Where is our strength hiding?
by Jhos Singer
This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) includes perhaps the most well known and dramatic moments of all biblical narratives—the parting of the Sea of Reeds.
The moment is supremely anxious: the fleeing Israelites and the mixed-multitude, are caught between the ensuing Egyptian army and the yam soof, the Sea of Reeds. No way forward, no way back— the Israelites are in a serious pickle. No one knows what to do or which way to run. It is a scene of slo-mo chaos. Even God seems flummoxed by the situation.
Moses says to the people, “Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of God that will be performed for you today; for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again! God shall make war for you, and you shall remain silent.” God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them journey forth!..” (Exodus 14:13-15)
And now, here we are, 3,000 years away from that drama. Looking back, we know that our ancestors made it out of this tight spot, that the sea parted and they made their way across to the other shore. We know all about their adventures traveling across the desert. We know that they went from being Hebrews to Israelites and Judeans, that they built kingdoms and lost everything. We know how and when and where they went into diaspora, and were targeted for annihilation, and survived and formed a modern nation state, and fell prey to the same excesses of every other influential people, and were corrupted by power. And now here we are, with an accumulated 3,000 years of drama, still trying to make sense out of what it means to have, manage, and celebrate our freedom.
When I am overwhelmed by the prospects of the future, I find it useful to turn back to this story, if only to remember that, as the old adage says, hindsight is 20/20. Referring to the past helps us find clues about what matters in the clutch. How do we access faith in a moment of fear? How do we find our center in the midst of a storm? How do we stay present in the face of change? How do we muster up the energy and courage to journey forth with no map? What do we wish or wonder we had done differently? What did we learn?
I have to think that the survival of the Israelites was due to a combination of factors, including a deep desire to know something better than slavery and a recognition that being in a community of faith would somehow see them through. I don’t necessarily think that they held a common faith in what has become the Judaic understanding of God—rather, I think they had faith in human community. They had faith that each person would pull as much weight as they could, that resources would be shared, that somehow, against all odds, between them, they had enough to make the trek from oppression to freedom.
Perhaps the Torah is reminding us that it is worth looking back over our own lived trials to find where our strength was hiding; that there is benefit in reviewing our life’s trajectory to remember moments when we acted from pure faith. We retell the story of the biblical exodus over and over, and so, doesn’t it seem similarly important to share our own stories of liberation, redemption, and salvation?
I invite us to take some time this Shabbat to meditate on those miraculous passageways—those of our ancestors, and those of our own. Remember what it was like to be in those narrow places. What survival tools did you discover there? What did you learn about your essential nature? What inner strength annealed or outer talent was revealed? And how do you access the learned wisdom of the past to assist you in facing your current challenges?
May Torah continue to be a living teacher, a relevant voice, and a source of wisdom for us, now and forever.
Beshallach 2019 Exodus 13:17 – 17:16