Carry You With Me – Parshat Beshalach 5781

There are certain items I take with me wherever I go in life. I have a small siddur that lives in my backpack. I wear a necklace daily with my children’s initials on it so that they are always near my heart, and often my father’s Jewish star necklace accompanies me for special and important occasions. I even have voicemails saved from my mother and father that I don’t delete off my phone so I can always hear their voices. There’s something comforting about carrying with us these tangible items that connect us to our past, or to a moment of strength. Perhaps you carry a special picture or letter in your wallet or wear a loved one’s jewelry every day. Whatever it is, the object or sentiment probably brings you a similar strength, connection, and comfort.

This concept isn’t new; as far back as the Torah, communities maintained physical representations of their connection to those who came before them. We see it especially in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshalach. 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 the highs and lows of moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them, as well as moments of toddler-like exasperation at God because their journey through the desert is less than ideal. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards. Parents, you know how this goes.

Back when Moses and the Israelites are preparing to leave Egypt, they start packing their belongings, organizing their flocks, and gathering the things they might need on the journey. Moses’s packing list is shared explicitly in chapter 13, verse 19. “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath form the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’” Yes, Moses goes to get Joseph’s bones so he can carry them out of Egypt with the nation.

Why the bones? For one thing, it was Joseph’s dying wish, so that surely gives the act veracity, but what was the reason behind it? Why not an article of clothing or a tool of some kind? Perhaps the bones, which are connected to human physical strength and structure, symbolized strength of character as well. To be a proper leader in Israel, Moses needed to acquire the strength of Joseph, who dealt with similar circumstances. As a leader in Egypt, Joseph protected the region from starvation and thirst, and Moses knew the Israelites’ journey ahead might lack food and water. Joseph also forgave his brothers for their terrible treatment of him, and perhaps Moses wanted those bones as the reminder of what forgiveness might look like.

Most importantly, and maybe most obviously, through memories and objects, we carry with us those who came before us as a reminder of who we are and where we’re from. And carrying Joseph’s bones was just about the most literal way for Moses to carry his ancestor with him. These things we carry are really more about the people we carry and those they carried before us.

On My Own – Parshat Beshalach 5780

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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

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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

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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

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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.