Beshallash: Crossing the Sea

Exodus 13:17-17:16

When I said yes to doing this dvar it was in part the attraction of the metaphor. The Red Sea. Making the big crossing, One of the great archetypal moments in Jewish history. And I started thinking about how we all spend our lives making journeys. Not just from life as kids in our parent’s house to life as adults in Eugene. But transitions from who we were, to who we are, to who we’ll become.

If we’re lucky we’re the people we once hoped to be. But we’re also the people we’re outgrowing. Or maybe outgrew a while ago. And we’re only now realizing that our old self doesn’t fit our soul quite so well anymore. I got this image of life like a shirt you’ve outgrown, a little tight in the cuffs. Time for a new one – and you get to decide what it’ll be.

And that moment when it all becomes real, and whatever shift you’re facing, whatever leap of faith you need or long for, and perhaps avoid, fear, and hope for all at the same time, that’s what it means to me to stand at the Red Sea.

I name these emotions, and there’s probably lots more, because we humans are complex critters. And because what we say we want is generally more complicated than we might expect it to be. And that’s complicated in the getting and the having both.

Freedom and liberation, especially from slavery, should be perfect and wonderful.. That greener grass on the other side of Egypt is supposed to feel all tickly and wonderful on our newly emancipated feet. If life was the way we often hope it would be, we’d get to romp and frolic all the way to the promised land.

The truth is that getting what we thought we wanted usually comes with surprises. Challenges that are unexpected, unanticipated, and often unappreciated.

These challenges are often blessings in disguise. Sometimes pretty potent disguise. Gifts that don’t always seem like blessings when they show up in the form they do. Gifts that bring our next set of lessons. And we’re rarely very appreciative. Turns out there’s a lineage for that.

For the record, when I’m given a gift of challenges and lessons, I’m rarely as grateful as when I’m given a gift of, say, fine wine and chocolates, So it’s not surprising that the Israelites weren’t either. But we tend to look at the Torah for inspiration, so it’s a little disappointing to find out our ancestors weren’t necessarily a whole lot more evolved than us. They’re just the poster children to show us lots of ways to blow it, and how to learn.

Anyhow, for a while I let the idea of The Red Sea ramble around in my head. In part to see what would come flying up. Also because I’m no longer a historian or researcher. For good or ill, or maybe because I’m allowing myself to be lazier in my old age, I’ve suspended the need to research 4,000 years of commentary in order to learn Torah.

It’s become personal in a different way, through a different form of taking things in. I think of it as living Torah, of seeing how the themes play out in my life and the lives of others I know. Synchronicity of the highest order. It requires paying attention in a different way than cramming in a yeshiva. Some days it seems easier; others lots harder.

First image out of the gate came from the classic 50’s movie The Ten Commandments. Not the special effects part where Moses parts the waters. But the frenzy of the morning they leave, after the tenth plague and a night of matzo baking. When Pharoah just wants rid of the Jews.

I saw the scene where everyone’s flailing around trying to lash all their goods plus the spoils of Egypt onto a donkey. As I watch all the bleating and squealing, a voice in me is trying to warn them, saying Eeek eeek Silver’s good, but don’t pile it on. You’ve got a long way to go. There’s a great big sea coming up soon, sooner than you can possibly know. And how much do you really want to schlepp? (Yes I know that’s last week’s parshah, but it’s where the story starts for me.)

Then I turned to Shefa Gold, whom I always find gets to the core of it all through her understanding of personal process. And while I appreciate all the history and Hebraic nuance that comes from Torah study, for me the process of learning ourselves is one of the biggest reasons to study Torah.

Shefa has a summary of the parshah. It goes:

The Israelites cross the Red Sea and celebrate with song and dance. They are sent on their journey and given manna for sustenance which appears daily. If one takes more than he can consume that day, it rots and turns wormy. The Israelites receive Shabbat. They start complaining.

Rich stuff. Dvars abounding in every sentence. Each image a whole story, many stories. Each of which suggests issues we all grapple with .The whole cycle of how we function as humans. We get rescued from certain death, celebrate our escape, get given even more gifts, and then start whining again about how life’s not as good as we thought it would be.

Occasionally one has to empathize with God. We are a pretty unmanageable lot.

So here’s the good news: If we’re doomed to repeat the pattern, we have a choice about doing it a little more consciously the next time. We have a chance to learn from our histories, personal and collective.

In my own work the metaphor I use for the paths out of mizrayim are meandering and leaping. We can know we’re stuck, and we can yearn for change. But our, or at least my, enthusiasm is often tempered with the realization that for things to actually change I might have to get off my butt and do something to make change happen.

Meandering is how most of us do it most of the time. Thinking about change, wishing for change, hoping for change. Eek a little afraid of change. Or more than a little. Fearing change. Wanting to be on the other side of whatever’s between us and change. Generally sure we’re going to like it better, but afraid of the parts we don’t know and are pretty sure are gonna hurt.

Compare that to leaping off a cliff, even if there’s a sea below to catch you. Saying screw it, I’m ready, I trust what comes next.

Our modern mitzrayim rarely include long hot days in the sun making bricks, or Egyptians with whips. So it’s easy to take our time, getting ready, making sure, planning, taking things slow. We accommodate, so when we’re faced with the unknown – even an opportunity that offers exactly what we say we want — we’re not always eager or feeling ready to make the leap.

Because there’s no Pharoah threatening death, we let ourselves off the hook. We find important things that need to be done first. We forget what we’ve learned before, one of the big lessons of this parshah: how good we’ll feel on the other side. How good it will feel once we’ve changed, once when we’ve let go of fear. When we’ve trusted enough to go into the sea.

Because for me the hero of this parshah isn’t Moses. It’s Nachson, the guy who’s the first to jump into the water. We’re told the sea did not part until the waters reached his nostrils. Until after he was so committed that the only way forward was to change or die. Only then were the Jews permitted to cross.

What we need to know, to remember, is that our own Red Seas –whatever barriers we think are impossible —are no more dangerous than our own willingness to risk whatever happens next. When we’re on the before side it looks impassable. But once we commit, once we make the leap — the leap that’s both necessary and inevitable — no matter how much time we’ve spent meandering, we’re gonna be okay. And if we’re really lucky realize we’re gonna be okay.

The core of this pasha is about embracing faith, or a word I prefer, trust. Once we jump in, the hand of God (or fate, or karma, whatever you call it) is going to take us somewhere new and unknown – and sigh, a new somewhere that holds its own new lessons.

Once the singing and dancing is over we’re going to be standing on some strange shore, eating different food, not quite sure what direction to go or what happens next. And then fear’s going to come back. We’re going to want life to be familiar, comfortable, and predictable again. To know what’s coming and coming after that and that we’re going to be okay. To stash away enough food for the day after tomorrow..

And that’s how we set up the next mitzrayim, and the chance to learn our next set of lessons.

If you believe in reincarnation, you get lifetime after lifetime to make small bits of progress. If you don’t, the burden of change should be even greater in this one. To me that’s what the Torah study is about. It’s one of the nicest things about cycling back through the parshot every year. It’s like waiting on a train platform. Even if you don’t get on, the train is going to come back. Going to keep offering you chances to climb aboard.

We’re being encouraged to look at ourselves with a clear eye and open heart. To heal. To become better people. To find the good and better parts of ourselves, and to share them with the world, so that as we change, it changes. So that as we’re each willing to become Nachson we’re also participating in our own unique ways in tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

Lawrence Kushner tells this great story about the bear. He and his wife are vacationing in some big national park with wilderness areas, and all the tourists are buzzing about the bears: the bears breaking into campsites, and what happened to the guy who went off to the lake last week and so on… So before they set out for a hike into parts unknown, they ask the local ranger if there’s bears where they’re headed. And he answers, If there were no bears, it wouldn’t be a wilderness, would it?

If you always knew you’d be safe, you’d never have to learn about the wilderness, about confronting fear. Or about trust in the divine. And risk change to get access to something different than your everyday mitzrayim.

So whether you meander or leap, remember that on the other side of the red sea is a profound and wonderful sense of liberation. If you trust enough to risk change, you can find that freedom, and the faith in yourself and god that comes with it. You’ll find a lightness to replace the lead in your boots. You’ll get to celebrate. You’ll be inspired to face whatever next comes next. You’ll even get manna to sustain you along the way.

Shabbat shalom.

– Delivered  as a Dvar at TBI Eugene, Oregon, 2010 by Helen Rosenau. All rights reserved.