Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beshalach

According to the rabbis every word in the Torah is perfect; every phrase has a purpose. The unusual sparks a question. A teaching follows.

The rabbis ask why this week’s portion begins with the word, vayehi? “Vayehi—And it came to pass, when Pharaoh sent the people away…” (Exodus 13:17) This word adds nothing to the plain meaning of the verse. It appears redundant. From this word alone mountains of teachings are spun.

Thus the rabbis of the Talmud teach that wherever the Torah states vayehi distress is implied. (Megillah 10b) And then upon this teaching later rabbis offer additional insights.

The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Rabinowitz asks:
What distress was there when the Israelites left Egypt? The purpose of the plagues, which God brought upon Egypt, was to instill faith in the hearts of the Israelites and to gradually develop within them a yearning for freedom and a strong desire to free themselves of the shackles of Egypt and its depravity. In the end, after all the plagues, miracles and wonders, the Torah tells us that “Pharaoh sent the people away”—that the Israelites did not leave Egypt on their own free will, but were sent away. That was indeed a cause for distress. (Iturei Torah, Beshalach)
For years the Israelites hoped to be free. Yet when the moment arrived, rather than leaving of their own volition, they were hurried out of Egypt by their tormentor.

Sometimes, after years and years of waiting, when the dream is finally realized we fail to recognize its achievement. Sometimes when miracles appear, we do not see them. The achievement of our own dreams is too often left for others to point out to us. Our own eyes fail to see our hopes realized.

Another Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Ohrbach offers a different comment.
This is an indication of what happens so often when one’s striving for a certain goal is finally realized. As long as one is striving, the goal is something greatly desired. However, once one has realized the goal, it seems to shrink in importance. The mundane reality of everyday life dissolves all the beautiful dreams and one realizes all the problems that still lie ahead.
It is clear that not achieving our dreams is profoundly disappointing, but this comment offers an interesting insight that achieving them can also lead to disappointment. Sometimes our most hoped for dreams bring great disappointments.

Instead it is the dreaming and striving that give life meaning. It is this seeking that combats disappointment, despair and distress. It is the Torah’s wandering that offers its greatest lesson. It is our people’s standing on the border of the Promised Land that is its most profound teaching. The secret to our success is therefore to always set new goals. It is an unsuccessful life to achieve every goal and realize every dream. Better to set your sights so high that you are forever striving. Better to pause only briefly to celebrate achievements and instead immediately set new goals.

Perhaps this is why my favorite poetry books are those released posthumously. These collections of unfinished poems reveal the most about the poet. It was what he or she was working on in their last days. It demonstrates that the poet was forever creating, and always dreaming. One can never be sure if theses poems achieved their final polish and finishing touches. These poems instead reveal the poet’s truer self. They shed light on the poet’s inner strivings.

And that is the secret: to forever set new goals. And as you near achieving those goals, set your sights even higher.

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