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.

You Can Run – Parshat Beshalach 5775

you-can-run

I ran away from camp. Yes, I was that kid.

I went to summer camp every summer from the age of 8 until the age of 15, when it was no longer a yearly priority for me. Every summer I’d pack my bags and head to sleep-away camp. Jewish residential camp provided me the opportunity to be immersed in Judaism, to live a life filled with song, dance, art, swimming, gaga, and learning.

On paper, the idea was magical. In reality, the intense experience of living in close quarters with twelve girls in one cabin for eight weeks was often just a little too much for this introvert. Like clockwork, I’d find myself overwhelmed by the intensity of experiences and emotions, and I’d get the urge to run . . . away. I became known as the runaway camper because once every summer, when something overwhelmed me, I would bolt from my cabin down the dirt road, out the camp gate (before we had locked gates). I’d take off down the road, running as fast as I could until I could just barely see the camp sign. I was a counselor’s dream, as you can imagine. And every year my counselor would tell me, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” In other words, the thing that upsets you or bothers you won’t change just by running away from it.

There’s some comfort in knowing the Israelites tried to run away from their problems too. This week we read 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 moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them and moments of 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. Exodus, like a 40-year sleep-away camp, is a rollercoaster of emotions.

In Egypt, the life of the Israelites was harsh and exhausting. There was no independence and no possibility of change. When God and Moshe offer them the opportunity to leave this environment, they can’t get out fast enough. The Israelites were running from their “problem” of slavery. Once in the wilderness, they realize whether you’re free or enslaved, life is not without its problems. As the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Hassidic rabbi taught, “Often in life, we think we can escape our problems by running away, only to find our problems running after us.”

Did my escaping from camp solve anything or simply create new problems? Likely a little of both. Allow me to paint my fleeing from camp in a new light. Yes, it was a misguided solution that probably scared and annoyed my counselors, but it was also my way of removing some of the pent-up frustration so I could clear my head and return with fresh eyes and calmer emotions.

Even once the Israelites are out of reach of the Egyptians, perhaps in their minds they’re still fleeing. Perhaps the real “running away” is their use of a new, defiant voice that, for the first time, is able to make itself heard loud and clear.

The Long Road Home – Parshat Beshalach 5774

In the months preparing for the birth of our first child, I found myself drawn into several parenting books and blogs that offered suggestions for surviving the inevitable lack of sleep I’d soon be experiencing.  I asked my own mom how she comforted me when I was a baby in the hope that I would develop a foolproof strategy for getting the baby (and us) to sleep.  One of the most often suggested strategies was the road trip, even if it just meant circling the block a few times.  There is something about the way the movement of the car rocks a baby to sleep that feels like magic.  Of course, sometimes this means taking the long road home on purpose just to gain some peace and quiet.

The goal of a little peace and quiet is no different in this week’s Torah portion, parshat Beshalach, and interestingly the solution is similar as well.  This week we find the children of Israelon their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness.  The Egyptians run after them, but God stepsin and saves them.  Like life with a toddler, the Israelites’ journey is a mix between awe and wonder at the new, free world around them and temper tantrums directed at God for any particular hardship.  Witnessing this behavior, God realizes that a short “point A to point B” ride in the car (or trek in the desert) isn’t going to make them appreciate the Promised Land more, so the Israelites are sent the long way to get to Israel.

Ibn Ezra picks up on the new, longer route and suggests that the reasoning behind this is that God did not want the Israelites to arrive at the Promised Land too soon.  Having been slaves all their lives, they would not have been prepared to conquer Canaan until they had a lengthy experience of freedom.  Simply put, the Israelites needed time to stretch their legs; they’d been enslaved far too long to understand real freedom. Entering Israel too quickly would leave them without a true sense of the gift they had received.

On the other hand, Rambam takes this notion of a long arduous journey to mean that God was letting the Israelites cry it out. The long trek was God’s way of making them accustomed to the hardships they would encounter as they entered the land.

An earlier commentary found in the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Eiruvin suggests a combination of these two ideas.  “There is a long way which is short and a short way which is long.” The Talmud is saying that both philosophies, the soothing car ride and the long, fussy road, can both be beneficial.

Most importantly, learning that the Israelites took the long route teaches us that easy isn’t always better.   Had God led them hastily into the land, they would have become too complacent about their freedom and would immediately expect the next big, grand gesture from God.  In the end, the Israelites learned to better appreciate what God had done for them and how to recover from mistakes made along the way.  Ultimately, it isn’t about whether the road is long or short; it’s about making sure the journey means as much as the destination.

Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something – Parshat Beshalach 5773

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 parshahparshat 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?