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Torah Portion: Beshalach

Book of Exodus

Chaps. 13:17-17:16

January 22, 2016

            The day of reckoning has arrived. The ancient Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, stand at the shores of the Red Sea. Before them lie the dark depths of the sea. Behind them is the quickly advancing army of Pharaoh. What do they do, march into the sea or surrender to the Egyptians?

“Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.” (Exo. 14:13) 

            The reader knows that God split the waters allowing the Israelites to flee across the Red Sea to freedom. My colleague Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests understanding this story not literally, but metaphorically. What if the sea never split? Instead, the Israelites chose to meet their fate in the waters of the Red Sea rather than return to a life of servitude.

The Hasidic master Dov Baer of Mezritch teaches there is a place called Nothingness through which everyone must pass before becoming something new. In explaining this teaching, Rabbi Kushner notes, “This is a place of terror. When you enter the Nothingness, there can be no guarantees . . . Such a place contains both a thing and an opposite: Sea and dry ground. Life and death. Good and evil. Slavery and freedom.”

In that instant the Israelites marched into the sea, into the abyss of nothingness chancing being lost forever or reborn anew. By surrendering to the waters of the Sea rather than the Egyptian army, the Israelites gave up their former life, passing through the place of nothingness only to discover a new life of freedom on the other side.

We each find ourselves caught between the consuming fire of personal want and the frozen tundra of the unknown. Moving forward means passing through the place of nothingness. It is a risk we all face. Unless, and until, we are willing to take that step, make that leap; we may never discover what life has in store on the other side.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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