January 31, 2015 | Parashat B’shalach
Ari S. Lorge
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The book of Exodus records an incredible transformation for the people of Israel. Throughout this book of the Torah, God helps the Israelites move from a place of dependence to a state of self sufficiency.
There are three moments where we can see this transition occur. The first takes place in this week’s parashah and focuses on the defense of the people, the second is seen in the construction of the Tabernacle, and the third can be seen in the creation of the tablets upon which the commandments are written. In all of these cases, the Israelites go from needing God to act for them to being able to partner with God.
Though we can trace this evolution in each example, let’s look closer at the incident in this week’s Torah portion. At the outset of our narrative, the Egyptians are descending upon the people of Israel and the people quake with fear. They cry out, unsure what to do or how to save themselves. Moses shouts out that they should not worry: “God will battle for you,” he says. And God does: God fights the battle, thwarting the Egyptian army while the Israelites remain protected and passive.
However, after the parting of the seas, the Israelites are once again faced with the threat of armed struggle. The Amalekites come forward, hoping to wipe out the Hebrews as they travel through the wilderness. This time, however, God does not descend to fight the battle on their behalf. The Israelites have to fight their own battle.
Joshua and others go forth and personally defend the people against the army that is coming to destroy them. They succeed and rout their enemy. And in doing so they are changed. No longer are they dependent on someone else—they have become empowered to act on their own. As one commentator put it, “The Israelites won not because God fought the battle for them, but because God gave them the strength to fight the battle for themselves.”
The people Israel, throughout the book of Exodus, will be called upon to begin to take on responsibility and in doing so realize their full potential as a people. They are not to remain passive; they are called to become partners and mature participants in the covenant with God. For it is not enough to stand passively while someone else fights battles on your behalf or to simply accept a set of laws or norms without making them yours in some way. Rather, we must learn to act for ourselves and we must make the laws that command our days personally fulfilling. Throughout the book of Exodus, the people of Israel reach maturity and find self-reliance. Because in order to be fulfilled, we must be able to exercise confidence, courage, choice, imagination, determination, and will. And so that is what God calls on us to do.
What is true of the whole people Israel is true for you [becoming b’nei mitzvah] today. You are on the edge of adulthood and you will begin to move from dependence to independence. It is not enough to do as you are told—you must begin to be partners in the choice.
This is not simply true of what you take on in the secular world, but also within your Jewish life as well. Your Jewish practice has been dictated to you and for you. Now you must begin to be a part of the Jewish choices in your life. To be able to express the meaning and intention behind your personal Jewish practice. And so our hope is that you will begin a period of exploration: what Jewish practices do you live out in your family? Why is it important to your parents? Why is it important to you? What other Jewish practices are there—might they be meaningful? If not, why?
This is no easy road to walk—it asks of us time, thought, and commitment. And yet, it is what is asked of Jewish adults. Because when we walk that road, it leads to fulfillment. In the example of the Israelites, we see that when we are able to take ownership over our actions and our decisions, it leads to empowerment. That is what God asked of Israel and what all of us as Jews are called to do as well.
What we know about you is that you will take seriously this challenge. We’ve seen the thought, care, and intention that have gone into your preparation for this day and this moment. We know you will apply that same seriousness and diligence and maturity to this road as well.
Our prayers for you are that, like the Israelites, you, with full hearts, take on that sense of responsibility and through it find confidence, determination, and sense of identity as Jewish adults.