Minutes of Torah
As we move into this week’s parashat B’shalakh, we find the Israelites stuck on the edge of the Sea of Reeds. With meager belongings, uncooked food, and small children strapped to their backs, they were facing the approaching Egyptian army galloping toward them at an alarming pace from the other side. They are completely stuck. What do they do?
They were “close” to Egypt; so close, that it was very easy for them to return. And in their alarm, and even with their witnessing of the plagues, they are ready to return to the ‘leisure-life’ they enjoyed in tropical Egypt:
“And the Israelites said to Moses, … How could you do such a thing, bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we tell you in Egypt to leave us alone, and let us work for the Egyptians? It would have been better to be slaves in Egypt, than to die in the wilderness.’”
These are the classic responses to feeling stuck and afraid. When we truly don’t know how to get out of the mess we think we’re in, we begin to panic and that leads to anger, blame, and a desire to go backwards to a previous point of security. When we cannot see a way out of a scary situation, our minds work on over drive to try and find some control, doubting, despairing. Anything but confronting the situation.
Moses steps in with words that radically reframe the situation for the Israelites, and tells them of a way out of the situation that they didn’t know about. Moses then tells the Israelites that the way they see the Egyptians today will never be repeated. In doing so, he offers a new kind of perspective — a vision that is the direct remedy to their fear and paralysis. As the modern Torah commentator Avivah Zornberg points out: “It’s as if fear gives birth to a new way of thinking and feeling about a terrible situation.”
We often misunderstand the nature of our own challenges and we misattribute what is difficult about them to the technical and logistical; when, in truth, their difficulty lies in the emotional and psychological. Or we think that our obstacles lie in nature, in the structure of the universe or the structure of our lives; when we should be focusing on our own attitude, our own willingness to face our difficulties with confidence, and determination.
Not fully recognizing this can lead us to pray to God for the wrong things. You could ask God to change the structure of the universe for you to ameliorate your problem, but a slew of anecdotal data strongly indicates this will be a futile prayer. Rather, we should be asking God to support our growing ourselves, our making us stronger and wiser and more able to confront what ails us.
For example, if you are looking to overcome a disease, you could ask God to miraculously cure everything that pains you — but that probably won’t happen. But you could reasonably ask God to help you become more health-conscious, and to be more willing to take responsibility for your health. Indeed, Torah seems to be teaching us this very lesson in God’s response to the Israelites’ plea for a miracle:
“Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel [God tells Moses], that they go forward; And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.”
To be sure, it is a challenge to us to take more responsibility for what we can control. And to recognize our own capacity to improve our lives, to focus on what we can change instead of raging at what we can’t. And it is a promise that we can become stronger and more loving than we are now, that we can commit to the people and things that we love so much.