Ralph’s most recent dvar torah which begins with a guided meditation and is informed by his recent work in the Jewish renewal movement and his current training in Spiritual Direction.
Lets all get comfortable for a second and if you wish you can close your eyes. Let’s take a few cleansing breath’s together and begin to imagine that we are not here on this cold winter day but instead it is warm outside. Now let’s arrive at a body of water, the edge of a lake, an ocean beach, the edge of a cliff looking out over the red sea perhaps. Usually we just stand and look out across the waves to the horizon, but today is different. We must walk in to the water. There are any number of reasons why but suffice to say we cannot stay at the shore line any longer. It’s not safe. Someone is coming. Now take a step into the water, feel you feet entering the water, keep walking, feel the water lap against you shins. Is it cold or warm. What can you hear and smell. Take another step, now feel the water rush around your thighs, envelope your pelvis and touch your waist. Do you want to turn back, or go forward. Keep walking let the water touch your ribs and as you find yourself holding your breath , let go. Keep walking till the water reaches your neck, your chin, your nose. Now realize that the ground beneath has not given way. Keep walking and feel the water recede, past your mouth your neck and your waist. Keep walking and find yourself again on solid ground. Imagine singing a soft sweet song of gratitude as you carry on with gratitude. So here we are together with Beshallach.
There is in this Parshat like so many in the Torah a lot to choose from. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart the pillar of fire, the manna from heaven. All are so rich in narrative and meaning. Today I am drawn to the moment when the Israelites and their fellow travelers are at the shores of the Red Sea and Pharaoh and his army are in hot pursuit. All they have is the Sea in front, and behind, a force bent on revenge and destruction breathing down their necks. There is no way out. After all they have been through, centuries of bondage, prayers left unanswered and faced with a journey into the literal unknown, this is to be their fate. To be slaughtered. Trapped like fools.
How did they react? I’ll leave it to the Lubavitcher Rebbes to pick up the story from here.
The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people were divided into four camps. There were those who said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” Let us plunge into the sea, they say—the sea of the Talmud, the sea of piety, the sea of religious life. Let us sever all contact with an apostate and promiscuous world. Let us build walls of holiness to protect ourselves and our own from the alien winds which storm without, so that we may foster the legacy of Sinai within. A second group said, “Let us return to Egypt.” This Exodus thing was obviously a pipe dream. How could we presume to liberate ourselves from the rules and constraints that apply to everyone else? To be G‑d’s chosen people is nice, but let us not forget that we are a minority, dependent on the goodwill of the Pharaohs who hold sway in the real world out there. A third faction argued, “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.” The Fighting Jew strides through life with a holy chip on his shoulder, battling sinners, apostates, Jew-haters, un-Jewish Jews and non-fighting Jews. Finally, a fourth camp advocated, “Let us pray to G‑d.” Ours is the world of the spirit, the world of the word”. “So, basically, your approach is to do nothing,” they counter. “Again, you are employing the standards of the material world,” answers the Praying Jew, “a world that views spiritual activity as ‘doing nothing.’ But a single prayer, coming from a caring heart, can achieve more than the most secure fortress, the most flattering diplomat or the most powerful army”.
But the answer that comes is simpler than that. Yes there are times when any of the four paths mentioned could be employed but superseding any of them is the divine directive that Moses hears. “Go forward”
So here is where my point of entry begins. It begins with the story of Nachshon.
According to Midrash when the Israelites were trapped between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh’s army, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon decided to take matters into his own hands and leaped into the sea. Then Moses hears that voice within, that mysterious wisdom voice and it says. Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel that they should move. Only then does the path clear so that the Israelites can cross. Nachshon for those who don’t know was a prince of the tribe of Judah. He was the brother-in-law of Aaron, the high priest. When everyone else hesitated, he jumped into the swirling sea. He was Nachshon, the son of Aminadav. The obvious teaching seems to be that we can muddle about and agonize over the right course of action, we can even drop to our knees and pray for divine intervention but in the end the right thing to do is to go forward. Basically God won’t help us if we will not help ourselves by engaging in this world. We are responsible for Tikkun Olam.
Rabbi Michael Cohen once suggested that perhaps Nachshon was pushed and didn’t jump intentionally into the sea. Really he’s just a poor schlub who becomes a hero despite himself. Today Nachshon’s name has become synonymous with courage and the will to do the right thing, even when it’s not popular. So let’s talk now about his leap of faith — our leap of faith. Whether intentional or as a result of being pushed. Anne Lamont, the American non-fiction writer has written extensively about spirituality. She says “My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear”.
Inspired by Nachshon, King David wrote in Psalms, “I have sunk in muddy depths, and there is no place to stand; I have come into the deep water, and the current has swept me away . . . Let not the current of water sweep me away, nor the deep swallow me, and let the well not close its mouth over me.”15
There are many things that require a Leap of Faith. Coming here to this little shul is a leap of faith, if we want it to be. Otherwise it can simply be a comfort where we can reside in the familiar, and in a many faceted sense of tribe.
Often people ask me about my belief in God. They want me to prove it. We after all live in the age of Reason. Where the rational empirical destination is held high on our collective shoulders. We are not primitive, or infantile. We are reasoned and civilized. I often respond by saying, prove love. We can’t. But we continue to build our lives around getting love, giving love and measuring the distance between the two. Dr. Vicktor Frankel in his masterpiece, Man’s Search For Meaning, tells the story of attending to a dying inmate in the Concentration Camps. He writes “This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. “she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see the one branch of a chestnut tree and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled. I didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here-I am here-I am life eternal.”
Hi Nei Ni. I am here. There is a meditative practice called Hitbodedut. Basically, this is about making a space in your life to have a talk with God. Now I know that this has been a confusing statement for me throughout my life. How can I talk with something that is unknowable? In fact lately I have come to realize that there is, for me a God of a thousand faces as the Hindus say. Each facet is another side of the diamond. There is the universal divine. The cosmological God of 500 billion galaxies and counting. That is the God that I stand and sit and stand and sit in awe of on a Saturday when we come together here. But that truth is so immense that I must also have the ability to particularize my relationship. To have a one on one as it were. This I feel in my interactions with people, places, and that still small voice that Evangelicals speak of, that inner wisdom.
This is where that Hitobedut practice comes in to play. One day I was walking in the woods at a retreat centre taking a break from my work to become a Spiritual Director and I asked, Where are you God, why is it so hard to feel your divine presence in my life. What came as I looked at the redwoods surrounding, hearing the river flow, and taking in the relentless pulse of life all around was simply this. The question is not where is God, it is, where am I? How available am I to the mystery that is always present. What can I do to go forward? To show respect for the miracle of life. Nachshon unlike all around him, did not retreat to Egypt, he did not leave it up to the divine, he did not fight and he did not throw himself in to the Sea in hopes of disappearing. He went forward. Up to his kness, his chest , his nose. He took a leap of faith.
The Christian mystic, Mesiter Eckhart says, “Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart form the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there.” He also says, “I pray to rid me of God.” He wants us to be free of human projections of God to the real thing. Matthew Fox an excommunicated Catholic Priest and leader of the Creation Spirituality movement asks “Are there human projections you need to let go of: perhaps of an all male God, a God of Judgement and condemnation? A God that spreads division, class oppression, homophobia, sexism, excessive nationalism. Did Nacshon jump or was he pushed? Does it matter? Either way he went forward.
Philosopher Harold Whitman says. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
We have arrived here at this synagogue at our 100th year and many things have changed in that time. So what do we do now? Do we pine for a simpler time? a retreat to the status quo? Rest quietly without Ruach on our traditions? Do we harden our view towards the other and see our path as a fight to survive? Do we dive into the spiritual world and leave the bigger material problems of the day for others to engage? Or, like Nachshon do we take a leap of faith together and go forward?
A few weeks back we spoke about the Israelites having fun with scrolls; how Pharaoh forbid it. I’ve been thinking about that notion of fun. Perhaps the way to the divine is neither fun nor serious. Perhaps it is better seen as a dance of joy and sorrow in which we break open our hearts. Perhaps we can renew our ways and go forward with a kavannah, an intention that includes all the tears the laughter and the soul connection that coming together offers us.
I was at a service recently where two things struck me. First, was how aliyahs were done or performed. They would start by taking an essence of the pisuk that would come next in the Torah reading and then asking that anyone who resonated with the central message of that pisuk please come up for the Aliyah. Then by touching each others shoulders all the way from the torah to the last person they recited the blessings together. It was for me to see, a leap of faith, or perhaps it’s better to say it was a leap over habit. It was heartfelt. The other piece was around Kaddish. Just before the mourners stood we were asked “If anyone wants to stand for those who have no one to say Kaddish for them please do so”. I did and my eyes welled up as I thought of all those in the world, Jew and non-Jew alike who have died alone with more loneliness than they should have had to bear. I have come to think that for Nachshon, for any of us to move forward we must break open our hearts and be available to the greater wisdom that surrounds us.
Yes we can fight, retreat, beg for the ‘good old days’ of slavery, or leave it up to God. But our religion is grounded like so many others in action. The Sikh serves lunch everyday to those who come to the Gurdwhar, the Catholic is called to service, to wash the feet of the poor. Nachshon slipped in to the water while those around him, even Moses dithered. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes this in her meditation on Beshallach:
“We have all made miraculous crossings in our lives. Recall a time when you took a leap of faith, when you took a chance and crossed over into a new way of being in the world. Remember a time when you left the slavery that you knew and set out into the unknown. If you made a crossing and did not stop to celebrate, to sing your own Song of the Sea, and to call the women out to dance with their timbrels, then you have not been properly ‘sent'”. This song of celebration isn’t optional. It is necessary to the journey. This song will carry us into the wilderness. This dance will energize us for the journey.
That is the joy I was talking about. I think we are being asked for more than our memories; more than our special status. I believe we are being asked to break open our hearts to each other and ourselves; to have the courage to sing louder, talk more openly and embrace the other. To love the stranger and ourselves a little more. So let’s end not with Nachshon but with Moses. After all the narrative of this book of Torah, The Exodus story, is often seen though the eyes of Moses. We have seen the burning bush and soon the unknowable will work through him to deliver the ten commandments that even today provide the basis for our notions of right and wrong. Perhaps the journey of Moses explains how hard it is to live our faith. How hard it is to walk in to the water and keep walking when all around us say, “Stop! Don’t be a fool. Come back”.
It is so hard to make that Leap and to hold that knowledge dear to us.
Yehuda Amichai the Israeli Poet says
“Moses saw the face of God just once and then forgot.
He didn’t want to see the desert, not even the Promised Land, only the face of God
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock, climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke the tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through fire and smoke, but he could remember only the strong hand of God and His out stretched arm, not His face”.
Moses was like a man who tries to recall the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes. He sent the pictures to all the tribes of Israel, up and down the desert, but no one had seen, no one knew. Only at the end of his life, on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing the face of God. So let us have one more thought on the Leap of Faith, the engaging of the the mystery. This again from Vicktor Frankel: “What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms”.
Like Nachshon, may we all have the strength to go forward.
“Fear less, hope more, eat less, chew more, whine less, breathe more, talk less, say more, hate less, love more, and good things will be yours.” – Swedish Proverb
In Israel there is a numeracy initiative that blends Israeli Arab and Jewish students. It’s called the Nachshon project. It to is a leap of faith and like what Nachshon did it was a call to action that had to be followed though.
It was during Operation Nachshon that the Deir Yassin massacre took place on April 9, where around 107 Palestinian villagers, including women and children, were killed by Irgun and Lehi fighters.
GUIDANCE FOR PRACTICE
There are two practices for Beshallach.
BRING YOURSELF BACK TO A MOMENT of miracle that was not fully acknowledged. It is not too late.
WE CELEBRATE THE MIRACLE of this crossing with a song and a dance that become the force of “sending” (beshallach). The power of the song and the magic of the dance propel us into the wilderness. The song lays out a formula for Salvation. My strength, “Ozi,” and the Song of God, “ve-zimratYah,” will be my salvation.(Exodus 15:2) The blessing of Beshallach comes in the balance of these two aspects.
Ozi is the force of will that I bring to this crossing — the place inside me that desires freedom and truth, and will do anything for its attainment. Ve-zimratYah is the part of me that knows how to surrender that opens to the rhythm and melody of God’s Song and gives itself unconditionally to “what is.” The blessing comes in the balance of will and surrender.
With too much will, I isolate myself from the flow of Divine Grace that moves the world. With too much surrender, I become passive and abdicate my responsibility for full partnership with God in the work of Liberation. Too much will or surrender, and I might have drowned in the sea. In the marriage of my strength of will and a surrender to the God-song, the sea of confusion splits open and the dry land appears beneath my feet.