I can tell when students aren’t really in the mood to tackle the learning at hand. Distractions and tangents happen on occasion, and the students know I have a soft spot for encouraging and answering their questions about Judaism and religion. The “why” questions are the exception and often my biggest challenge. The problem comes when we have specific material to cover, and when one “why” question is asked, I can be sure ten more are on the way. It’s inevitable that “why” questions lead to more questions, not to satisfactory answers. If I’m feeling particularly creative, I’ll find a way to tie the answer to a why question back to what we’re learning, even if indirectly. Ultimately, I want the students to understand that asking will only get them so far; eventually they need to take on the responsibility of doing.
This week’s parshah, parshat Beshalach, begins the Israelites’ journey from the land of Egypt to their own land and their destiny. We find a tired and hungry people, wanting to take more than they should when God provides manna, and a thirsty people when the water does not meet their standards. Exodus is a roller-coaster of emotions; the Israelites are excited one minute and disappointed the next. They long for their time in Egypt where slavery was harsh, but simple and predictable.
On the third day of their journey, after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites are thirsty, having had no fresh water since they left. When they finally find a place with water, they are bitterly disappointed to find that the place is called “marah” (bitter) and that the water lived up to the name. Frustrated, the Israelite people demand Moshe to find them water. And Moshe, equally frustrated, calls out to God.
The text explains that God tells Moshe to throw a piece of wood into the water, and it will be sweet. However, a midrash explains the interaction differently. The midrash envisions Moses asking God, “Why did You create brackish water in Your world, a liquid that serves no purpose?” God replies, “Instead of asking philosophical questions, do something to make the bitter waters sweet.” Do something. Take action to solve the problem.
The principles of activism have always played a large role in what makes us human, and we live in an age where the message of acting for a cause is prevalent. We’ve seen it in the campaign to “Get out the vote,” the Occupy movement, and elsewhere. We take a stand for our beliefs by writing letters to our representatives, boycotting or supporting certain businesses, and raising money for organizations. Asking why is the first step, but we don’t just ask why. We’ve learned we have to take action to solve the problem.
In parshat Beshalach, Moshe demonstrates the power of action. The waters could not become sweet on their own; they needed a catalyst for change. So too, we learn that our questions help us identify the space for change, but only our actions can take what’s bitter and make it sweet.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Do you ask why things are the way they are? Or, like Robert Kennedy, do you dream big and ask why not? Is there merit to both?