Torah Portion: Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
Appel’s Parsha Page
Balance in the Metaphysical World
by Rabbi Yehuda Appel
In a fascinating essay, the Maharal (16th century Prague) discusses the importance of maintaining a balanced lifestyle. He posits that ingrained in both the physical and metaphysical realms is a bias towards balance. He cites the unusual example of a dying person. It is not uncommon to see a patient given up for dead suddenly acquire a burst of strength and energy. But, just as one’s hopes are rising for his recovery, the patient suddenly passes away.
Human beings, the Maharal writes, “are points of life, surrounded by death,” and this last minute “flickering of the candle” — this final surge of energy — is the soul’s final attempt to maintain the natural equilibrium that exists between life and death.
The Chida, the great Sephardic leader and mystic, also discusses the issue of balance. He writes that where the opportunities for spiritual advancement are greatest, one also finds the greatest challenges to spiritual growth. He cites the example of Purim, which is the day of the year when the heavenly gates of prayer are opened widest to us and we are given the greatest opportunity to have our prayers answered.
Under such circumstances, you might think we’d be spending all day in the synagogue! On the contrary, Purim is set up so that the very nature of the day — its merriment and celebration — act as a great obstacle to spiritual elevation. If one is not careful, Purim can be the day of the year when you have the least amount of concentration and success when praying.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are told of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, of the confrontation between God and the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea, and of the subsequent annihilation of Pharaoh’s forces. So stupendous and unexpected was the news of this Egyptian defeat that all the surrounding nations were paralyzed by fear of the Jewish People. “…Terror gripped the Philistines. The chieftains of Edom were frightened. Trembling gripped the powers of Moab. [It was as if] the inhabitants of Canaan melted away.” (Exodus 15:14-15)
At this point, the Jewish People had the opportunity to cement this exalted status vis-a-vis the nations of the world. But alas, they faltered in their relationship with God, and the tide turned in favor of their enemies. Forgetting all the miracles and wonders God had performed for them, they muttered harsh words against the Almighty — blaming Him for the thirst they now felt in the desert.
This behavior created a tremendous imbalance in the metaphysical realm: On one hand, the non-Jewish nations possessed great awe of the Jewish God. But on the other hand, the Jews themselves lacked proper reverence for the Almighty.
As it stood, the Jewish People were benefiting unduly: The non-Jewish fear of God gave the Jews a tremendous military advantage. This imbalance had to be redressed, and it could only be changed in one of two ways: Either the Jewish People would become more God fearing, or the gentiles would lose their fear of the Jewish nation and their God.
Tragically, the Jews did not change. As a result, the Jewish People were attacked by the Amalekites, a nation famous for their disrespect toward God. Alone among all nations, the Amalekites are a people that fight willfully and directly against God. Though they do not deny His existence or power, the Amalekites pathologically choose to make war with the Almighty.
When the other nations saw the Amalekite attack on Israel, their own fears of the Jewish nation abated. A famous Midrash likens the actions of the Amalekites to the entrance of the first person into a very hot tub; until the first person steps into it, no one wants to go into the tub, but after that first step is made everyone is willing to enter. Until the Amalekites attacked, everyone was afraid of the Jewish nation. After the attack, much of this fear dissipated.
The imbalance in the metaphysical realm balance had been restored, albeit with tragic consequences.
Language of Tomorrow
How to Become Great
by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
One of the secrets of human greatness is knowing where to direct our limited energy and time in order to make an imprint on the world and transform ourselves. Because our resources are finite, we need to think strategically; we need to focus our attention on the things that have maximum impact. The question is: what kind of actions have maximum impact?
The Torah, God’s own handbook on living the best life, can give us direction. In this week’s parsha, Beshalach, we encounter one of the most inspiring and illuminating moments in Jewish history — the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Jewish people have left Egypt amid a swirl of miraculous supernatural events. Pharaoh then decides to bring us back to slavery and pursues us to the edge of the sea. The Jewish people are hemmed in by the vast expanse of water on one side and by the Egyptian army on the other, and God splits the sea, enabling the Jewish people to pass through on dry land, with the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the depths when they try to follow.
In the aftermath of this miracle, which arrives on top of all of the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people spontaneously break out in song, declaring: “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” (Exodus 15:2) Our sages explain that the word “this” indicates they had such a degree of prophetic insight that they were, in a manner of speaking, able to point to God, and perceive Him with a clarity that even the greatest prophets in later generations were unable to experience.
The phrase: “And I will glorify Him” — in Hebrew, “v’anveihu” — is a gateway to understanding how best to direct our efforts for how to change the world. The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) points out that v’anveihu actually comprises two words: “Ani v’hu — me and him.” The Talmud explains this is teaching us a fundamental lesson on how to live: “Be similar to Him — just as God is gracious and compassionate, you, too, should be gracious and compassionate.” In other words, the way we glorify God is by being compassionate, like Him.
What does this mean practically? The Torah says: “You shall follow God your Lord” (Devarim 13:5). The Gemara (Sotah 14a) defines this as follows: just as Hashem clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourner and buries the dead, so, too, should we strive to follow Him in these endeavors, emulating His kindness and compassion.”
The Talmud gives examples for each of these acts of kindness: God clothed Adam and Eve when they realized they were naked; He visited Abraham when he was recovering from his late-life circumcision; He comforted Isaac after the death of his mother, Sarah; and He buried Moses.
The Rambam includes chessed, kindness, among the list of positive commandments (mitzvah number eight), based on another verse: “You shall walk in the ways of God.” We see that in Judaism, doing kindness, chessed, isn’t just a nice thing to do. As one of the 613 commandments, it is no less than an obligation.
And here’s the crucial factor — chessed is the only one of the 613 commandments where the source of the mitzvah is the conduct of Hashem, Himself. For all of the other mitzvot, God says “this is what you should do” or “this is what you shouldn’t do.” But when it comes to chessed, Hashem says: “Do what I do.” From here, we learn something very profound: to be kind is to be Godly. When we are kind, we are doing God’s work on this earth. And that’s the real power of chessed: its source is the source of all power. Rooted in God’s own behavior, it has the capacity to create and transform worlds. This explains why chessed is considered one of the “three things on which the world stands”. (Pirkei Avot 1:2) Let’s probe a bit deeper into this mitzvah of emulating our Creator through acts of kindness.
Firstly, the idea of following God’s example by alleviating human suffering is an expression of being — as the Talmud puts it — a “partner with God in creation”. (Shabbat 10a) God created the world in six days, but it didn’t end there. The work of “creating” the world — of nurturing and sustaining human life, of making the world a better, kinder place — is an ongoing concern. And, as God’s partners, we are part of this process, we help drive it. Through simple acts of kindness, we change the lives of others, and by fulfilling our God-given mandate to do so, we create cosmic change in ourselves. We become Godly.
We see this on a practical level. Time and again, even a small act of kindness, a greeting, a gesture, a smile, a telephone call, a visit, will transform a person’s day. Or even that person’s entire life. Showing warmth and kindness and comfort to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one, or who is facing a serious illness, can change a life. Helping a person going through difficulties with emotional support, but also physical and material support, can change a life. Acts of kindness are soft and gentle, but their impact is powerful and awesome.
And it goes beyond the effect we have on others. When we alleviate another’s pain, ease another’s burden, put another’s troubled mind at rest, meet someone else’s basic emotional, psychological or physical needs, it transforms not just the recipient of our kindness — it transforms us. The language of the Talmud is key: we should be compassionate because God himself is compassionate. This speaks not just to the acts of kindness we perform (the world outside ourselves), but also to who we are as people — our interior world. Being compassionate is about self-transformation, with the ultimate goal of becoming greater, more elevated human beings.
Ultimately, the mitzvah of kindness and compassion is about striving for a certain commonality and alignment with God. It’s a radical idea — that we can be God-like — but it’s made possible by our essential makeup as human beings. We are God-like in our essence. The Torah says we are created in God’s image; that our souls are in some way a reflection of the Divine. This is the unique feature of the human being. Indeed, nurturing and giving expression to that image of God within us is the very purpose for which the world was created, which is why, says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), the human being was created last, as the very pinnacle of creation.
We see that through simple acts of kindness — emotional support, physical assistance, warmth, praise — we are recognizing and upholding the Tzelem Elokim, “the image of God,” in our fellow. And we are cultivating it within ourselves. Ultimately, being kind and compassionate fits into a beautiful, intricate pattern.
By emulating God, we forge a connection with our Creator, and with our fellow human beings. And by making the world a kinder, gentler place and improving the lot of those around us, we nurture their souls, their Tzelem Elokim; and we nurture our own souls, our Tzelem Elokim, our God-given greatness.
Getting What You Need
by Nesanel Yoel Safran
From this week’s Torah portion:
It is not always easy to feel satisfied with what we have. Even if someone has more than he could possibly use, he can feel like he wants to grab even more. In this week’s Torah portion, as the Jewish people were sojourning in the desert, God wanted to teach them the important lesson of trusting Him and being content with whatever they had. He provided them with special food called manna. But they only received exactly what they needed for that day alone.
Some people worried. “What will be for tomorrow?” they asked themselves. They tried to grab more than their fair share and hide it away. But God miraculously made it that when they brought the food home it only measured out to one portion and no more. As time went on and the people realized that they were only getting what they needed each day, they stopped grabbing and began to feel much more happy and content. We can also learn to live this way, and feel more contentment in our lives.
In our story, a boy teaches his friend a lesson in contentment.
“OUT OF LINE”
The normally quiet dining hall of the River Valley Summer Camp had erupted into a frenzy of activity. While nobody complained about the food, it certainly wasn’t anything worth running after. But today the word was out that a group of the camp’s directors who had visited earlier that day had left extra-special snack food super-packs for all of the campers as a special treat. They were giving them out to the kids today in the dining hall with lunch!
Although the staff kept assuring everyone that there was plenty to go around, the kids made a mad dash to get to the front of the line and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Aaron Segal and his friend Scott found themselves in the middle of the fray. Scott was really getting into the pushing, his eyes lit up with fierce determination to get ahead. He turned around and noticed that Aaron was lagging behind and not shoving ahead.
“C’mon Aaron, you’re stronger than me. Push ahead!” he said, diverting an elbow away from his face. “Don’t you want to get a super-pack?”
“Sure I want one. Why do you think I’m standing in this, uh … line?” answered Aaron, managing a smile from within the crush. “But why should I push and shove like a maniac? Either way I’m going to get one. They have plenty. I saw them unloading the cartons behind the dining hall.”
As he spoke, an excited redhead pushed ahead of him. Scott rolled his eyes. “But what if they run out? The only way to get ahead is to push. You can hang behind if you want, but I’m going to make sure that I get what’s coming to me!”
Aaron, who was already falling further and further back in the line, just shrugged. “Everyone here is going to get what’s coming to him no matter what,” he repeated and remained standing patiently in line.
Later on the two friends met up again outside the dining hall. Scott was licking chocolate off of his hands, but he looked really unhappy. “Are you okay?” asked Aaron.
Scott, breathing hard from the scuffle, huffed. “What do you think? When I got to the front of the line, all of the super-packs were crushed from the pushing and grabbing. The one they gave me was missing half the stuff, and had fingerprints all over it. Yuchh! But at least I got one. I can’t imagine what they looked like by the time you got to the front of the line. Did you even get one at all?”
Aaron blushed. He hesitated a moment then spoke. “Well, actually, I got … two. By the time we stragglers made it to the front of the line, the place had pretty much cleared out. The kitchen staff had found a couple of extra cartons of the super-packs tucked away. They were in perfect shape. They wanted to give them all out before there was another stampede, so they gave us each two.” |
Scott stared at his friend in wide-eyed disbelief. “Looks like all my pushing actually led to nowhere.”
Q. How did Scott feel when he saw that Aaron wasn’t pushing like he was?
A. He felt that his friend was going to miss out getting what was coming to him.
Q. How did he feel after he met up with Aaron again?
A. He realized that even without pushing, Aaron had gotten even more than he, himself had. God will give us what we need without having to push others away to get it.
Q. Which boy had a better approach toward getting what he needed? Why?
A. Although at first look it seemed as though Scott was more clued in than Aaron. He was pushing ahead and grabbing what was rightfully his. But actually in the end he was just wasting a lot of his time and energy. Aaron also put in an effort. He showed up and endured the line. But he trusted that God would give him what was coming to him without having to act wild and possibly injure himself or others to get it. In the end he was proven right.
Q. What could someone learn from the experience of having just what he needs and not more?
A. It might seem scary at first. A person likes to feel the security of having more than enough. But after a time he will be able to see how whenever he really needs something, God will send it to him in the most amazing ways. He will start to feel less dependent on his possessions and more connected to God’s unceasing care. Like Aaron in the story he will realize that he needn’t abandon his principles in order to get what he needs.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach, “Somebody who has one hundred will crave two hundred. If he has two hundred he will want four hundred.” What does this statement mean to you?
A. This reveals a profound insight into human nature. A person tends to never feel satisfied with what he has. No matter what, the feeling will always creep in ‘If I only had one more (fill in the blank: thousand, million, or even billion!) then I would be content.’ But this contentment never lasts. This is because true contentment isn’t a product of our possessions. It is a spiritual feeling that results from a trust in God’s unlimited ability to fulfill our needs and to appreciate what one has. Therefore a person will discover that building up his spiritual ‘bank account’ will prove to be a far wiser and more fulfilling investment than any other kind.
Q. How can internalizing this idea change your relationships?
A. A lot of the tension that exists between people is a sense of lack — a feeling that somehow I must grab from the other guy to get what I need. We should realize that God’s resources are unlimited. This would lead to treating each other fairly, the way He wants us to, and we will never lose out in the end.
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QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“In Jewish history there are no coincidences” — Elie Wiesel
JOKE OF THE WEEK
Little Benji was in Hebrew school and was learning all about how God created everything, including humans. He was especially interested when his teacher got to the bit about how Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs. Later that day, Benjy’s mother noticed him lying down as though he were ill. So she said to him. “Benjy, darling, what’s the matter with you?”
Benjy replied, “I have a pain in my side, Mommy. I think I’m going to have a wife.”
Joy Marcus, Mike Minoff, Leila Redlich, Mike Towerman, Bruce Waxman, Tziona Zeffren