Beshallach: Faith in the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

Shalom from sunny Los Angeles! As I’ve been travelling from Boston to
St. Louis to Los Angeles and soon to San Diego, reading about our
ancestor’s journeys seems especially appropriate.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites leave Egypt,
and are taken the “long way round” in order to avoid some difficult
areas. Unfortunately, the Sea of Reeds lies between them and safety,
and Pharoah’s army is in hot pursuit. The sea splits and the
Israelites cross on dry land, leaving the army trapped behind them,
but this doesn’t end their troubles; now they’re in the desert with
no water.

So we read in Exodus 15:22-27 (abridged below), after the salvation
at the sea:

“Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the
desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not
find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from
Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. The
people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? So he
cried out to the Lord, and the Lord instructed him concerning a piece
of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.
There God gave them a statute and an ordinance . . . . They came to
Elim, and there were twelve water fountains and seventy palms, and
they encamped there by the water.”

Now, on the one hand, if you’re thirsty, you want water right at that
moment, and that’s perfectly understandable. However, many
commentators have seen in this passage a certain lack of faith on the
part of the Israelites- could they really have witnessed all the
plagues and the splitting of the sea and believed that God would then
abandon them to die in the desert?

One 19th century European commentator, known as the “Chafetz Chaim,”
from the title of his most famous book, also notes that the oasis of
Elim was just beyond Marah, the place where the Israelites
complained “bitterly” about not having water. (“Marah” means “bitter”
in Hebrew, like “maror,” or bitter herbs.)

Here’s what the Chafetz Chaim had to say:

“They came to Elim directly from Marah, and Elim was but a short
distance from Marah. Thus, when they complained to Moshe about the
bitter water, there was fresh water almost under their noses. Had
they not complained, but travelled a little further, they would have
found water. However, that is the way people are; they have no
patience, and like to complain.” (Taken from “Torah Gems,” an
anthology of Hasidic commentary.)

This insight of the Chafetz Chaim helps us understand better what
kind of faith the Israelites had, or didn’t have. Faith, to my mind,
is not necessarily a matter of what you believe, or don’t believe;
it’s not just an intellectual matter. Faith is also putting one foot
in front of another when you don’t always know where you’re going.
Faith is an energizing attitude towards life itself, which propels us
forward with courage in the face of difficulty.

That’s the kind of faith the Israelites needed; the faith to keep
going, to keep walking forward, even if they were thirsty, because
the oasis was just a little ways ahead. So often, the “water”- or the
love, forgiveness, wisdom, peace, and other blessings- are “right
under our noses,” if we just keep ourselves going forward on the
journey!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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