Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week by Meira Silverstein. Meira will be spending her sixth summer on staff, this year as Rosh Omanuyot Habama (Director of Performing Arts). She graduated from Yale School of Music with a Master of Music in Violin Performance. Previously based in Minneapolis, Meira played frequently with the Minnesota Orchestra while serving as Adult Learning Coordinator for Adath Jeshurun Congregation. She is currently a professional freelance musician in the Baltimore area where you can often catch her on stage with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Meira and her husband, clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, have two children.
Stepping Forward: Reflections on Parashat Beshallach
by Meira Silverstein
In this week’s parashah, Beshallach, Moses leads the children of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, and toward the promised land. However, trapped at the edge of the Sea of Reeds with the army of Pharaoh in pursuit, they cry to Moses in fear and anger: is death in the wilderness any better than slavery? For a few agonizing moments, there is no response. God finally commands Moses to lift his hand and to split the sea in order to allow the Israelites to cross over on dry land.
What happens in those breathless moments before God’s miraculous intervention?
The Torah describes a leader calling for his people to hold its peace, to stand and witness intervention on its behalf. Rashi understands him as standing in prayer before God. Regardless, God offers Moses an immediate answer, and it is not the one we expect.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”(Exodus 14:15)
God’s response feels very parental – “Why are you bothering me? Just do it.”
This seems shockingly unjust. And yet…familiar.
As a parent, how many of us have never struggled with our child’s homework assignments? When one of my children asks for my “advice” on every single multiplication problem, I respond pretty much as God does. As educators, as parents, as adults, we know that easy answers are no answers at all.
Which might be God’s point.
Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, orator, and statesman, who was himself an escaped slave, said that “praying for freedom never did me any good ‘til I started praying with my feet.”
The story of Nachshon illustrates this point. The midrashic tradition offers a different version of the story where Moses raises his arms as God commands…and nothing happens. While Moses and the Israelites stand paralyzed by the water’s edge, gripped by panic and indecision, only one man steps forward. Nachshon of the tribe of Judah gathers himself, his conviction, and steps into the cold, forbidding sea. His individual actions precipitate the splitting of the waters, and in this way do we understand how the story of Nachshon answers the age-old question of liberation.
Clearly, this is a lesson that cannot be explained. One must live it. This journey of belief and self-actualization is never more apparent than at camp. For two glorious months, Ramah Wisconsin is the physical encampment of a small tribe of Israelites who, mostly free from the shackles of the miraculous parent, must engage with one another and wrestle with their own answers, all while playing, learning, praying, and lest we forget, singing.
Because thanks to Nachshon, Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites made it across the Sea of Reeds. And while they crossed the dry land, they raised their voices to sing Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, to express their wonder, gratitude, and jubilation.
מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃
Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
This song-filled Shabbat, called Shabbat Shirah because on it we read this Song of the Sea, we bend our ear to the echoes of Moses’ and Miriam’s song as we seek to sing our convictions just as joyously, act as bravely, and believe as strongly in the possibility of the moment. What other new melodies, poems, and prayers will accompany us on our Jewish journey to freedom?
“…And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel