It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
Each year when I read the Joseph narratives in Genesis I discover something new. It is one of the joys for me of studying Torah. Although I know how the story ends, I still read it as if I am looking at it for the first time and wonder how it will conclude.
Joseph and his brothers are finally reconciled after Judah, through his speech to Joseph, causes Joseph to reveal his true identity. Genesis Rabbah 93:4 beautifully describes the rhetoric employed by Judah to finally penetrate to Joseph’ s heart. Judah draws out Joseph as the one who draws out the sweet water from the deep well. He enables Joseph to finally reveal his true self.
“Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out (Proverbs 20:5). This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread, drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water thus and drank thereof. In the same way Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated to his very heart.”
“Counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water” is exemplified in Judah at the time when he approached Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, as explained elsewhere, whereas “a man of understanding will draw it out” was exemplified in Joseph.”
For the Zohar it is Joseph who draws out Judah, despite the fact Judah makes the speech. The Shem M’Shmuel asserts that that Joseph is teaching Judah, or perhaps better bringing to the surface, the necessity for Judah to have hachnaah submissiveness or deference to Joseph. Judah, from whom kingship will derive, must understand while he (or his descendants) will have the power of the king, they must also have the characteristic of submissiveness. Judah is willing to be submissive to Joseph to save Benjamin. As kings his descendants will need to be submissive to God. While powerful on the one hand, they are really only the slaves/servants of God.
This Shabbat many rabbis will discuss the murders of last week. Many will call for action from our state and federal governments. The nature of the Second Amendment will be debated among friends, politicians, and in our legislatures. I think one contribution of many we can make to this urgent discussion is that while the “right to” is extraordinarily important, we must also be submissive to God or a greater good that can impose limits on our rights.
A Small Thought on V’Yeitze
Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, stops on the way, falls asleep for the night and has a magnificent dream. He awakes from his sleep and declares, Surely God was in this place and I did not know it. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 69:7) quotes Rabbi Johanan who plays on the close connection between the words sleep-mi- henatho and study-mi-mishnato and suggests that Jacob arose from his learning and discovered God was in that place. Jacob, as explained by the Sefat Emet, discovers that despite being in the midst of studying Torah, there was an aspect of encountering God which even transcended Torah study.
I love to study and teach Torah. I am pretty traditional about this and not into meditation retreats and the like. But part of this Midrash that I find compelling is the element of the surprise of the discovery. We can do what we usually do, follow the routines, be sure of our surety, and then discover that we had not even known the true nature of the enterprise. Sometimes we do not even realize we were asleep. Sometimes we wake up and encounter God anew.