One doesn’t usually see a backwards-facing dvar Torah, but I strive to be different!
This past Shabbat was Sisterhood Shabbat at my shul, and I was honored to be asked to deliver the dvar Torah (the sermon). I practiced more than I usually would, but still less than DB would have, and although I get very nervous while public speaking, I think I – well, I rocked it. Just sayin.
Several people there and not in attendance asked me to post my speech, so here are the highlights, without the shaky hands – I had to put the papers on the lectern and not hold them at an angle so people wouldn’t notice!
Beshalach is a juicy parsha – a lot is going on – the newly freed Jews cross the Red Sea and start saying hello to their freedom. They worry about—and God provides for—their safety, their needs, and their comfort. Being a blogger about Jewish family life, and having 14 ½ years experience parenting myself, I read this parsha with a parent’s eye and I kept noticing the parent/child relationship between the newly-wandering Israelites and God.
Here are the first two sentences of Beshalach: Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by 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.”
Not wanting the people to have a direct escape route back to Egypt, God leads them the long way around. Around the bad influences, around potential enemies, around scenes that could make them fearful. It is in these days, and later, years, in the desert that I think we see God most clearly as a parent. He knows what the Hebrews can and cannot handle so early in their journey. The long way around isn’t easier: there certainly will be many challenges ahead for the newly free Jewish people, but it is the route they need to take to learn to be independent and learn to leave their slave mentality behind. We make similar choices all the time with our children: we could make shortcuts, do everyday tasks for them, but many times we know they will learn more from doing things themselves, even if it will be a messier process or take more time.
The third sentence of the parsha seems to be in direct contrast with the first two: Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.
If God sent them the long way, wanting to avoid them meeting up with enemies and/or seeing war, why then are they armed? Because God is not a helicopter parent. We’ve seen several times already in Genesis that God has allowed humans the free will to make choices, bad choices: in Gan Eden, with Cain and Abel, with Jacob’s jealous and annoyed sons selling off their brother a couple parshas ago. God is not a helicopter parent. The aim of parenting, in my humble view, is to raise self-sufficient, self-reliant children.
To constantly take negativity out of their life experiences is to delay or stifle their ability to eventually take care of themselves. But neither should you shove them into a situation they are not prepared for. For us, it’s a gentle reminder to take your sweater, take your house key, be mindful of your surroundings as you venture out in the world. For God, although certainly it doesn’t say so in the p’shat, the text, maybe it was a nudge, “um, Moishe, you might want to take a sword and shield with you for this next leg of the trip.” Although God is leading, the Jews are prepared to fight for themselves. The miracles haven’t stopped, but just as we allow our children to grow up and do more for themselves each year, so God pulls back on his miracles, defense-wise. But not until after the Big One, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the Red Sea.
While the Israelites are encamped at the Red Sea, as they were told to do by God, they catch sight of Pharaoh leading his troops in a quest to regain his slaves. And, as Jews have been doing ever since, they cloaked their fear in sarcasm when they asked Moses their famous question: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” Moses answers, and I’m paraphrasing here: “Calm down, calm down, God’s got this.” And he does. But first HaShem says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Parental translation: ‘Keep walking. I’ll take care of it.’ And he does.
Included in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea is the flip side of free will: responsibility. According to the views of the important-but-under-heard-of 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, because we chose to go out of Egypt with God, we have the responsibility to do what God asks of us. At that moment, the responsibility was simply to ‘go forward.’
Midrash says that the seas did not part until the Israelites started to wade into the waters. That is, when they showed faith and trusted that the waters would part, then they did. I don’t think as slaves the people had time for swimming lessons at the JCC, so walking en masse into a great sea would indeed take an incredible amount of faith on their part. Sometimes we must lead our children without handholding, and that is what God did. He told them what was needed and waited for them to be responsible. In that moment, God has faith in them as well.
After making it through the Red Sea, watching Pharaoh and his men drown, singing Shirat HaYam – the Song at the Sea – and dancing in gratitude with Miriam and the other women with their timbrels, it took only three days for them to approach Moses with another complaint. This time the water they found was bitter and undrinkable. Through Moses, God made it sweet. They keep traveling, and food becomes an issue, and water again becomes an issue, and safety again, and each time God provides. Each complaint is answered, and no complaint is exactly the same as the ones that came before. The children of Israel are children in their freedom – they are new to it, undecided if it is worth the effort, not having had to make any effort as slaves.
At the end of the parsha, God must help them defend themselves against Amalek in that tribe’s first assault on the Jewish people. The Jews prevail in their first battle, but this time under their own steam. They conquered with an assist in strength, confidence and focus by God, not by God killing for them as at the Red Sea.
By making sure they were prepared at the beginning of the journey, and supporting them with small miracles along the way, God empowered the people to face what was ahead of them. By battling Amalek mere months after leaving Egypt, the Hebrews displayed their understanding that their freedom was worth fighting for. Maybe they even showed God that he could be a proud parent, that his children were learning to trust Him and that they were growing up as a people.
In gratitude for God’s assistance, Moses builds an alter and says “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”
We all hope that as our children grow and take on new responsibilities, they will always know that in the end, we have their backs. Finally, in that last line of the parsha, the children of Israel acknowledge their faith that as Supreme parent, God will always have their back.