Between the sea and the mountain

By Rabbi Ben Sternman
Parashat Beshallach

With parashat Beshallach, the Exodus story reaches its apparent climax: The sea parts, the Israelites march through, the Egyptians are drowned. The children of Israel, if they have not already been persuaded of God’s might by the escalating series of 10 plagues, now seem convinced. They join with Moses and Miriam in great songs of celebration at the far shore of the sea: “The Lord is my strength and my song. God is become my salvation. This is my God, whom I enshrine. The God of my ancestors, whom I exalt” (Exodus 15:2). All of Moses’ hard work seems finally to have paid off.

But only three days later, the people start to complain. By six weeks into the journey, the grumbling intensifies: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (Exodus 16:3).

The Torah seems to be suggesting that even the most storied miracles have a very short shelf life, but also something deeper: that we are perhaps at our greatest risk of getting lost not at the outset of our journey, not in the first blush of victory or liberation, but as the journey wears on. The narrator in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” loses the straightforward path “midway upon the journey of our life”; the Israelites, though they complained to Moses while still in Egypt, bring kvetching to a whole new level once they are free. Three days after our Israelite ancestors sang for joy by the just-parted sea, they are grumbling against Moses for lack of water. Six weeks after that, they are pining for Egypt. And they will continue to complain all the way to the Promised Land.

It’s easy to condemn the Israelites for forgetting the signs and wonders, for ingratitude and pettiness, or to dismiss the dynamic that Biblical scholars call “the murmuring motif” as just a bunch of Jews kvetching. But I think the deeper lesson is that it’s easy to start wandering once we’re free, to get lost once we’re liberated. Our tradition sees the period of wandering in the desert, both before and after Sinai, as a time of purification. I wonder if it isn’t just where we live most of our lives: first yearning for freedom then coping with it, learning to shape and direct it, finding our way from the sea to the mountain without wandering too far off. 

Next week’s portion will give us the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, but this week, Beshallach invites us into awareness of the sometimes fraught space between the sea and the mountain, between the rush of freedom and the acceptance of responsibility. It is the space in which our kids head off to college or rent their first apartments after graduation; it is the space in which we cope with abundance after a business success or an inheritance, or when we reckon with our blank calendars in retirement. As a community, it is the space in which we reckon with American freedoms, and still deepen our identity as Jews. Beshallach is not just the parasha of the parted sea’s special effects; it’s the parasha of the everyday journey of our choosing lives.

Our people’s 40-year trek in the wilderness reminds us that while an exodus may take place in a miraculous moment, arrival takes much longer. We should celebrate and appreciate the freedoms we cherish, but we should remember how easy it is to wander once we’re free. From continuing to act safely as the pandemic spikes once more, saving lives and helping our community to be whole again, to all the choices that turn freedom to its best ends, may 2022 be a year in which we make the path of freedom a passage to the mountaintop of blessing, responsibility and life.

Rabbi David Stern is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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