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Be-shallaḥ - Action

Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

 “Then Adonai said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.’” - Exodus 14:15-16

 

P’shat – Explanation

Curiously, in this passage God rebukes Moses by saying, “Why do you cry out to me?” when according to the Torah text itself, it doesn’t appear that Moses is crying out to God at all, but rather rebuking the Israelites for not having faith in God’s saving power. God’s question to Moses clearly suggests that by dismissing the people’s totally understandable fears as they challenge God, Moses is actually challenging God as well.

In a famous midrash on this passage, Shemot Rabbah 21:8, God hears Moses berating the people for lacking faith as the Egyptian army bears down on them at the edge of the sea and says to Moses, “There is a time to shorten prayers and a time to draw them out. My children are in dire distress, the sea has fenced them in and the enemy is pursuing. So how can you stand there and multiply prayers?! Tell the children of Israel to go forward.” In other words, God chastises Moses for standing around talking with the people about God’s deliverance when in fact Moses needs to demonstrate God’s deliverance by taking action to remedy the situation and in so doing he will naturally alleviate the people’s fears.  This incident became a lesson in leadership for the Rabbis, reminding them— and all of us in positions of responsibility—that too often we squander our time and credibility by continually talking about our intentions to help our communities rather than simply taking the actions that will fulfill our promises to improve their lives.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“The human mind can be impelled not only by compulsive fears and anxieties, but also by propulsive hopes and assurances.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

 

The Israelites’ crossing of the sea was a “water shed moment” in both the literal and spiritual/metaphorical senses of the term. It was a tremendous act of faith for all concerned. What gave the Israelites the courage to follow Moses into the Sea of Reeds, where they very well might drown?  Fear, certainly, given the pursuing Egyptians, for when it comes to human behavior, fear is often the most powerful motivator.

Yet Kaplan reminds us, human motivations are complex and rarely come from a single source alone. His idea speaks to another reason the Israelites crossed the sea en masse. More powerful than simply the fear of continued slavery to the Egyptians was the hope and assurances of a better life, free from bondage, in the Promised Land.

A similar principle applies to leadership.  True leaders do not rely on a community’s fear and anxiety alone to impel people to act, but harness the community’s positive hopes and dreams to inspire them to act together to build a better future for all.

Kaplan also wrote, “Our past is not merely to supply wants but to create wants, furnish information and supply inspiration.”[i] In our story the Israelites’ experience of slavery forges their desire for liberation and inspires them to follow Moses out of Egypt into the unknown. A generation later, after forty years of trials and tribulations coupled with moments of transcendence and revelation, the people arrive in the Promised Land. Here we are thousands of years later, and that same Promised Land is now our Jewish homeland reborn.

As Kaplan suggests, the hopes, dreams and promises of a better life continue to propel the Jewish people forward to create and embrace our own destiny.

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

The Strength and Faith of Immigrants

In the early years of the twentieth century, my grandfather fled Russia to avoid conscription and military service in the Tsar’s army. Fearing for his life and the life of his family, he was determined to create a new and better life in America.

Like so many before him, he landed in New York not knowing a soul. A hustler on the dock who spoke Yiddish tricked him into boarding a bus touted to take him to a place where he would immediately find work for a mining company. Upon arrival, he and other unsuspecting immigrants discovered that the “work” was in fact forced labor at the mercy of an unscrupulous company that imprisoned them in a mining camp in the mountains. He had no idea where he was and couldn’t speak a word of English. It took him weeks to plan his escape, flee, and find his way back to civilization.  He began again in New York by selling small items from a pushcart.  When he had saved enough money, he made his way to Flint, Michigan, where relatives from his shtetl in Russia had settled. There he started an industrial rag company and brought his wife and daughter to America, where they had another daughter and two sons and created a successful middle-class life together.

My grandfather was among millions of immigrants who possessed the strength of character and faith in themselves to follow the American dream. After all, no matter how desperate times have gotten in any country, it is still only a small minority who have the faith, courage, and inner resolve to set out to a new land where they often don’t even speak the language and create a new life for themselves and their families.  In each generation, immigrants like my grandparents, motivated by what Kaplan called “propulsive hopes and assurances,” arrive from countries far and near, believing in themselves and risking everything to follow their dreams.

 

 

 

 

Tue, January 18 2022 16 Sh'vat 5782