Friday, January 14, 2011
Parshat Beshallakh: Moving Beyond Destruction
These week’s parashah/portion is Beshallakh (Shemot/Exodus 13:17-18:1) As I sat down to write this week’s commentary, I knew I wanted to connect it in some way with the tragic events this past Saturday in Tucson. However, how to do this, while still being true to the basic concept of this blog was somewhat perplexing to me.
And so, in good mindfulness fashion, I read through the text and sat to see what thoughts or ideas arose in my mind. After all, the parashah begins with the Israelites leaving, continues with the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army and ultimately also deals with the people complaining to Moses in the desert about water and food, leading to the first fall of manna from heaven and God directing Moses to strike the rock in order to get water. So much material
However, some verses jumped out at me as I reread the text. I have decided that I will simply write down the verses first and then see what happens. That way I don’t have to worry about citing chapter and verse as I write.
1) We read that God did not lead the people out by way of the Philistines for “the people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt” (13:17) and yet, we also read “the Israelites went up [from Egypt] armed” (13:18)
2) God continues to stiffen Pharaoh’s heart even after the Israelites leave, so he then pursues them. God does this so “the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH (God)!” (14:4)
3) When the Israelites see the Egyptians coming at the shore of the sea they cry out “was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness!” (14:11) and question if it would have been “better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” (14:12)
4) When the Egyptians enter the sea we read God “threw the Egyptian army into panic” (14:24), “locked the wheels of their chariots” (14:25)
5) As the sea closed in on them the Egyptian army tried to flee but “YHWH hurled the Egyptians into the sea…not one or them remained.” (14:28)
6) When the people saw what God did at the sea “the people feared YHWH; they had faith in God and in God’s servant [Moses].”
In reviewing these verses, the characters of God, Pharaoh and the Israelites are called to me. I was surprised that Moses did not draw my attention. But, perhaps I just see him as an extension of God in the moment?
In the text, God knows instinctively that the people are not ready for conflict. They have been enslaved all these years, and so they would probably flee at the slightest sign of conflict. And yet, why do they leave Egypt armed for battle? Perhaps this serves as a reminder that, even when we don’t want or are afraid of conflict, we must still be prepared for the unknown?
Then, even though God knows the people will be afraid of war, he sends the fully-loaded Egyptian army after them. But God does this for no other reason than to show the Egyptians who is really in charge! The whole encounter at the Sea of Reeds is meant to showcase God’s power for the “enemy.” And yet, no Egyptians are present at the sea other than the soldiers that are killed. Except, perhaps Pharaoh. For we are told that his soldiers, horses and chariots entered the sea, but it does not say that Pharaoh himself did. Why? Perhaps his role was to witness the destruction and then be forced to take the news back to the people?
When the Israelites see the army approaching, they do not take up the arms with which they have left Egypt. No. They react as we imagine a group of slaves might, they fear for their lives. Further, they criticize Moses for bringing them into the desert to die. And then, as the people berate Moses and, by extension, God, it is time for God to spring into action.
The pillar of smoke that was leading the people (in which God was present) moves from the front to the rear, blocking the Egyptians from passing. Then Moses is instructed to stretch out his staff and split the sea. The miracle has begun. Wasn’t this enough? Why did God need more? If God split the sea, let the Israelites through and then closed it, leaving the Egyptians on the other side, wouldn’t the power of God be undeniable?
But this was not enough for the God of Exodus. This God needs to leave no question as to the extent of Divine power. So, God allows the Egyptians to enter the sea, then God confounds them, God makes their wheels stick so the chariots cannot move and finally, as they try to escape the walls of water closing in on them, God literally hurls them back into the sea!
It is only then that the people fear God and have faith in God and Moses. Of course, not long thereafter they lose their faith repeatedly as they continue to complain to Moses and question his leadership and God’s power. But I am not going to go into that part of the parashah.
Rather, I want us to look at one specific moment. If mindfulness is about being aware of each moment and our connection to God in that moment (which is how I would define it) then the moment I would like us to experience is the when the Egyptians have been killed in the sea and, as we read in verse 14:27 “the sea returned to its normal state.”
And so it seemed. In that moment, the sea looked the same as it had before it had split and before it had covered the Egyptians. And yet, the sea is not the same. For beneath its surface lie the victims of God’s need to show what Divine power was all about. Beneath the waves is the collateral damage of God’s campaign of “shock and awe.” One can only imagine that part of the fear the Israelites were feeling in the moment was the fear that what just happened to the Egyptians could just as easily happen to them. Who knows? They don’t yet trust God. They don’t yet know God. All they know is what they are feeling in that moment. Not long before this, they questioned whether Moses (and God) should have let them stay in Egypt as servant. If they react like that again, what would stop God from killing them?
And so, the only way they could move on is by imagining that the sea was just the same as it was before and by singing a song of joy for their redemption. But they have not yet begun to sing. As is human inclination, I am already thinking of the future, rather than being in the present. For this is the moment that will give birth to singing, but they are not ready to sing just yet. They are still in shock and disbelief.
And what about on the other side of the sea? If this act of Divine violence and redemption was meant to prove God’s might to the Egyptians, how will they find out? Certainly, when their husbands, sons and brothers don’t return home they will know something happened. But what would they believe? That a group of ex-slaves somehow defeated the Egyptian army? Perhaps. We don’t know.
I imagine at this moment Pharaoh is standing on the other side of the sea asking himself these questions. Not only that, but he is questioning why he is there. His mind jumping to the immediate past, he wonders why he followed the Israelites when he had just freed them. Now that it’s all over, he realizes that he would not have done what he did if some other force were not urging him on. And so he stands there, grief-stricken at the loss, confused as to why it had to happen and frightened of what he is going to tell his people when he returns. And he stands there both in awe of, and furious at, this God of the Israelites. For he knows in his heart that this God was the force behind everything.
But how does all this relate to our present moment? After a week in which we mourned such great loss as a nation, where are we? I believe we are in both the place of Pharaoh and the place of the Israelites. We are split. We are standing on both sides with the sea, seemingly serene yet actually a watery grave, in between.
We are examining ourselves as a nation. We wonder what led up to last week’s horrific event. We are casting blame. We are in shock. As a nation, we may be armed with weapons of self-defense (and mass destruction), like the Israelites, and yet we know that at any moment, something unexpected could happen and none of that will matter. As witnesses to death, we are mindful of our own mortality, and we are afraid of the possibilities. And yet, there is something in us that is urging us to open our mouths in song of praise, in spite of this all. But we are not quite ready to do that.
For we are also Pharaoh. We are filled with confusion at what has happened to our country and its people. We are furious at whatever force is behind this violence. Even if a primary motivating factor was mental illness, which is beyond our control and must seriously be addressed by our nation, there was some other force that brought us to this place where we are standing at the sea, which is burying our dead.
And where is God in this? In the narrative, God is the prime mover. God is the force behind all that happens. But how can we say that God is the force behind the violence in our country? I can’t. But I can say that there are forces beyond our control and understanding that are part of the cosmic scheme of things. For evil and violence are also a natural part of God’s created world, whether or not we like to realize that.
But God is also the force that is helping us at this moment to come to terms with where we are. As Pharaoh, God is the force telling us that we must let go of our need to show our power. We must let go of our need to be right. For if we do not, it will eventually destroy us, those we love, and our world. We don’t like to admit when our actions cause bad things to happen, or that we have allowed other forces to compel us to act in ways we know are wrong. But that is simply one of the truths of reality. And the only way to stop this from happening again is to be aware of that reality in each moment.
As the Israelites, God is also the force that is helping us to realize that there are things beyond our control and that there is evil and violence in the world. And yet, we must continue. We must prepare ourselves to sing. And we can only do so by pretending that the world is the same as it was before, while also knowing within us that this is anything but the truth.
When President Obama spoke to the nation the other day he called upon us to move beyond blame and partisan bickering. He called on us to find the best within ourselves in order to make our country, and our world, the best in can be. In short, he called on us to take the next step, even knowing that the dead are still right before us.
And so he we are. We know, as Pharaoh did, that we must let go of our need for power. That we must humble ourselves and even take on some of the blame as a society. But we must also continue on, as we must assume he did when he returned to his people.
And we know, as did the Israelites, that this is both a frightening and a beautiful world. That with each step we can act from a place of fear or faith, doubt or trust. And we know what we must do in this moment. While acknowledging all of these complexities and contradictions that exist within and around us, we must turn away from the sea, take the next step on our journey and sing with joy for life, for love and for all the world!
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 5:32 PM
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