Parshat Beshalach 5761
How quickly our perspectives
change in life, how rapidly a "higher" or expanded state of
consciousness (when we are fortunate enough to experience one) resolves
into our more customary constricted (and conflicted) mode of viewing the
world. This is one of the themes that--to me anyway--leap out of the
climactic portion of Beshalach, which chronicle the miraculous
splitting of the Sea of Reeds before the Children of Israel and the
subsequent start of our trek towards Sinai to receive the Torah.
Just how precise and multi-faceted was that act of Divine Judgment at the Sea?
The Torah tells us: "Israel saw the great hand that Hashem inflicted upon Egypt; and the people revered Hashem, and they had faith in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant." (14, 31) If you think back to Pesach (or, rather, think ahead…it's coming), you may remember that this verse is analyzed in one of the sections of the Haggadah customarily neglected as we rush--with typically constricted consciousness--to eat our festive meal: one Sage uses the verse to prove that there were 50 individual miracles of divine providence at the Sea, while another, Rabbi Akiva, puts the figure at 250!
Everyone present at the Sea (even, our Sages tell us, the lowliest maidservant) experienced a loftier level of prophetic insight than Ezekiel.
It was the splitting of the Sea, and not the 10 plagues, that finally demonstrated G-d's complete mastery of all the forces of nature (Rabbi Eli Munk, The Call of the Torah)…and decisively won the reverence and the faith of the people. And inspired Moshe to lead the Jewish people in the ecstatic song of prophecy and praise unto G-d (shiras ha'yam) that we repeat every day in our morning prayers.
We might expect that the effects of this spiritual "peak experience," of this state of supremely expanded consciousness, would be enduring; the faith of those who passed through it should surely be impregnable. Surely, the Torah should continue: "And the Children of Israel never forgot what they saw, and they obediently followed thereafter every word of Moshe, their leader, and Hashem, their G-d."
Unfortunately, that verse never made it into my edition of the Chumash.
What actually happened was that within days, the Jewish people were bitterly complaining to Moshe about the lack of water, and then (after the supply of matzah which they had brought from Egypt ran out) about the lack of food. They, who only days before had sung to Hashem, "Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Hashem!" were now bitterly cursing their imminent starvation and implicit abandonment by the Almighty: "If only we had died by the hand of Hashem in the land of Egypt…" We're familiar with the saying, "There are no atheists in a foxhole." Are we to learn a new maxim from this incident: "There are no true believers in a famine?!"
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses this in his commentary on the parsha, and concludes that as revelatory an experience as the splitting of the Sea was ("Once-in-a-lifetime! Should not be missed!"), a somewhat different education--one more appropriate for the challenges of everyday daily life--was needed to serve as the foundation for an enduring faith:
"The salvation from Egypt and the passage through the sea had taught for all time that G-d was extraordinarily near at moments of extraordinary danger and crisis. But that He could be depended on for the ordinary requirements of everyday life in all circumstances, that the so-called little daily necessities of man are not too small and petty for the Divine Eye to see, and the Divine Hand to provide….that is what the journey through the wilderness was to Teach them." (Hirsch, Commentary on Torah: II, pp. 203-4)
And what was the first lesson in that journey? The Torah records that the Jewish people came to Marah, but they could not drink its waters due to their bitterness. After the people complained to Moshe, he cried out to Hashem, Who (Supreme Botanist that He is) showed him a tree. Moshe threw it in the water, and the water became sweet. The verse goes on to allude to certain laws that Hashem then commanded Moshe to reveal to the Jewish people.
Citing a beautiful commentary from the Bahir (an early classic of Jewish mysticism), Rabbi Elie Munk explains that the incident at Marah symbolizes all the myriad obstacles that Satan (personification of evil) places in the path of the Jewish people throughout our history--all the bitter waters which we've been forced to drink throughout the ages. What has always been the universal remedy, and guarantee of our survival (physical and spiritual)?
The Torah and its commandments--that "tree of life" which has the power to sweeten what is bitter. (The Call of the Torah)
It is only the constant study (and companionship) of the Torah that can nurture and sustain our faith in G-d, that can keep our perspective elevated and save us from the constricted mode of bitterness and complaint. People are always saying to me: "Rabbi, if only G-d would show me a miracle, then it would be easier to believe (or practice)." Maybe…but I'm not convinced its effects would last very long. Look at this parsha. Rather, it is the purifying effect of one's faithful study and practice of Torah (and, even more, of one's honest effort to do so) that keeps our consciousness expanded, and our neshamah alive.
Next time anyone brings up the miracle thing with me, I just might tell him or her to go climb a tree. The tree of life! Sweet and plentiful waters (and fruits) will then surely be their blessing.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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