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Do you know this story?
Someone who is a true believer in God falls into a raging river… but he knows that God will save him, so he doesn’t worry. First some people throw a rope to him, but he refuses to grab on, because, well, he knows that God will save him. Then a Coast Guard boat comes along and prepares to send someone over to rescue him. But he refuses their offer, because – he knows that God will rescue him. Then a helicopter comes and lowers a diver. And this too he refuses, because – well, he knows that God will save him. So what happens to him? Yes, he drowns…
He arrives in heaven and is welcomed in, and he has an audience with the Holy Blessed One, and he has one question… “Why did you let me drown?”
The Spirit of the Universe answered, “What do you mean? I set you people with a rope, a Coast Guard boat and then a helicopter. You refused to take them.”
In Beshallach, our torah portion, the fourth one in the book of Exodus, or Shemot, we open with a curious verse:
When Pharaoh had let the people go, God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. (Ex. 13:17-18)
It’s a curious way to open the parasha. After all, we had just been liberated from slavery. Generally, when we read liberation stories, we hear about the exuberance, the relief, the joy—before we get to that moment when reality happens, and freedom has its own challenges.
But not us— for us, God is worried that if we get a glimpse of harsh reality, we’ll decide the old way, however hard, is better than the unknown.
Do you ever feel that way? That you know that some behavior is not good for you, but that change is just TOO hard? Better to suffer the slings and arrows of the what you know, than strike out and take a risk?
Avivah Zornberg points out that while God is concerned that we might have a change of heart, God can’t prevent that from happening, but can, at least take us farther away from Egypt, the roundabout way, make it harder to get back. Because after all, are the men going to ask for directions? How can we outsmart ourselves to keep ourselves from doing what we know keeps us in slavery?
Not long after, we reach the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptians, with their chariots and horses, are separated from us, by the pillars of smoke and cloud. With them at our heels, and the sea in front, we start our long kvetch:
And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?”
Moses reassures them and “then Adonai said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.'”
Another curious comment from the Divine One. Moses hadn’t cried out to God, but had comforted the people, trying to instill hope and faith. But even without that, you might wonder — what is this – Tell the Israelites to go forward?
This is the original version of my opening story… God has done everything for us – 10 plagues, keeping the Egyptians on the other side of the pillars. At what point do we actually have to take the rope or the lifeboat offered?
Do you know the midrash about Nachshon?
According to this rabbinic tale, we were crowded at the shore of the Sea, with the Egyptians at our back, and Moses had raised the mighty staff as God had instructed him, but nothing happened. The congregation was scared, but no one wanted to put even so much as a toe in. Except this one guy, Nachshon… He waded in in his sandals. Up to his ankles – nothing happened. Up to his knees. Still wading. Up to his waist. Still nothing. His chest. Nada… He keeps going, because he knows that God will save him. He is in up to his nose… and at that moment, the waters part. His courageous act of faith, according to the rabbis, was the last necessary ingredient for the miracle to happen.
His ability to take those steps, face his fears, and risk his life—and his reputation—to move his life forward – that’s the counterstory, the other narrative, telling us what we need to do in this moment.
So this parasha teaches us… overcoming our slave mentality, moving toward our own liberation – whatever than means – sometimes requires putting up obstacles or as much distance as we can from the old ways. It sometimes mean that praying is important, but after a point, we need to step into the water up to our noses, if we want to break free and see the miracle. I pray that each of us can lose our way back to the old patterns and can step into the waters whether it’s scary or not.