magician to be called upon and save us in the nick of time with no action on our part. Where are the people at this moment? Where is Moses?

What is God’s response? “Then the Lord said to Moses, Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to go forward!” (Exodus 14:15) and the line continues with the instruction that Moses stretch out his arm with the staff.

This moment is critical to the development of the people, and of Moses as well. The moment has come for them to no longer be slaves -- to have agency. The Torah tells us that Moses put out his arm, the winds blew, and the waters parted. But the Midrash seems to go back to that moment of Divine impatience. There are a few midrashim about this moment (a midrash is a rabbinic story that answers question found in the text, not answered by the text).

In that moment, human engagement matters. The Talmud gives us two competing stories. According to the first one, attributed to R. Meir, all the tribes wanted to be first. The tribe of Benjamin dared to go first, seemingly pushing the other anxious tribes out of the way. The second story, attributed to R. Judah, is that of one brave man named Nachshon who sprang forward and descended into the sea first. This second story posits that one brave individual can make a difference. 

There is a modern midrash that in some ways combines both stories. According to this midrash, there always has to be someone to go first and to take the risk but that someone feels so much stronger when they know there is someone behind them holding their hand.  So a line formed behind the first man of men, women, and children; together they made the journey, linked to one another.

I leave you with the thought of the importance of having someone to lead the way and to take the first step. But just as important are those who link hands and step into the unknown willing to take the next step without knowing where it will lead.

(inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Shai Held)

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn



Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781