Parashah Ponderings

Crossing the Sea — We’ve all been there.

Parashat Beshalach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת בְּשַׁלַּח
Torah Portion: Exodus 13:17-17:16

The quintessential image of redemption in Judaism is undoubtedly the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which we read about in this week’s Torah reading. The similarities between this final act of liberation from slavery and the experience of birth are remarkable: the nascent nation passes from a place of literal and metaphorical darkness through a narrow, moist canal to emerge into a wide-open space filled with light and possibility. In fact, the exodus from Egypt marks the beginning of the birth of our nation. Prior to that they existed arguably as little more than cells in the body of Egypt with no independent identity of their own. They cross the sea as infants and begin the long, painful process of growth, maturity and self-actualization. At Sinai they enter adolescence, receiving the Torah that will bind them not only to God but to one another. Wandering for 40 years, the People will learn how to be true to that covenant, maturing in adults. Once they enter the Land of Israel as “adults” they will take all that they know and invest their energies into building a future for generations to come. This whole process begins with the birth of the Nation of Israel at the Sea of Reeds.

Beyond representing birth, the crossing of the sea effectively symbolizes all those times in our lives when we’ve emerged from places of distress and despair, when we’ve overcome trying circumstances, when we’ve regained our sense of wholeness, our well-being. Indeed, this moment symbolizes all kinds of transitions that entail moving from a known, often comfortable place, to a place of mystery, where anything can happen.

Try this guided meditation on life’s transitions. Imagine yourself on the Egyptian side of the Sea of Reeds. What is your current Egypt or the place where you currently feel most comfortable? (Remember, there was a large group of Israelites who didn’t like being slaves but found comfort in the familiarity of that life.) Now, imagine yourself in the Sea of Reeds, in transition to something new and exciting. Is there a way in which you feel in transition at this time in your life? Finally, imagine yourself on the far end of the Sea, where the People of Israel sing and dance. Are you in such a place? Have you recently emerged triumphant from a transition, whether it was a painful transition or relatively easy?

The questions I have posed are ones that we will ask as we read Shirat HaYam this Shabbat on Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. That “song” is the poem that Moses and the people sang so joyously upon realizing they were now free, the song that contains the refrain of Mi Chamocha from our Shabbat and weekday services and which was popularized in Disney’s Prince of EgyptShirat HaYam has its own beautiful melody. I hope you’ll have a chance to hear it chanted and to “cross the sea” with our ancestors.

In case you’re not able to make it to a synagogue service this week, here are a couple of videos where you can learn more about Shirat Hayam and hear it chanted:

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan