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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Parshat Beshallakh: Creating Miracles

This week's parashah, Beshallakh (Shemot/Exodus 13:17-18:1) contains within it the splitting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds. At first glance, this is a story of God redeeming the people through the performance of a miracle. In the narrative, the role of the people is clearly secondary to that of God. Nevertheless, there is some human involvement in the miracle. When Moses prays to God for deliverance at the shore of the sea God responds, "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you, lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground."

We also read in a midrash (rabbinic legend), the rabbis tell us that God splits the sea because one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, walks into the sea first, rather than waiting around for God. Nachshon acts. He takes matters into his own hands. God sees this and tells Moses that it's time for him to lead the people through the sea. Therefore, even though this is the story of a Divine miracle, without human action, the miracle might not have taken place. The mystical tradition of kabbalah teaches that our actions can affect the Divine realms. Or one might say that a miracle happens when human beings connect with the Divine that is within and around us. However one chooses to frame it, I believe that the splitting of the Sea reminds us that miracles require a degree of divine-human interaction. In fact, it would seem that the Divine cannot enter our life if we do not act first, nor is there a reason for God to enter our life if we do not first make it known that we have some desire for this to occur. This is reminiscent of Hassidic rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's dictum that “God dwells where we let God in.”

The image of the splitting and crossing of the Sea is a powerful one that contains a multitude of truths and meanings within it. Each of us faces seas that we must cross in our lives. We each face obstacles that seem insurmountable. Yet, when we stand before our own Sea of Reeds, our own challenges, we know that we must either cross the sea or perish.

In order to do so we must take the first step. We must walk or leap into the sea as did Nachshon. We must raise our arms and stretch forth our staff, like Moses, showing the strength within us, in order to split the sea. Either action shows not only our desire for a miracle, but the trust that God will deliver one. The Hebrew phrase for the splitting or tearing of the sea is k’riyah. This same word also describes the act of tearing a garment when a loved one dies. Here it symbolizes a tear in the fabric of our lives that can never be completely mended.

The splitting of the sea is a tearing in the fabric of nature. It is a radical action which reminds us that what we assume to be permanent and unchanging can indeed change. One could call this a paradigm shift, but 'shift' is not radical enough. For the splitting of the sea symbolized a total obliteration of the old paradigm and the creation of a new one. But even after the tearing is “repaired,” anyone who witnessed it knows that its effects remain. On the surface, the sea may look the same, but beneath it is not. If we look closely and pay attention we can actually see the almost imperceptible traces of the place where the waters were torn apart and the natural order was turned upside down before our very eyes. So when we look at our sea before us it reminds of what happened, just as when the Israelites looked at the now calm sea, they knew that the Egyptian soldiers lay dead just beneath its surface.

As we look at our own “seas” after they have been torn apart we are reminded the parts our lives that needed to die in order to bring about our redemption. We must mourn the loss of these forces, ideas, habits and desires, just as a midrash teaches that God mourned the death of the Egyptians. For these too were a part of us, even if they did keep us from growing.

The crossings of the sea is a difficult process. Change often is. There will indeed be many dead left on the floor of the sea after it closes. Sometimes the process takes longer than we had hoped. Yet, with faith, we can remain confidant that the redemption will occur and that the crossing will be successful.

Each moment provides an opportunity for the sea to be torn apart. At times it takes great human effort, at other times it simply seems to happen on its own. In either case we need to watch and pay attention so that we do not miss the splitting. For just as quickly as the sea splits, it can close up again, and if we did not pay attention enough to see it split we will never know that it did. We often live much of our lives as consecutive moments of oblivion trying to avoid these moments of change – and pain. Perhaps we believe that if we do not pay attention the sea will never split and all will always be as it was. Perhaps we are simply so caught up in the minutia of our lives that our oblivion unintentionally takes over because of our lack of attention to what is really happening. No matter the reason, ignoring the changes that take place does not prevent them from occurring. Lives change, the world changes, seas get torn apart every moment. Noticing this can cause uncertainty or pain, but ignoring this reality is what will eventually cause true suffering.

This scenario does not only work for us as individuals, but as a community or even a nation as well. As we face one of the most difficult economic times in recent history, as well as difficult societal battles which are being fought, we are each provided the opportunity to choose how to act in each moment.

May we each face our seas, individually and communally, with faith, even in the midst of fear. May we pay attention to the changes happening in each moment and continue to praise creation even as it constantly changes and shifts around and beneath us. Together with God, may we create a world filled with love and compassion for all humanity as we collaborate to create miracles and make the world better for all.

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