Torah Reading for Week of January 20-26, 2013
“Getting Lost on the Way to Finding Ourselves”
By Rabbi Meredith Cahn, ‘11
Do you remember this story?
A true believer in G-d falls into a raging river. He knows that G-d will save him, so he does not worry. Someone throws a rope to him, but he refuses to grab on, because he knows that G-d will save him. Then a Coast Guard boat arrives. He refuses again. Then a helicopter comes and lowers a diver. Again he refuses.
He arrives in heaven and has an audience with the Holy Blessed One, at which he asks: “Why did you let me drown?”
The Spirit of the Universe answers, “What do you mean? I sent people with a rope, a Coast Guard boat and a helicopter. You refused to take them.”
Beshallach, our parasha, opens with two curious verses:
When Pharaoh had let the people go, G-d led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for G-d said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So G-d led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. (Ex. 13:17-18)
We had just been liberated from slavery. Generally, in liberation stories, we hear about the exuberance, the relief, the joy—before that moment when reality happens.
G-d worries that if we glimpse harsh reality, we will decide the old ways, however hard, are better than the unknown. We will decide that it is better to suffer the slings and arrows of what we know, than strike out and take a risk.
Torah scholar and author, Dr. Avivah Zornberg notes that G-d is concerned that we might have a change of heart, and hence decides to take us the roundabout way, making it harder to go back.
Not long after, we reach the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptians are separated from us by the pillars of smoke and cloud. With them behind us and the sea in front, we start our long kvetch: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” (Ex. 14:11)
This is the original version of our opening story. G-d has done everything for us: sent the ten plagues, kept the Egyptians on the other side of the pillars. At what point do we reach out for the rope?
In B. Sota 37a, the rabbis tell us what happened next. At the shore of the Sea, Moses had raised the mighty staff as G-d had instructed him, but nothing happened. The congregation was scared to move. Nachshon ben Aminadav waded in. Up to his ankles. Up to his knees. Up to his waist. His chest. He keeps going, because he knows that G-d will save him. He is in up to his nose… and at that moment, the waters part. His courageous act of faith was the last necessary ingredient for the miracle to happen.
His ability to face his fears and risk his life is the counter story, the other narrative, telling us what we need to do in this moment.
This parasha teaches us that overcoming our slave mentality, moving toward our own liberation, sometimes requires putting up obstacles from our old ways. It means that we need to step in up to our noses. We need to outsmart ourselves. Sometimes we need to lose our way to find our true path.