On My Own – Parshat Beshalach 5780


One of the things I often hear when I meet with congregants is the fear that the way they believe in God is the “wrong” way. They feel that their belief in God doesn’t mirror or match that of their parents, friends, children, or the Jewish population in general, so it must be incorrect or uninformed. The conversation often follows the same formula: “Here’s the God I don’t believe in” or “Here’s the God my parents or friends believe in, and it doesn’t fit me.” I usually ask them to describe the God they do believe in, and that question is often met with silence. Then I then remind the person sitting in my office that the relationship with God is an individual one. Yes, there are laws and boundaries that religion puts up, but our relationship with God is primarily our own; it’s dependent on nothing other than our own sense of belief in something greater. I wonder, what is there to be gained by comparing our belief in God with another’s?

Parshat Beshalach, which we read this Shabbat, is perhaps more associated with water than any other parshah because it contains the crossing of Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds, commonly referred to as the Red Sea. After the children of Israel leave Egypt, they journey with Moses through the wilderness until they reach the bank of the sea, stranded between the body of water and their pursuers, the Egyptians. After the Israelites safely cross to dry land, the water, which parted to save their lives, closes in on the Egyptians. 

As the Israelites are crossing the sea, they sing a song, which contains the lyrics, “The Lord is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.” It has always struck me as an odd line – that we exalt and honor God because our ancestors did, not because of our own experience with God. We know that’s the origin of faith for most people: our parents teach us their faith, and we develop a connection to it and then grow in our faith as we explore it as adults. Nevertheless, to praise God for only someone else’s experience feels out of place to me.

Instead, I think the Song of the Sea is a call to all of us to find that moment when we can sing out in God’s glory and have our own discovery of God in our own lives. Obviously we’re not all going to literally have a sea split and walk through it, but each and every one of us is likely to experience some moment of awe in our lives if we pay attention long enough. Each one of us is capable of having a Sinai moment.

Parshat Beshalach is the yearly reminder to open our eyes and understand our faith in God as individuals, not as one prescribed template. It’s a chance to remember that while our ancestors experienced this great big miracle and God moment, we can be just as receptive to wondrous experiences if we open our eyes to the possibility.

Wishing it Away – Parshat Beshalach 5779


As a parent of young children, I live in a world of contradictions. I always have two simultaneous thoughts running through my head: I want my children to remain in the stage they are currently in forever, and at the same time I want them to move out of this terrible phase and mature already. And it never fails; the minute they’ve reached a new milestone, I go through the same emotions again.  Sleep through the night? Sure, but then I miss those sweet, intimate snugly moments at 3 a.m. when nothing else matters. Get yourself dressed? Wahoo, except that also means relinquishing control over what outfits get put together.

A popular way to examine the relationship between God and the Israelites is as that of parent and child, and the notion of stages of growth fits that comparison perfectly.

When they found themselves in Egypt, naturally they were unhappy as slaves. The minute they were free, the harsh realities of that freedom made them yearn for the comfort of what was familiar.

In Parshat Beshalach we read:

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?”

This tendency is human at a basic level. No situation, no moment in time is going to be without its own harsh realities. In reading about this phase of the Israelites’ journey into freedom, we are reminded to take a step back and reflect as objectively as possible before proceeding. We can attempt to wish away the phase, or we can set about doing the work necessary to change the reality into something better.

Does that mean I won’t long for the days of easier airplane trips and reliable nap schedules? Of course I will, but I will do so knowing I made the most of each phase to prepare myself for the next one.


Sing Out Loud – Parshat Beshalach 5778


Fun fact: When Duncan and I get called to the Torah for an aliyah, Duncan lets me start the blessing a split second before him so that he can match my key and we don’t sound terrible. That is to say, I do not think of myself as a singer. I can chant with the best of them and lead services with gusto, but when it comes to carrying a tune or leading something with a complex melody, I am just not comfortable. I am grateful to Cantor Bitton and Ilene Safyan for fulfilling that role for me when I lead services (and believe me, you should be as well). Honestly, I don’t even like to sing in the shower. For most of my life, I was told I was plagued with the “Tarnoff tone,” and like those women on my mom’s side of the family, I believed we all couldn’t carry a tune.

Nevertheless, music is a big part of my life. I’m married to an avid singer, and we named our daughter Shiri (“my song”) in tribute to my father’s love of music. I was determined that no matter how her voice sounded, we would not plague her with thoughts that she couldn’t sing. Shiri loves to sing. Everything we do or say gets put into a song. Quiet play is almost always punctuated by quiet singing to herself, and, when appropriate, she has no trouble singing out loud and singing out strong.

This idea, while familiar to fans of Sesame Street or the Carpenters, actually has its roots in the Torah. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this week, is notable for showing the power of song. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them as well as moments marking the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards.

In the middle of all of this we read the “Song of the Sea.” In this moment the Israelites are overwhelmed with emotion. They have just left slavery and are not quite free yet. They see the waters ahead of them, the Egyptians behind them, and the instinct is to sing. You can almost picture this song, tears running down their faces, freedom in their grasp. And singing. Moses didn’t worry about how his voice sounded in this moment, he simply sang. Miriam took the timbrel and danced her heart out. Imagine what a free flowing release of music this was.

Thanks to my musical husband, Duncan, I’ve since learned that I can sing, I just need to focus on singing in my own key when I’m leading and backing off a little to find the key when I’m singing with others. We read the words of Parshat Beshalach and are reminded that we aren’t supposed to leave the singing to just professional vocalists. Music is a part of life, and singing is our individual expression of that. So as the song says, “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing.”





Calories Don’t Count on Shabbat – Parshat Beshalach 5777


I watch what I eat. That’s not to say I’m never tempted. Of course I sometimes cave to my favorites (just about anything with cheese and anything with chocolate), but often it feels like I spend all day trying to be good so that I won’t feel sad later. It’s on Shabbat when I allow myself to splurge a little; Friday night and Saturday are usually what you might call my carb fest days when I loosen the restrictions. We use the phrase “everything in moderation” for a reason. Moderation in all aspects of our lives – not just mealtime – means the “pain” we endure is a little more tolerable and the pleasurable moments just a little more rewarding.

In our Torah portion this week the Israelites are leaving Egypt, and they too are learning about moderation. In Parshat Beshalach we read about the Israelites crossing the sea and God’s great act to save them. As we know, the Israelites are quick to sing praises to God for this incredible miracle and just as quick to turn bitter, complaining that the desert isn’t all they might have imagined. To be fair to the Israelites, they were probably just “hangry.” After all, they endured famine in Egypt only to try to survive in the desert on the run. Perhaps this explains how we got our association with food-based traditions.

To help them survive in the desolate environment, God sends down manna, a sap-like substance that mysteriously tasted like whatever they wanted it to. The rule was you could take what you needed and no more. On Shabbat the people were expected to take double the amount of food for themselves so they’d have enough to last through the holy day. Unfortunately they get greedy in their rationing, and as a punishment the manna tastes rancid. But if you’ve ever been to a buffet on an empty stomach, you can hardly blame them. When your eyes (and options) are bigger than your stomach, your plate is suddenly overflowing because you’ve taken more than you could possibly eat.

This concept of a double potion, Lechem Mishneh, is referenced in the Bible just this once, but it is because of this verse that we have two loaves of challah on the table for Shabbat and festivals. And it is because of this that I allow myself to indulge just a little bit more each Shabbat. It’s all about balance.

Parshat Beshalach reminds us that we have a weekly opportunity – obligation even – to indulge as long as we maintain for ourselves a normal routine of fitness, spiritual care, and healthy eating the rest of the week. Everything in moderation.


Thirsty For More – Parshat Beshalach 5776

Thirsty For More

If you see me on a regular basis, you’ve seen the purple CamelBak water bottle that I carry everywhere. It may surprise you to learn that for most of my life I hated (I mean really HATED) drinking plain water.  There was nothing fun or flavorful about it, and it was a huge chore to force down anything other than Diet Coke.  At age twenty-five I decided it was time to take control of my weight, my health, and my future, so I started drinking water.

I didn’t quit the colors and flavors cold turkey of course. First it was flavored, carbonated water, then it was diluted flavored water, then just carbonated water. Finally, I could stomach plain old water. My water bottle became like an appendage, and I felt totally lost without it by my side. At a certain point, I started to crave water so much that I was drinking up to four liters a day. That ended soon after I started teaching and had long stretches in the classroom. However, to this day I can’t go more than twenty minutes without craving a delicious gulp of room-temperature water from my little personal reservoir.

Water is a life force and a life-sustaining force.  From the moment of our conception, we are immersed, and we use water throughout our lives to clean, purify, hydrate, and refresh. I’ve written before about the use and symbolism of water in the Torah. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this Shabbat, is perhaps more associated with water than any other parshah because it contains the crossing of Yam Suph. After the children of Israel leave Egypt, they journey with Moses through the wilderness until they reach the bank of the Sea of Reeds, stranded between the body of water and their pursuers, the Egyptians. After the Israelites safely cross to dry land, the water, which parted to save their lives, closes in on the Egyptians.

Not long after this water-based miracle, the Israelites complain about their water supply and the taste of it. The Israelites clearly know they need water to survive, and yet they don’t seem to have a grasp on the type or how much they might need. We learn in chapter 15 that the Israelites traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. Even if my CamelBak wasn’t a constant companion, three days would still be too long to go without water. Our sages delve deeper into this particular span of time and ask, why is three days so notable? They teach that water in the Torah is actually a symbol of Torah itself, and just as the body cannot go three days without water, the soul cannot go three days without some life-sustaining contact with Torah. Interestingly, this is also the reason why we never go more than three days in a row without reading Torah.

What is the life-sustaining force in this metaphor for you? What is the thing you need a regular supply of to refresh and revitalize your spirit? Whether it’s learning, running, cooking, or making music, the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness reminds us to partake every day of the things that nourish our souls as well as our bodies.