To Face Fears (and Create Miracles): On B’shallach

We are at a critical moment in our Torah. God decides his people will not go the short way to the Promised Land. The Israelites, former slaves, a frightened people running from their slaveowners, will turn back if they are forced to face the Philistines who block the short passage, God says. They are not prepared for war (Exod. 13:17).

Commentators offer other reasons for God’s decision. Ibn Ezra argued that it was important that the newly freed people understand, first, the challenges of freedom. Maimonides agreed, suggesting that hardships endured in the wilderness would function as training for the task ahead: to conquer and settle the land of Canaan God had promised them.

Certainly, hardship was coming. It was before them and behind them.

They stood at Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. What must it be so stand at the shore of a sea of water, to look over one’s shoulder and to see the dust storm of six hundred chariots manned by officers and soldiers of the greatest and most powerful empire coming in pursuit? The Israelites stood at the edge of death –death rushing toward them, death in the sea behind them.

God says to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exod 14:16). Moses is to lift up his staff and hold it over the sea to split it.

A famous midrash tells us that the sea refuses to split unless the Israelites demonstrate their faith and march into the waters. The Israelites, we are told, wanted the miracle to happen before they could believe in the miracle.

Finally, so that midrash goes, Nachshon of the tribe of Judah does exactly that, stepping into the water with nothing but courage to steady his feet. Some stories claim that the water reached his nose before it finally parted.

David Ebenbach writes: “Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.”

Walls of water stand between us and what we long for. There is so much to be afraid of.

We are afraid we will not be understood by someone we love. We are afraid of being hurt by someone we love. We are afraid we will fail at some important task we have set for ourselves. We are afraid we will not fill expectations.

We see our own leaders violating oaths, caring about nothing but their hold on power – even if that means putting children in a cage. We are afraid for our democracy and the values so many once believed were permanent fixtures of American life.

We look at the climate crisis unfolding in the world and we are afraid we cannot stop the tsunami that is coming, a tsunami which will melt icecaps, swallow islands, peninsulas, and cities, change seasons and, we can be sure, inflict widespread suffering. We are afraid that we are helpless.

There is, indeed, so much to fear and so many reasons to feel helpless and afraid. Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.

The reconciliation and understanding we seek cannot be found in fear. We must take chances, step into the water, hope for an opening, a way forward.

The values we hold dear can only be embedded if we live them in every aspect of our own lives, if we reject bullying and aggression at each and every turn. We must take every opportunity over the next nine months to begin to do just that. We must try to birth a different America than the one we live in, one that embodies justice and generosity.

What must we live for? The possibility of miracles. They will not happen without us. Let us all step into the sea, frightened though we are. Let us part the water, walk forward together, and create the miracle of our freedom and our hope.

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