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Crossing the Sea in Every Generation

This d’var Torah on parashat Beshalakh was delivered at the January 2019 board meeting of Reconstructing Judaism by by Seth Rosen, board chair.

On the first night of Convention, Rabbi Sid Schwarz joked about how happy he was to be addressing the largest gathering of Reconstructionists since Mt. Sinai. As I sat down to write about Beshalakh, this week’s parshah, the first thing that struck me was how right he was. Beshalakh doesn’t tell us who was at Sinai – but it sure seems like there were lot of Reconstructionists at the crossing of the sea.

Of course, Beshalakh begins with the escape from Egypt, the parting of the sea, and the destruction of the Egyptian army as the sea closes in at just the right moment. If anyone was inclined to be impressed by a supernatural god who could suspend the laws of nature to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, this would be the time. The Israelites have just lived through the ten plagues, and now they have witnessed directly the most awesome display of supernatural legerdemain that is revealed to humans anywhere in the Torah.

And they are impressed. They tell us so in Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea:

“God is my strength and my might. God has become my deliverance. This is my God, whom I will enshrine; The God of my father, whom I will exalt.” (Ex. 15:2)

“Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” (Ex. 15:11)

Unlike any other generation, they have seen directly the work of a supernatural god who can suspend the laws of nature for their benefit – and their unquestioning faith lasts for exactly three days.

Then they get thirsty, and few days later they get hungry. They grumble, they complain, they question why they have been led out to the wilderness to die of thirst and starvation. And they start to focus on the practical: “How is this new relationship with God going to make my life better than it was?” “The sea thing may have been awesome, but how is my faith in this divine presence going to sustain me from day to day?” Commentary in Etz Hayim suggests: “It may be that it is hard to nourish one’s faith today on the basis of yesterday’s miracle. The miracle does not last; only the daily triumph over adversity endures. Jewish faith is not rooted in miracles; the generation that crossed the sea did not maintain their faith for more than three days after that event. Jewish faith is rooted in daily experience…” (I see your “deeply rooted”, now show me some “boldly relevant.”)

Stripped of whatever security their enslavement in Egypt may have provided them, the Israelites are not so eager to build a new civilization on the basis of awesome supernatural wonders, but instead demand – or at least grumble – that they need to understand how this new religious civilization will sustain them. Why be Jewish, when you can sit by the fleshpots of Egypt and eat your fill of bread? If we are going to choose to follow Moses and his god, we must see how this newly hatched civilization will sustain us before we can focus on how it might elevate us. The Talmud teaches: “Providing everyone with enough to eat is as difficult as the splitting of the sea.” (BT, Pesachim 118A)

Sound familiar? Lots of Reconstructionists crossed that sea.

I would like to focus on Beshalakh’s lessons about leadership. Those of us in this room, live or on Zoom, are, collectively, leaders of the Reconstructionist movement: board members, senior staff, rabbis, faculty members, camp directors, student rabbis and lay leaders of our home congregations. All of us have assumed — for at least a time, and some for an entire career — the obligations of leadership. Leadership in a movement predicated on the idea that in each generation we have the obligation to create the Jewish community in which we want to live. Not only is everyone a Jew by choice, but every day is the third day after the crossing of the sea. At each moment we ask ourselves, “How are we going to build a religious civilization that will sustain us and elevate us – today and tomorrow?” So, if we are perpetually in that moment, if every day offers the dawn of new stage of Jewish peoplehood, it is pertinent to ask ourselves what the Torah teaches us about how to respond to the demands of leadership in that moment.

Beshalakh and this week’s haftarah offer us several examples of leadership. I would like to talk about three – starting with Moses, of course, and Miriam, who in this parshah emerges for the first time as a leader in her own right.

1. Our tradition offers an interesting discussion about the nature of Moses’ leadership after the crossing of the sea. The Torah tells us that after the Egyptian army is destroyed, “Moses and the Israelites” sang a song of praise. The rabbis ask, “how exactly did Moses lead the people in song?” Akiva argues that Moses alone sang all of the verses, and the people simply responded after each one with the words“The Lord is my strength and my might.” Moses was the preacher, and the people answered “amen.” Another tradition argues that Moses recited each line, and the people repeated exactly what he said – as if he were teaching them exactly what words of praise they should say. A third tradition, embraced by Rashi, says that all the people were blessed with divine inspiration and, miraculously, Moses and the people all recited exactly the same words at exactly the same time.

To me the most interesting – especially for us – is a fourth view: that Moses began each verse and the people then repeated what he said and completed the verse. So, for example, Moses began by saying “I will sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously,” and the people responded “I will sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.” In this fourth view, Moses does not lead by telling the people what to think or say, or waiting for Hashem to provide the inspiration. Rather, he creates a framework in which the people can find their own voice – can articulate their own conception of God and define their relationship with God. In each phrase, he sets the scene, and allows the appropriate response to emerge from the voice of the people. In this view, he is partnering with the people to enable them to create their own vision of what it means to be in community with this god. In this view, Moses does not dictate but rather nurtures the emergence of this brand-new conception of Jewish peoplehood.

2. Next, the Torah says: “Then Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.” (Ex. 15:20) According to midrash, taking the initiative is the main thing. Miriam sparks the women’s enthusiasm and they stream after her, following her lead. She enriches the women’s spiritual experience with music, dance and song. The Torah underscores her great influence by saying – improbably – that “all” the women followed her lead. Miriam starts with doing – not believing or belonging. Follow me. Just dance.

Miriam is focused on the people around her. These people are scared. The sea has closed behind them, cutting them off from the only security they have ever known. They have followed this God into the wilderness; they don’t know where they are going. They are running out of water, they have a limited amount of food, and they don’t know where their supplies will come from. They are irrevocably committed to following this God – but where to? And what do they know about this God? They have just witnessed the plagues, which were for their benefit, but which were also an awesome display of brutal power. The sea split in front of them, but then closed on the Egyptian army in what would have been a horrifically violent episode. They haven’t yet been to Sinai. They don’t know what will be required of them or what God’s promise to them will be. So they are awestruck, and although blessed with an awesome protector, they don’t really know what they have gotten themselves into. And in the midst of this confusion, at the climax of this awesome display of violent power, Miriam reaches out to them and provides a transcendent spiritual moment that lifts them out of their fear and draws them together. Dance. Play music. Sing. Find a way to join your spirit with the people around you so that you can transcend the immediacy of your fear. The rest will come later. Miriam builds a spiritual community by providing the environment in which spiritual communion can emerge.

3. There is one more leader whose understanding of the demands of leading of the Jewish people seems to evolve dramatically right before us in a few sentences this parshah – God.

I propose that in this parshah God begins to see that the establishment of Jewish peoplehood will require God to partner with the Jewish people in a covenantal relationship – that a holy community can only exist on earth through an active partnership between God and the people who choose to embrace the divine. In Chapter 14, verse 13, as the Egyptian army advances, the people turn to Moses in fear. Moses says: “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.” You don’t have to do anything to defend yourselves. Hashem will provide. Just stand by and have faith. As we have seen, this community based on faith alone is short-lived: it lasts about three days until there is a water crisis, and then the people start to turn against Moses and his awesome God.

And God reacts by what I can only describe as getting mad – and I have to say it really doesn’t help the situation. After the first revolt over water, God says to them: “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all God’s laws, then…” – and you think God is going to say, “I will feed you and protect you” – but instead God says, “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians.” I can picture myself standing there thinking: “What? Won’t smite me like you smote the Egyptians? I didn’t even know that was on the table. I didn’t think I had that problem. I just wanted water. Now I have to worry about that? Who is this God?”

And the effect is stunning. Stunningly bad. As the food runs out and another water crisis emerges the people’s reaction is worse – there is more complaining, more longing for Egypt, more questioning of God. And God’s approach changes. The manna comes — but in order to be fed, the people need to take some initiative: to gather the food for themselves. There are lots of rules: only take a single portion on Sunday through Thursday and don’t leave it overnight; take a double portion on Friday and leave the surplus overnight; don’t even look for anything on Shabbat. God is providing, but the people need to partner with God. God will provide the food, but also the rules that will begin to shape their moral behavior.

Lastly, there is war with Amalek. Contrast that with the first fight against the Egyptians: then, all that was required of the people was to stand by and witness God’s deliverance. Now, they need to fight for themselves. They may be inspired by Moses’s leadership, but they must fight against the Amalekites for their own survival.

Over a few sentences, the nature of God’s relationship with this new civilization has changed. It will require a covenantal relationship – a partnership – to complete the Israelites’ transformation from an enslaved people to a holy religious civilization. As we know, as the story progresses God will decide that the generation born in slavery is just not able to do what is required of them to complete their liberation – to occupy the land that was promised to Abraham and to build a nation. A new generation must emerge before the Israelites can become the Jewish people.

So where does that leave us? Obviously, there are lots of ways to read this story. I choose to see Moses, Miriam, and ultimately God, as seeing that their role as leaders is to facilitate the emergence of Jewish civilization from the lives of the community around them. To nurture – and maybe, if you are in fact God, to guide – but ultimately to recognize that Jewish civilization will evolve from the lives of the Jewish people in partnership with that which we recognize as divine.

We are not Moses or Miriam, and certainly not that other character. But I think we should recognize that as leaders of this movement we will best serve the Jewish people by finding, nurturing and sharing with others the best expressions of Jewish community that emerge from the lives of the Jewish people. Rabbis and laity. Movement leadership and congregations. We need to partner with one another and nurture the Jewish living that emerges from that partnership.

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