Something similar may have happened to you:
On the way home from Hebrew School, a parent asked their child what she had learned that day. “Nothing special” replied the child. “Oh, come on, you must have learned about something – tell me!” invited the parent.
“Ok”, said the child. “When we, the children of Israel, escaped slavery in Egypt we were getting chased by the Egyptians. We got to the beach and there was nowhere to go. We were trapped! Now, as slaves we had built a lot of stuff for Pharaoh, so we used our skills to quickly build a bridge and escape. Pretty smart of us, huh? What-goes-around-comes-around, right?”
“Hmmm. Are you sure that’s what they taught you? That’s not how I remember the story…”
The child said, “Look, if I told you the truth you wouldn’t believe it!”
This old joke reminds us that we are all boundlessly credulous and incredulous at the same time, full of both doubt and of faith.
We humans have a spiritual and intellectual craving for Truth. We consider Truth so important that it is even one of the names we give to God.
We have created the news industry, the court system, the study of history, critical thinking, and more which are all dedicated to finding out what exactly has happened – to get the true story. And yet, as we know only too well, despite it all we usually find ourselves trying to cope with a blurry, ambiguous, incomplete, convenient, rationalized, and/or doctored picture of reality.
We learn at least one coping mechanism from God in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach.
We are told at the very start of this week’s parasha that God leads us out of Egypt in a roundabout way through the wilderness and the Sea of Reeds. The more direct and established coastal road to the Promised Land would have been so much nearer and faster – why not take it? God seems to soliloquize an explanation as to why: “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt” (Ex. 13:17). God very purposefully drives us in a direction that will make it difficult if not impossible to return from…For our own good (presumably); to help us avoid self-doubt, fear, and change-of-mind when the going gets tough.
Interestingly, a similar theme is picked up again just a few verses later when Pharaoh is told that the Israelites have fled. He changes his mind, saying “what have we done?! We released Israel from slavery?!” (Ex. 14:5). God does not make it difficult for Pharaoh to act on his change of heart, and he immediately orders all his troops to assemble, and they set out to bring the Israelites back.
God expects the change of heart of both the Egyptians and of the Israelites. This sets up the showdown beside the sea. What does the sea symbolize here?
Midrash tells us that there by the sea the Israelites are confused – there is no way forward or any way back. And yet we need to do something – Something. Right. Now. – Moses prays and God chastises Moses: It is time for action, not prayer!
Meanwhile, Nachshon ben Aminadav makes “a leap of faith.” He takes upon himself to lead the Israelites forward into the sea. He’s not stopping, not letting even the sea get in the way of what needs to be done! He gets up to his nose with the Israelites behind him. It’s radical and dangerous, but the midrash suggests that this action forces the hand of God. The People collectively put God in a position of having to be with us or against us, and so God splits the sea and we go across on dry land. Our actions, and God’s help in response, ultimately assures our freedom.
Pharaoh’s change of heart costs him his life, and that of his soldiers who are all washed away when the sea closes upon them.
How about you: Do you usually take the obvious and simplest route knowing that you can always easily return? If so, have you arrived at your ‘Promised Land’? Or, have you essentially remained where you are?
Have you purposefully taken the more difficult path knowing that you will face the unknown – perhaps strategizing to force yourself – leaving no choice but to persevere and move forward? Have you tried to convince yourself to take the next step forward using the explanation that the journey itself is the destination? Do you acknowledge your susceptibility to falsehood but are prepared to make ‘a leap of faith’ anyway and even with the risks and ambiguity involved? Are you still en route, or lost, or have you arrived? Has it all been worth it?
Perhaps the greatest leap of faith in this age of ambiguity and uncertainty is to continue to demand and pursue the truth in your thoughts, your words, and your deeds…
Rabbi Michael Schwartz