Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Beshallach 2012

Parashat Beshallach by Rabbi Janet Burden
31 January 2012

 

Ever since I first moved to London, I have been a fan of black cabs.· I loved how stepping into one of them felt like entering a tiny room instead of a car, and how the seats faced each other as if you were getting ready to have tea.· And, of course, I was fascinated when I learned of the infamous test called “the Knowledge,” whereby cabbies prove that they have mastered the art of getting from any point A to any point B via the most efficient route.· Frankly I still find it a marvel.· Perhaps I have such a keen appreciation of navigation skills because they have always been completely lacking in my family – or at least in the women in our family.· One of my earliest childhood memories was of my grandmother losing her way to our house after taking my sister and I shopping.· I must have been tiny, as I remember crawling into the floor space in front of the back seats, curling up in a ball and wailing over and over again, “We’re lost, we’re lost, we’re lost.”· Turns out, we were two blocks from our house, roughly the distance from Euston Square to Warren Street tube.· Needless to say, the trauma was soon over, though clearly, it made a big impression on me.

My mother was no better than hers.· It was from my experience of her navigating that I learned to distrust short-cuts.· When we were in high school, my sister Lynn and I jokingly called them ‘long-cuts.’· But my mother remained undaunted.· “Sometimes,” she would say, “What looks like the shortest way just isn’t.”· Even with my experience of black cabs, I am still not convinced of the truth of this statement on the physical plane.· Nonetheless, when we shift to either a psychological or metaphysical one,· I doubt it not one bit.· There, the shortest distance between two points is rarely a straight line.

The children of Israel are soon to prove themselves true masters of ‘the long-cut,” wandering for forty years to cover a distance which can be traversed in as few as 11 days.· But we already have some prefiguring of this in today’s reading.· We are told that when Pharaoh finally send the Israelites forth, God leads them not by the shortest route, towards the land of the Philistines, but rather guides them towards the wilderness by the Sea of Reeds.· The Biblical writer portrays God giving the reason for this, “Lest the people should repent [of their decision to leave] when they see war.· This is the first indication we have that the trials of the Israelites are far from over.· They are not yet ready to face the kind of battles they will have to undertake when entering the land.· In other words, if they take this apparently shorter route, they will suffer a set back that will ultimately delay the fulfilment of God’s promise.· God therefore leads them on what looks to be a harsher and longer route.

Superficially, the explanation offered for this alternative route makes sense.· Yet I am not completely convinced by it.· After all, the Israelites don’t avoid war by taking it.· Already by the end of today’s portion, we see them attacked by the Amalekites.· Moreover, surely a God who could part the Sea of Reeds could just as easily have parted the Philistine host and allowed the Israelites to pass through that way.· It seems the obvious solution.· Why, then, are we given the theatrics of the parting of the sea?

First of all, one could argue that the splitting of the sea was to be the definitive sign to the children of Israel that God was truly with them, and not simply against the Egyptians.· Up to now, most of the signs were negative ones, associated with the suffering and punishment of others.· OK, so they also had the pillars of fire and cloud to guide them, but they did not know to where, and to what end, they were being led.· With the parting of the sea, the path became clear – in more ways than one!

Secondly, once the sea had parted, the people had to find the courage to step forward into the precarious breach.· They knew that if God willed it, the waters would close over them.· They had to be willing to take a chance; to trust that somehow everything would be all right.· It is their first step towards emunah, faith.

Finally, I think that the experience of watching Pharaoh and his chariots drowned in the sea proved to them once and for all that Pharaoh was, after all, simply a human being.· Despite his deification by his people, he was not invincible.· The people obviously had not yet come to believe this.· If they had, they would not have quailed before 600 chariots, when they stood in their myriads!· The experience changed them.· Their newly forged faith in God, together with the courage they found to move forward, transformed them from a people who would not dare to a people who could.· They defeat the Amalekites and move forward.· Thus, was looked like the longest route proved to be a short cut to a new way of being.··· Like my mother said, “Sometimes, what looks like the shortest way just isn’t.”

I daresay all of us will have our own experiences of failed short-cuts, and of lessons learned by travelling the long routes that eventually helped us to reach where we are today.· Sometimes, reflecting on these is hard.· It’s so easy to beat ourselves up for lost opportunities and time apparently wasted.· Yet maybe those short cuts wouldn’t have been right for us.· Maybe there were lessons that had to be learned.· All of our life experiences, and particularly our struggles, contribute to making us who we are.· The important thing is to remain grateful for the opportunity to keep moving forward – and for companions with whom we may share our paths.