Monday, February 6, 2012

Beshalach Sermon

In this week’s portion the people finally leave Egypt.  They do not travel very far before they are nearly overtaken by Pharaoh and his army.  We read of this famous scene describing the Israelites standing at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, fearful again for their lives.  Everyone knows the story.  God of course splits the sea and the people travel through.  The Egyptian army is drowned in the sea.

There are two midrashim about this event and the questions about miracles that it raises.  The first is a modern midrash.
1. Even though the splitting of the sea was a great and wondrous miracle some people still only saw the mud beneath their feet.  They never looked up.  They only saw the mud dirtying their sandals.  The lesson is clear.  There are many miracles, all around us, but sometimes we only see the mud.
2.  According to an ancient midrash, God did not bring this miracle immediately.  God waited until the people demonstrated their faith.  And the people waited for one person, a man named Nachshon.  It was he who was responsible for God’s miracle.  How?  He jumped into the waters.  Only until the waters covered his mouth did God finally split the sea.  Thus you have to have faith.  You have to jump in head first if you really want to see miracles.

Following this miracle at the sea, Miriam led the people in celebration on the other side.  There was singing and dancing.  The most important lesson is that the Torah continues after this portion.  It does not stop on the other side with this great celebration.  The journey continues. The people did not stop with a great celebration. They traveled to Mount Sinai.  They wandered through the wilderness.

If we are going to apply this lesson to our own times it occurs to me that we place too much emphasis on celebrations and milestones.  We should focus instead on the journey.  I am not suggesting that I don’t like a good party.  I certainly do.  But the central focus should not be the ceremony. If we are talking about b’nai mitzvah it should not be about how many verses a student chants, or how well the bar/bat mitzvah sermon is crafted.  Instead it should be about the process of learning.  What values did s/he learn as s/he prepared for this day?

What would happen if birthday parties were not about “Wow I am 50 years old” but instead about “This is what I have learned in my 50 years.”  Then we would not wake up the next day depressed that the party is over (or hung over).  Instead we would say, “This what I hope to learn in my next 50 years.”  What would happen if come Monday the Super Bowl was not about the winner but instead about the season—of each and every team, and about the hopes for next year’s season?  Will the Giants’ sense of family be as profound if they lose the big game?

I know.  I am being overly idealistic.  But the lesson is important to remember.  The lesson is not to focus on the milestones and instead about the journey.  The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Ohrbach offers this 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.”

Life is not about the parties and celebrations.  It is instead about the journey, the wandering, the trip, the striving.  The poet Robert Browning said:  "A man's reach must exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?”  Thus keep on striving, keep on journeying and even wandering.  And always be like Nachshon.  Have the courage to jump in the waters.

Rabbi Steven Moskowitz
February 3, 2012

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