Preparing for a drash is very rewarding and I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you. I'm particularly pleased to be able to do it today - not only because it is Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song of the Sea, which is such beautiful biblical poetry, but, because we also are celebrating the birthday of our good friend and well known poet, Peter Dale Scott. It must be more than a mere coincidence that Peter's birthday is celebrated today.
As most of you know, I am the co-chairperson of the Building Feasibility Committee. That project is taking considerable attention and affects many of my thoughts and experiences. My interpretation of this parasha of Beshalach receives that same twist, as you will soon hear. You may not have known this, but Parasha Beshalach is filled with secret clues about our Building Feasibility Program. Thinking about the word "Exodus" will be your first clue.
We all know the Exodus story that we just read, so I am not going to repeat it. The first verse says "Vayehi beshalach Paroah . . .It happens, when Pharaoh sent out the people that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near, for God said, "perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and return to Egypt. Now some of you may already have picked up something strange in this description. Why does the Torah say "Vayehi beshalach Paraoh; . . and when Pharaoh had let the people go"? Isn't that kind of strange? I mean, "Excuse me" but after all the plagues and the killing of the first born, it hardly seems appropriate to say that Pharaoh "let" them go. Why doesn't it say "when God brought them out of Egypt" instead of "Pharaoh let them go"?
As usual, there is a Midrash that puts forward an explanation. It says that Pharaoh had personally escorted the Israelites out of Egypt. The Egyptians had showered them with jewels and gold even weapons and requested that the Israelites say prayers on their behalf. Therefore, the Torah gives the Pharaoh credit for this behavior by saying "beshalach Paraoh".
OK - take it for what it's worth, but let's assume that since Pharaoh had "Let" the people go and even accompanied them along with a royal entourage, the people left with a good feeling toward Egypt. And that is why God in the next part of the verse states that perhaps the people MIGHT change their minds . . . and return to Egypt. God was concerned that at the slightest hint of hostility, they would rush back to Egypt and so he had to take them on a circuitous route. And, in fact, we see that that concern became a reality, when later, Moses repeatedly received taunts that "life was better in Egypt; the food was better in Egypt", and so on. Many times after a traumatic experience, I advise others to "Be gentle with yourself". And it appears that that is what Adonoy was telling the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt. Going out to a strange place is very threatening and fearful, even if the destination is the "Promised Land". The tendency for people faced with the unknown is to not leave or when difficulties arise to return to what is the norm, even to the narrow straits of pain, constraint and slavery. God was aware that the Israelites, burdened with a slave mentality of being told what to do and now having the freedom to act, had to learn to walk before they could run.
As we reflect on that transition, you can probably imagine where my mind went, when I read it. (pause) You're right. I thought about our congregation looking forward to the possible transition of leaving this site to a new one. Organizationally, we've matured, but we too do not take this transition lightly and without some fear and risk. Another story about people leaving their home is the story of Lot and his family leaving Sodom. You recall that they were instructed to not look back, but of course Lot's wife did so and was turned into a pillar of salt. Now I am not saying that we should not look backwards. It is important to know where we came from so it can help us chart where we are going. We must, however, not look back longingly with such fear of moving forward that we become fossilized, a pillar of salt. Certainly, we have the freedom to look back at the good old days when we were small and knew everyone and we could try to stay the way we were. This first verse tells us we must be gentle with ourselves and yet have the faith to move forward to even better days ahead.
Now, God gave the people the free will to leave or to return if the going got too rough. This free choice is indicated by God's words "pen yenachem"; :perhaps the people will repent and return to Egypt". Why "perhaps"? Doesn't God know what's going to happen? In reality, Judaism is a religion that believes in God's role in history, yet each individual has the freedom of choice, the free will to make life's choices. Here too, there is a parallel with the free choice of our members as we go through our transition. Some may think that we may turn the wrong way. They may want to stay back. As an alternative to that view, I hope that we can all see this period as the opportunity for free open dialogue in our community. Through respectful mutual exploration of what is the best route, we will determine what our future path will be and how we can best develop a future that will be true to our values and dreams and aspirations.
The second verse says "the children of Israel went up armed". Now, one could think that after all the wonders and miracles that the Israelites had experienced, they would think that God would take care of them on their journey and it would not be necessary to arm themselves. Yet, they armed themselves. In other words, they knew, as we say in a modern adage, "God helps those who help themselves". (Or, as the Lottery promoters tell us, "you can't win the lottery unless you buy a ticket". That ties into our new building also, but I'll hold that off for another time.) The Israelites realized that humans cannot depend on miracles. So again the parasha is referring to our building project - it will only happen if we have the determination to arm ourselves with the proper skills and to donate our time and resources to make it happen.
Moving on to the third verse, it says, " Moshe took the bones of Joseph with him, for he (Joseph) had firmly exacted an oath from the Children of Israel, saying, 'God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you.'" The Rabbi's taught that the sin of violating an oath is very great. Yet, I find this act of Moshe rather remarkable. 200 some years have passed since Joseph died. How did Moshe even know the promise that Joseph had elicited from his brothers?
The other interesting item in the verse is that it says that Moshe himself, not "they", took out the bones. This was considered such an important commitment, and an honor to fulfill that Moshe himself needed to do it, because - 1) he was the leader and 2) to properly honor Joseph. Can you imagine Moshe's checklist: Matzoh, weapons, gold, Joseph's bones? As if he didn't have enough to think about, just dealing with Pharaoh and listening to God.
Now, you are probably wondering how I am going to tie this verse to our Feasibility Project. See what you think of this: the taking out of Joseph's bones by Moshe gives credence to the statement that when you want something important done, give it to a busy person. All of our members are busy, but those that know how important it is will make time to make it happen. The verse instructs our leaders to assume full responsibility, to take action based on the past, and to fulfill past commitments, yet to look forward to the future.
A subsequent verse describes that "Adonoy, went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them on the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, . . .". Essentially, God was carrying the torch for the Israelites. By moving forward from strength to strength, we are now demonstrating our ability to carry the torch and demonstrating that we HAVE THE WILL to DO it.
As we move forward, we too must have memory and recall the commitments made by those that preceded us. We have ten years of congregational history and tradition. Even more so, we have the example of many generations that had to sacrifice and pull themselves out of deep pits to carry on our tradition. Now, we have the responsibility to carry their bones and to honor their spiritual bodies to build the link to the future of Judaism. It is our turn to blow eternal life into those bones, to move forward and to carry on their dreams and to be as described in Deuteronomy, "a light unto the nations".
Just leaving Egypt (gaining freedom) was not enough, it was only the first step. It was the long tortuous trek through the wilderness, the road to Sinai, where the foundation for the spiritual life of the Jewish people was established, where they matured spiritually and developed into the Jewish People. It was when the people stood and said "Na-aseh v'nishmah" - we will do and we will listen that established the covenant between God and the Jewish People which has continued until this day.
And as we, in this land of freedom, freely take our first step on the long trek to a new home, there will be times we will think that we are not going in the right direction and there will be murmuring along the way and it won't be easy. The Israelites knew they were going to a Promised Land, they had a destination. We too need to keep in mind the possibilities of what we can create and the opportunities for our children and us. Just as God thought about what was the best path for the Israelites, the best alternative, so we too will be thoughtful about our path. Alternatives will be carefully weighed and deliberated and decisions made. And just as in the parasha, once the decision is made, it will be time for action. Someone will have to be brave enough to step into the split sea first and the rest of us need the courage to move forward. I pray that God will help us make wise decisions, so that through our action, just as the actions of the Israelites, we will be able to move toward a place (our Sinai) where God will be revealed to us and through us.
Kay'n y'hi ratzon.