January 13, 2022


1.14.2022 Weekly Torah Portion

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, contains one of the most iconic passages in Jewish tradition: Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea. After Moses holds out his arm over the sea, and God parts the sea and turns it into dry ground, the Jewish people cross through on dry land; although the Egyptians pursue them, God hurls them into the sea, horse along with driver. After living though this miracle, the Jewish people sing a song to God. This song of praise that the Jewish people sang on that day became known as Shirat ha-Yam, and it became a core part of traditional Jewish liturgy. We recite it every day, near the beginning of the traditional morning service – and thus, we remember the story of this miracle in this week’s parasha every single day of the year.

Now what is also included in this week’s parasha – yet not remembered with such reverence – is the repeated complaints of the Jewish people. Three days after the Jewish people sing God’s praises for parting the waters of the sea, they complain to Moses that they have no water to drink. A few weeks later, the Jewish people complain again to Moses and Aaron, this time lamenting a lack of food to eat. And near the end of the parasha, the Jewish people complain again to Moses that they have no water to drink.

In each of these episodes, the complaints of the Jewish people intensify. At first, they say, “What shall we drink?” Next, they lament, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! You, Moses, have brought us here to starve us to death.” Finally, they plead and accuse Moses, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

From one perspective, these complaints are completely understandable. Being without food, and even more so without water, is a danger to survival. Of course anyone in these circumstances would be concerned, at least – and in a state of panic, at most. Yet from another perspective, the complaints of the Jewish people reveal deep spiritual dilemmas – struggles that we know all too well as we walk, run, and stumble on our own path toward recovery.

The most obvious struggle that the Jewish people display in this narrative is the need to place blame. In this tough time, they decide that Moses is responsible for their discomfort and for the threats they face. They seem to forget that Moses led them out of slavery and miraculously across a sea; rather, they decide that Moses has no regard for their safety and no regard for their life. They have lost track of the reality – or, they choose to disregard the reality – that life is at all times dangerous and uncertain, and that while these aspects of God’s world are frightening and real, they are no one’s fault.

A second struggle that the Jewish people face is their desire to go back into the past, to a time that can’t be re-created. In a completely relatable frenzy of dysfunction, the Jewish people yearn to go back to Egypt, the land of their nostalgia, going so far as to say they wish they would have died as slaves in Egypt rather than living and struggling as free people in the wilderness. In recovery, we can relate to this when we experience euphoric recall of our past behaviors, remembering the rush and bliss of our escapades and forgetting the fear, shame, secrecy, and wrongdoing that were inseparable from the “good times” in our addiction. The Jewish people have forgotten that in God’s world, there is no going back in time; we can only go forward. And when we lose ourselves in nostalgia, we become blind to our past hardships, and numb to our gratitude for having overcome them.

And the most subtle struggle that the Jewish people display might also be the most insidious, the most problematic. Their first complaint in the wilderness is brief: “What shall we drink?” Yet when they say this, they do already have water! The problem was that the water was bitter; after Moses reached out to God for help, God showed Moses how to sweeten the water to make it drinkable. So often we can look at our current circumstances and reject the resources, the help, the gifts that we have, observing that they are not perfect and deciding they won’t work. When we remember that we can make small adjustments and create a world of difference, we open ourselves to appreciating the imperfect world that God creates, and to partnering with God to make positive change in our lives and in the world.

As we celebrate this Shabbat together, and remember the Song at the Sea, may we be blessed with compassion for ourselves and others as we go through our spiritual struggles, so much like our ancestors’ struggles on their journey out of Egypt. May we recognize that God’s world is imperfect, and take responsibility for partnering with God to repair the world’s imperfections. And – especially when it seems like there is no way forward – may we always stay open to the possibility of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Miriam