Shabbat BeShalakh: What Does It Take To Let Go?

In this weeks’s parashah, called BeShalakh, we read of our people’s experience leaving Egypt. It includes hard labor, a frightening and uncertain exit through water, and great relief upon emergence into a new world. It is the birth-myth of the People Israel. (I use “myth” in the sense of a grand and ancient story that tells a people who they are, and often why; it is not scientific fact but it is very much true in its own way.)

Last week we saw the demand seven times (a highly significant number in Jewish tradition and storytelling) in the parashah: shalakh, “let go”. Let the people go, said Moshe to Pharaoh. And Pharoah’s response, six times, was lo shalakh, “I will not let them go.”  Then came the seventh time, when it is written after the final and most horrifying plague visited upon Egypt that vatekhezak Mitzrayim al ha-Am l’maher l’shalkham, “The Egyptians pressed the people hard, trying to send them forth as quickly as possible” (Exodus 12.33). 

With a literary parallelism written in terror and blood, the seventh response to the demand shalakh is, finally, l’shalkham. This is underscored by the name of our parashah this week, B’Shalakh, which begins “When Pharaoh sent the People forth” (Exodus 13.17). 

The way to freedom is paved with the acts of both enemies and friends.

This week the world observed the 70th anniversary of the day the concentration/extermination camp Auschwitz was liberated. Many of our people understood the Holocaust in traditional Jewish terms (our lens on life for everything, after all), and the liberation of the death camps was seen as a miracle that saved the remnant of our people from the modern-day Nazi Pharaoh. 

Fewer and fewer survivors are left among us to testify to that time. Here is a true story from one of them:

I was sent to do hard labor deep in Germany, helping to build plants and roads for the war effort. They fed us almost nothing; people died all the time from the work, the cold, the starvation, the disease. One guard was always very harsh with us – but when no one was looking, almost every day he brought me a sandwich from his lunch. That Nazi guard saved my life.

Almost every survivor’s story includes a mystifying moment of compassion like this one. For some of us – not for all of us, and certainly not according to any reason that a human being can discern – the act of an enemy has paved the way to freedom.

That is why in Judaism we do not hold a belief in the demonic. No person, no matter how evil, is a demon. We all belong to the same All, and we all share in its characteristics. This is frightening, because it means that we have to recognize that we all harbor evil within us. But it should also be a source of great hope, because that which is evil is not in its essence different from the rest of us. We know evil intimately because it too is part of humanity, and that is a key to disarming it and destroying it.

Mystical Judaism describes our hearts as constantly balancing between mercy and judgment. We are to seek the middle between those two opposites, and according to the mystics, the middle is not neutrality. It is compassion. 

On this Shabbat of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and on this millennial anniversary of the People of Israel’s birth, may you see the compassion in the world clearly, even in the most unlikely places.

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Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.