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Friday, January 29, 2010

Parshat Beshallakh: Redemption at the Sea

This week’s parashah is Beshallakh (Exodus/Shemot 13:17 - 17:16). Among many other things, this parashah contains the splitting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, if you prefer the older translations). Most of us are familiar with this event from Bible stories we have read or movies we have seen, and yet there is much more contained within this story than meets the eye.

According to midrash (rabbinic lore) the seas split not merely because Moses raised his staff over the water, but because one man dare to enter the waters on his own without waiting for Moses or anyone else to take action. This man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, understood that in order to achieve freedom and salvation we must not merely wait around or pray for it, but we must act as partners with God in order to make it happen! It was Nachshon’s bravery and his faith in the divine-human partnership that enabled him to enter the raging waters even as Moses prayed to God asking for help. Or was it?

In a modern midrash written by my colleague Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, the crowd around him pushed Nachshon into the sea. In this telling of the story, he becomes more an accidental, rather than an intentional, catalyst of redemption. Either way, the midrashim teach that human action must work in partnership with the Divine to bring about redemption, both individually and communally, whether actions are intentional or accidental.
So, the question remains were Nachshon’s actions – are our redemptive actions – intentional or accidental? Voluntary or coerced? The answer is...yes.


Nachshon’s redemption


I stand here
surrounded
by throngs
alone
frightened
exhilarated
wondering
when
will
something
happen

then

I hear
storm
hooves
pounding
hastening
towards
our
destruction

then
fire
rising
from sand to sky
pillar of protection
pillar of obliteration

waiting
caught
between
fire and water
life and death
freedom and slavery
unknown and known

waiting
where is he
the chosen one
slow of speech
quickly
tell us
what
to do
the one
drawn out of the waters
tell us how
not
to
drown

I stand
looking
before me
water
churning
foaming
beckoning
frightening
calling
enter
join me
I shall rescue you
from misery
from suffering
from
life
in
me
beneath my waves
surrounded
by my calm
you shall find
freedom
peace
at
last

I
am your god
oh Israelite
you
have come
out of Egypt
for me
to save
you

listening
I am drawn
to enter
its depths
to seek
in the brine
salvation
what does
it offer
I
do not
know
still
to jump
to step
to move
is better
than
to stand
to wait
not knowing
what
will
come
next

I am
unsure
as
I always
am

suddenly
no warning
no preparation
no choice
depths surround me
salt water
fills my nostrils
stings my eyes
calms my soul
comforts me
I have returned
to the womb
how
I do not know
if
I jumped
I do not remember
if
I was pushed
I do not recall
perhaps
both
are true
contradictions
coinciding

It
does not
matter
only the reality
the moment
the present
matters
I am here
in
the depths
on dry land
disoriented
where is
the water
the salt
the depths
its warmth
its comfort
now
I feel
a breeze
I hear
a roar
a rush
not hooves
but
muddy footsteps
of
my people

surrounded
by darkness
I look up
the sun is high
I look
to the side
walls
of water
deep
dark
geysers
reaching towards heaven
pillars
of
strength
I stand between
arms unable
to reach
either side
feet firmly planted
on dry mud
heart uplifted
I
see
hear
touch
feel
smell
sense
the miracle
salvation

the people
cry
shout
walk
run
march
crawl
straggle
struggle
stumble
are picked up
fall again
are lifted
carried
each
supporting
the other
the people
are one
finally
the first time
together

I am
amazed
as
each
passing
seems
to look
smile
nod
at me

then
he
the one
the chosen
stands
before me
eyes
meeting
eyes
he smiles
speaks
simply
thank you

why
what did I do
was it I
no
it could not be
yet
perhaps
I do not know
all i know is the
sound
the roar
the spray of water
surrounding

I walk
in a daze
all have
gone ahead
I am now
the last
not the first
no difference

then i hear
another sound
not joy
fear

I turn
they are approaching
horse warriors
death
in their eyes

I run
towards the screams
of my people
calling to me
fearful
I will
never
leave here
alive
then
another
rush of water
screams of death
cries of shock
shouts of joy
all mingled
cacophonous harmony

I do not
understand
I cannot
stop to look

suddenly
I am swept up
by the sea
salt again
in mouth and eyes
not soothing
tossing
lifting
casting me
upon
dry land
dazed
I am free
I am alive

I look behind
the sea
is there
as it always
was
the soldiers
the horses are gone
they have now
discovered the depths
the brine
but they
will not
be soothed
they will not
be lifted up
and out
they will be
forever entombed
waters
giving life
to us
bringing death
to them

then the sound
joyous shouts
songs
timbrels
women dancing
men leaping
celebrating
freedom
salvation
survival

I look again
to the sea
that had
for a moment
been
my home
the place
that gives life and
brings death

in my mind
I see
them
struggling
to escape
its clutches
longing
for sunlight
then submerging
submitting
accepting
their fate
they breathe
their last
exhaling the life
they knew
inhaling the brine
their home
their tomb

seeing this
feeling
their pain
emotions engulf me
I imagine
I taste
once again
the brine
tears
flowing
for destruction wrought
salvation bestowed
a legacy
to us
the ones
who remain

how can
we sing
when the dead
lie before us

how can we not
when the living
are in our midst

I look up
he is there
again
the chosen one
drawn from the water
leading us
through the water
he looks at me
knowing
what
I feel

smiling
he reaches down
I hold his hand
he draws me up
from the ground
to him
embracing
tears flowing
from both
a torrent
I feel
what I
have never
felt
know
what I
have never
known
joyous grief
mournful ecstasy
redemptive sacrifice

these words
are they from me
from him
from above
from within

yes
they are
truth

still embracing
feeling
hearts beat
breath
rise
together
in his arms
he kisses
my head
pulls away
smiles
gently
turning me
still
firmly
in his embrace
I view
the sea
calm
glimmering
sunset
its surface
beauty beyond speech
its depths
unseen horrors

such is
the path
of redemption
the pain
the sacrifice
of salvation
such is
the way
of life

Suddenly
no longer
feeling
his presence
his grasp
I turn around
he is gone
swallowed up
by the ocean
of frenzied souls
celebrating the moment
in gratitude
filled with joy
it is all we have
it too
will soon
be gone

I join
with them
gratitude
for the
moment
not knowing
what
will
happen
next
or
what
I will do
when
it does



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