Parsha Beshalach: Seas of Change

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites stand at the shore of the Red Sea, with an army of Egyptians behind them and uncertainty before them. The Israelites are afraid and they cry out to Moses, “Did you lead us from Egypt only so that we may die in the wilderness?” God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites, and to urge them to go forward.

What would you have done? In an ancient scriptural exegesis known as the Mechilta, Rabbi Ishmael writes that the Israelites had four different reactions to this moment.

One faction said: “Let us cast ourselves into the sea.”
A second faction said, “Let us return to Egypt.”
A third said, “Let us wage war against the Egyptians.”
A fourth said, “Let us cry out to G‑d.”

When you are feeling trapped, which one are you? Do you run forward into a new problem to escape another? Do you go back to a situation that is familiar to you, even if you know that it’s unsafe? Do you fight? Do you cry for help?

Moses has an answer for each of them.

To those who said, “Let us cast ourselves into the sea,” he said: “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of G‑d.”
To those who said, “Let us return to Egypt,” he said: “As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again anymore, forever.”
To those who said, “Let us wage war against them,” he said: “G‑d shall fight for you.”
And to those who said, “Let us cry out to G‑d,” he said: “And you shall be silent.”

It seems counterintuitive to a lot of wisdom about leadership that asks us to meet people where they are. Moses, speaking on God’s behalf, instead pushes the Israelites right out of their comfort zone. In times of urgency, leaders need to be directive.

A midrash tells of another type of leader in this story, a man named Nachshon, who dared to walk into the sea – they say that the water split when he was in up to his nose.

Maybe Nachshon trusted that God would save the Israelites. Maybe he had no idea what would happen, and preferred to drown rather than to return to enslavement. Maybe he didn’t know what else to do, so he just kept moving forward.

When have you dared to try something new, something that seemed impossible, because it was better than what you were leaving behind? What are the possibilities that found you on the other side?

We are entering a Shabbat and a long weekend replete with countless symbols of change – marches across the country on Saturday, and on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr Day coincides with Tu b’Shevat, a Jewish holiday that celebrates trees, the earth, and all things that grow. As you approach these and other moments of change this week, I invite you to consider the four ways the Israelites responded at the sea. Will you run back toward the familiar? Will you fight or cry out in fear? Or will you take that first courageous step into the unknown, singing, as our ancestors did, when you find freedom on the other side? I close this week’s Torah portion with a poem from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a blessing on this journey, and on every journey forward. Shabbat Shalom.

Cold Feet

They say cold feet are a sign of turning back,

The failure of internal will –

But I say it can be the other way,

The body’s anticipation of things to come.

Whether demons are nipping at your heels

Or gnawing within, here’s the thing:

Settle quietly, close your eyes,

Then take the most deliberate, deep breath,

As though it were the very first (God’s breath) –

And when you can feel it penetrate every bit of your being,

Making the rest of your life possible,

You open your eyes

And take that first step out into the sea of reeds.

Watered feet are just the price of coming home.

Breathless Freedom: Parsha Va’eira

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites that God will free them from slavery. The text says that the Israelites did not hear Moses in their suffering – literally due to shortness of breath, or spirit. I’m sure many of us have been in a space where we are too exhausted, too dispirited, to believe that goodness will come to us. A friend has told me that depression feels like something sitting on her chest, a suffocating heaviness that makes it impossible to believe in freedom. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because they, too, were suffering.

When God then tells Moses to demand the Israelites’ freedom, Moses says “Behold, the Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me?” The 19th century Hasidic rabbi and scholar known as Sefat Emet points out that we know why the Israelites didn’t listen. As we just explored, they couldn’t hear Moses in their suffering. Sefat Emet asks, what does the Israelites’ anguish have to do with Pharaoh’s ability to listen?

Sefat Emet posits an answer that demonstrates Moses’s leadership skills. “Moses knew that the power of a leader derives from his people. If he had not succeeded in penetrating the Israelites’ hearts, he would not be able to achieve anything on their behalf.” Sefat Emet is saying that a leader needs “buy-in.” A leader needs to meet people where they are. A leader needs to understand not only what the people need – but also the way they need to hear it. This is the only way to make change.

However, the rest of the parsha seems to disprove this concept. Moses and his brother Aaron do approach Pharaoh, over and over again, asking Pharaoh to free the Israelites. You know the story from Passover – this parsha contains the first seven of the ten plagues. Moses moves forward with the plan to free the Israelites, even though they were not ready to hear him yet. It took a long time – and many plagues, miracles, and years of wandering in the desert – before the Israelites believed that salvation was real, and that this life of freedom was theirs to hold.

Where, then, does this leave us with regard to leadership? Should Moses have waited, organized some focus groups, and taken a vote before approaching Pharoah? In this case, it was probably more important to get the process started, and to get that buy-in along the way. Maybe not the best example of organizational change management, but it got the job done.

There are many other angles to explore in this Torah portion, but for now, I’ll return to the beginning – to the Israelites in bondage, not yet ready to believe in the promise of freedom from a God they did not know. And I want to leave you with a few questions to consider.

When you are dispirited, unable to hear the voices saying that freedom is coming, what is it that finally brings you hope? Has there ever been a moment, a miracle, a person, a reminder of some kind, that helped you believe in the future? When have you been that reminder for someone else? And when have you, like Moses, decided to act, to make a change, even if your community wasn’t ready for it?

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. If your soul has been in bondage too long, may you find the path to freedom you need this week. And if you have a message of hope for others to hear, sing it. You might just be the miracle we’ve been waiting for.