Shabbat B’Shalakh: Go Ahead and Jump

Parashat B’Shalakh recounts the first steps of the Exodus from Egypt. After much confusion, pain and terror, the time has come and the Israelites – those who choose to follow Moshe – have celebrated the first Passover and are now on the move. Not all the Israelites went along, and some who were not Israelites did, and so our text speaks of an erev rav, a “mixed multitude,” that passed the gates of the city walls and faced the endless wilderness.
Not everyone who is offered redemption accepts it, but all those who do, regardless of background, stand equally in the face of the promise and the challenge. When the water is deep and the shore cannot be seen, it is fearfully difficult to go ahead and jump.
The going does not get easier after that first brave foray forward. Not only do our ancestors wander about without a clear sense of forward movement, but the text itself, as well, doubles back on itself and seems to wander about, confused and panicky. Finally we stand at the shore of the Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, even the hesitant forward movement stymied by its depths. The Egyptian army closes in behind us, and we see that there is no other choice but to go forward, yet the way forward is frightening.
At that moment, according to interpretive midrash, the Israelites are standing on the shore arguing, each accusing the other of the acts that lead to what seems, literally, to be a dead end. Moshe prays, and is answered that now is not the time to pray but to act. Moshe responds, literally, mah b’yadi la’asot: “what strength is there in my hand to do?”
It is then that one person, identified by our tradition as Nakhshon ben Aminadav, of the house of Judah, is spotted heading for the water. Everyone watches him, aghast. Then he is in the water, and a few others have begun to run toward him, following in his footsteps, toward that terrifying, endless water.
And only then, only when some Israelites had immersed themselves in it, did the waters begin to part. A related midrash asserts that when the Israelites began singing mi khamokha ba’eylim the waters had not yet subsided; it was when they got to the second line of the Song of the Sea, mi kamokha nedar bakodesh that the waters suddenly made way for the Israelites.
Our ability to moved forward is not the act of the leader, nor is it the leader’s fault when we do not. It is our own collective trust – in each other and in that [G*d] which unites us – that brings us to redemption. In large ways and small we face waters that seem endless, challenges that are daunting, moments when we ask with Moshe, “what strength is there, after all, in my one little hand?”
On this Shabbat as we celebrate in song and story the saga of our people’s redemption from slavery, consider where you have met Nakhshon in your life; consider where you have been that person. Give thanks for the good we have known because of those moments, when despite reasonable fear, someone has shown the way by finding the courage to go ahead and jump.

Shabbat Noakh: What Do you Do with It When It’s Broken?

The parashat hashavua for this week is Noakh, the week on which, as everybody knows, we read of the great Flood. But in year two of the Triennial Cycle, where we find ourselves this year, the flood is over: Noah has opened the window, and the dove has flown in with an olive leaf in its mouth. The Ark has come to rest and Noah and his family have emerged from it.

This year we read the aftermath, and see G-d’s answer to the question: what do you do with it after it’s broken?

In last week’s parashah, at the end of the Creation story, we saw how quickly things got out of hand. Humanity was barely created before we began to break things, make mistakes, and rebel against the idea that we should be obedient to G-d, and follow rules. Already by chapter 6 of Genesis, we are told: “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. G-d regretted making humans on the earth, and was saddened at heart. (Genesis 6.5-6)

Years ago a computer version of the creation story went around the web, and when it came to this point, it had G-d hitting DELETE – and nothing happened. The human beings kept getting more and more out of control. But in the original version, G-d brought a life-ending flood. Not only sinful humans, but innocent ones, were killed, and not only humans but animals, which were certainly blameless. What kind of G-d would do that, in a fit of anger and regret over the creation of such a terrible error?

It would be easy for an apologist to claim that “G-d had nothing to do with it, it’s just evil human choice”. But that’s no answer for those of us who seek a sense of G-d’s presence everywhere, in everything. What do we do with the innocent lives lost, and what do we do with the idea that G-d regrets. We’ll need a response to that questions, because in our reading for this week, G-d will experience regret again: this time, for destroying the earth in anger over human sinfulness. G-d will denote the rainbow as an eternal reminder – to G-d! – not to do that again.

The G-d of the Torah is not infallible. As my teacher put it in one of his books, the Torah gives us the portrait of the Artist as a young G-d. 

Knowing that even G-d has bad days, makes mistakes, and has regrets is a challenging thing if your theology is predicated on perfection. But there is a weird salvation in the idea of an imperfect G-d, and it has to do with G-d as role model. G-d creates; we, on a smaller level, create. G-d destroys; we, hopefully on a smaller level than world-wide, destroy. And G-d regrets.

Jewish tradition urges us to follow G-d’s example in clothing the naked, as G-d did last week for Adam and Eve; in visiting the sick, as G-d will do for Abraham; and burying the dead, as G-d will do for Moshe. And here is a shred of an even more important teaching: how to regret, as G-d does, and go on. Not to lose hope; not to give up; not to lose faith in oneself and one’s creative potential.

Even G-d has regrets in the early days, realizing the nature of good and evil that G-d has let loose. Even G-d has to get used to it, and choose how to act in the face of possible failure. Being a successful person in G-d’s image is not about being perfect at all.

And then G-d picked up the broken world, soothed and comforted it, made a new promise in rainbow colors, and G-d, and we, went forth. Chastened, more realistic – and still hopeful, just as we remain today. The broken places will never be whole, but after all, as another Jewish poet put it, “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. (see a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen performing the complete song here.)

It doesn’t matter how bad it looks – look for the light.