Shabbat BeShalakh: Freedom to be Joyful, or Not

Finally, after 400 years of dreaming about a future that is not yet within our grasp, the time is now. All that seemed to be obstacles has fallen away; the door that leads away from enslavement to now is beckoning toward the commitment to what will be.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

In our parashah, called BeShalakh, the Torah records the great Song of the Sea, chanted to a special melody, during which the congregation rises in respect and excitement at the moment of the great memory relived. 

They’ve crossed the great Sea. Pharaoh can no longer threaten them. Moses and Miriam and the Children of Israel sing and rejoice and celebrate. They have been liberated from bondage. 

They are free! All that they dreamed is now true. And now what?

Grumbling. Complaining. The Hebrew word is ַוַיִּלֹּנוּ  va’yilonu: The people grumbled against Moses: “What shall we drink”? (Exodus 15:24)

Yes. Rather than giving themselves up to celebration and gratitude, the Israelites complained. Rather than trust the vision now realized, they turned their eyes away and grumbled about sore feet, moaning over an entirely unrealistic memory of their Egyptian situation.

The whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron: “We wish HaShem had killed us in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. You brought us out to this wilderness to starve!” (Exodus 16:3).

In Jewish mysticism, we are taught that there are two spiritual states: mokhin d’katnut, “diminished spirit,” and mokhin d’gadlut, “expansive spirit.” Fear is a state that strangles us down to a place of diminished spirit, complaining, angry, hurt, unable to permit ourselves to hope. Curiously, it occurs not when we are beaten down by our situation, but, often, when we are standing on the threshhold of escape from all that holds us down. 

It is at that moment when we ourselves are the weight that holds ourselves down. The state of mokhin d’katnut rushes in just at the moment when we might give ourselves to joy rather than fear.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?

Why is the body so often dumb flesh?

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away

at the moment the word waited for all one’s life 

is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

Here is what it truly means to enter the wilderness. To leave Egypt is to leave that which is comfortingly familiar, even if it stifles growth and freedom and dreams. To leave Egypt is to walk into a wilderness which is only romantic on a bumper sticker; in real life we often see such a moment as scary and unsafe, and we do not see that it is our invitation into mokhin d’gadlut, a chance – that may not come again – to hold out our arms and embrace existence, and to sing its praises.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

On this Shabbat, consider: what do you long to hear, yet run from? Can you begin to understand how it holds not only you back from the ability to trust others, and life itself – and how that holds you, and me as well, from exploring the freedom we might share to move through the wilderness in joy?

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.