David Finamore–Rossler’s D’var Torah
Shabbat shalom and happy Passover. My Torah portion is B’shallach. In this parsha, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt. Soon afterward, Pharaoh changes his mind about freeing his slaves and sends his troops after them. God parts the sea, letting the Israelites pass, and then drowns the Egyptians. The Israelites sing the famous “Song of the Sea” in their joy and relief before embarking on their forty–year–long journey through the desert. A week ago, when we read about this story at our seders, we sang Dayeinu. Dayeinu literally means “It Would Have Been Enough for Us,” but the Jewish people do not seem to express that in the Torah. In fact, the Israelites say exactly the opposite. Instead of expressing gratitude for each miracle, they seem to think that each one will be the last. They are afraid that God will abandon them and repeatedly accuse Moses of leading them into the desert to die. The Jewish people don’t yet know how to be free. Because they had been slaves in Egypt for so long without rescue, they don’t believe that Moses and God are reliable protection. But they also feel that they can’t stand on their own. This is all clearly displayed when Israel is trapped against the Red Sea. Should they have tried to save their own lives or wait for God to save them? The ancient rabbis had the same question and came up with an alternative reading of the text. In a midrash, they introduced the idea that God didn’t part the sea by Godself. They look at the specific line “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground” and ask, “And if they went upon ‘dry ground,’ then why does it say ‘into the midst of the sea’? This is to teach that the sea was divided only after Israel had stepped into it, and the waters had reached their noses—only then did it become dry land.” This is such a key moment in our history that we and the rabbis would like to model ourselves after Jews who were active and faithful enough to walk into the sea and risk death rather than remain enslaved because they were too scared and passive to listen to God’s unusual command. After forty years in the desert, the Israelites grow into a more mature and responsible people. Perhaps the reason they are so much more “grown up” than the previous generation is because in their lifetime, or at least memory, God hasn’t performed any extreme miracles, so they learn how to get things done themselves. This is also our challenge now. How can we be a free nation and also be a nation that was delivered by God? We still want to have faith in God while at the same time not being so dependent that we wait for God to get things done for us. One of Kolot Chayeinu’s core beliefs is—as some version of our prayer book says—that we should “pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on us.” On the one hand, in letting go of our independence, we become more grateful and humbled in our appreciation of God, but on the other, we can’t wait for God to do something about our problems. One way of expressing our independence is through interpretation. When I first learned that the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzraim, which literally means Narrow Place or Narrow Land, I immediately thought of narrow as meaning limited opportunity or a place of narrow-mindedness. Maybe as the Israelites leave Egypt or the Narrow Place, they're leaving behind limited options and going to a place of greater opportunity; they’re leaving narrow–mindedness for expansive or open–minded thinking. Open–mindedness is an aspect of Judaism that I feel especially connected to. Kolot Chayeinu is a community that keeps an open mind about Judaism, Israel and our own government’s policies. For example, right after September 11 at the High Holiday services, our rabbi invited a Muslim woman to come and speak to our congregation. It was incredibly interesting to hear what she had to say and I appreciated it even more when my parents told me how unusual it was. We gained greater insight into the world after that service, and saw the events of 9/11 in a new way. Judaism also displays great concern for humanity and providing opportunities for the less fortunate. This is another kind of exodus from the Narrow Place. For my mitzvah project, I’m donating a portion of my gifts to P.S. 231, where my mother teaches severely emotionally disturbed students. Over the years, I’ve seen firsthand how children there face tremendous hardships and how much luck can shape our lives. I’ve also seen that people committed to helping can really provide these kids with a chance to succeed, even when circumstances make success so difficult. Just like the Israelites of the Torah, we should all leave the Narrow Land, step into the water, and be a part of making the world a just place.