These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Lauren Henderson — Parshat Beshalach

Posted on January 23, 2013 by Emma Sevitz

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From Lauren Henderson’s (Summer ’09, Year ’10) blog:

The d’var torah (more or less) that I gave at Sunday night’s Encounter Leadership Seminar:

When I first got to Israel in the fall and started to get acquainted with the current stagnant political situation (for both domestic and foreign issues), I started to actually hope that things would get really, really bad this year. I got attached to this morbid fantasy that the Haredim would do something so horrible and offensive that the rest of Israel would have no choice but to rise up together against them and shift the power dynamic, or that (God forbid) there would be another intifada, and the brief period of violence would somehow lead to renewed peace negotiations. I knew that the situation here would probably have to get worse before it got better, but I was impatient for a quick fix. I wanted things to be resolved once and for all, and it would have been really convenient for it to happen all in the course of one academic year – right?

The desire for shortcuts and quick fixes shows up in the much-commented upon first verse of Parshat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17:

ויהי בשלח פרעה את העם ולא נחם אלהים דרך ארץ פלישתים, כי קרוב הוא, כי אמר אלהים “פן ינחם העם בראתם מלחמה ושבו מצרימה…”

And when Pharaoh was sending the people out, God didn’t lead the people by way of the Philistines, because it was close, since God said, “Lest the people be led (astray) when they see war and return toward Egypt….”

God intentionally doesn’t lead the people by the most direct path out of Egypt, because it’s the shortcut. Instead, God chooses the long, windy route through the desert. The long route isn’t safer or easier – the Israelites still encounter war, famine, and plenty of other challenges along the way – but at least there isn’t the fear that they might actually be able to return to Egypt if things get especially bad.

I think this is one of the lessons that I’m learning in a deep way this year: anything really worthwhile is going to take a long time to develop and get sorted out. It’s pretty obvious, but I’ve felt the reverberations of this truth in all parts of my life recently. I’ve felt it in the slow, steady pace of improving my Hebrew, in watching this relatively young nation grow and figure out what it will become, and especially in figuring out my own relationship to Israel as a nation and a people.

A few months ago, when I was feeling particularly despondent, I had the privilege of hearing a lecture from Rabbah Tamar Elad-Applebaum about the spiritual state of affairs in Israel today. She told it to us like it was: ”This problem will not be solved in my lifetime. In fact, it’ll probably take 100 years.” Upon first hearing that statement I was disheartened, but after the initial shock, I realized it was the most hopeful statement about Israel I had heard to date. Of course I can’t expect everything to get wrapped up nicely in a year – or even in 65! And even though things seem as hopeless as ever, as we seem to move further and further away from a peace process and a two-state solution, I have to hold onto the faith that we’re taking the long, slow path through the desert. Somewhere in the midst of all of this mess, there is a divine spark that’s continuing to grow and evolve.

It’s nice having a little more hope and perspective than I did before, but one potential consequence of becoming comfortable with the long, slow pace of change is becoming passive and disengaged from the process. If God’s doing the work behind the scenes, who are we to get involved? But the second verse of the parsha rejects that response:

ויסב אלהים את העם דרך המדבר ים סוף, וחמשים עלו בני ישראל מארץ מצרים

And God led the people by way of the Sea of Reeds desert, and the children of Israel went up armed from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 13:18)

The Israelites went up armed, even though God was leading the way. They went out into the desert prepared to meet whatever they encountered, taking their safety into their own hands. They still don’t know what direction they’re going in, or what’s going to happen to them along the way, but they have all the tools they need. And in this way, they have the ability to respond to their current reality, without feeling locked into an unknown destiny.

It takes both of these responses – the ability to be patient as a long process unfolds, and the awareness of what tools we have at our disposal to take care of ourselves in the face of the unknown – to journey into a new, uncertain world. It’s a careful balancing act between being active and passive travelers. And so, as I’m anxiously awaiting for the Israeli election results to roll in, even though everyone’s saying it’ll just be more of the same, even though there’s still not a lot of reason for optimism, I’m looking for that spark of hope. Because if God leading the Israelites the long way around was critical for the redemptive process from Egypt, then perhaps we can hope that for the State of Israel, this period is reishit tzmichat geulateinu – the first flowering of our redemption – happening today.