Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Beshalach 5777

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Active Participation in Talmud Torah

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5767

Try and imagine this scene for a moment: you have just left Egypt and crossed the sea. The Egyptians almost killed you, but God prevails and saves you.  Then, there is no water to drink and just as you finally come across some water and are in the midst of quenching your unbearable thirst Moshe says “alright that is enough, take out your pens and notebooks and let’s do a little learning”.That, says the Midrash, is exactly what the Torah is describing when it says:

וַיִּצְעַק אֶל יְקֹוָק וַיּוֹרֵהוּ יְקֹוָק עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ:

Moshe cries out to God, and God shows him the branch to place in the water.  Moshe throws the branch into the water, the water is sweetened, and then Moshe placed before them statute and law and tested them. The first question that must be asked is: to what exactly does this refer?  The next question must be: why here?  After all, the Jews are not settled, nor have they even received the 10 commandments or the Torah. In the interest of full disclosure, the literal read of the text need not be that Moshe actually gave the Jews laws at this point.  Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, argues that it simply refers to the command in the next verse to listen to what God is going to tell them to do; and the Ramban argues that it might refer to how to act until the Torah is given.But the Midrash (as quoted by Rashi) maintains that Moshe taught the Jews the laws of Shabbat, laws regulating our societal conduct, and the laws of the Parah Adumah (the red heifer).  [Why those laws are referenced will be my topic at seudah shlishit, to which all are invited!].

You have to wonder? Why teach them Torah now, they have no food, are not settled, and have not yet received the Torah?

To understand why the Midrash would advocate such an approach, we need to take a step back and look at the larger picture presented in our Parsha.  This strikes me every time that I read Parshat Beshalach!

After witnessing the 10 plagues, the Jews are now approaching the sea with the Egyptian army is in hot pursuit, and bearing down on them. The Jews are understandably afraid, “are there not graves in Egypt that you took us out here to die?”  Moshe understands and reassures the people – stand and watch the salvation of the Lord – God will fight and you will inherit!

Miraculously the sea splits, the Jews cross the sea and the Egyptians drown in the sea. Moshe promises and God delivers.  The Jews are so impressed that they find their faith, and sing Az Yashir – heaping lavish praise upon their savior!

Immediately following the song, the very next episode, finds the Jews without water for three days and then with water too bitter to drink, and they complain to Moshe; they did not ask or believe that God would provide, rather they complain to Moshe.  So God sweetens the water. At their very next destination they are hungry. They do not ask or believe; again they complain to Moshe and long for the good old days in Egypt!  So God does one more miracle and provides the Manna, special delivery from heaven with the following provisions 1. Don’t leave any over until the morning and don’t go out to collect on Shabbat because it won’t be there!  And true to form, many leave it over until the morning, and many go out on Shabbat to collect.  They still don’t get it!

At the next destination, more of the same, again they can’t find water; did they learn from their last experience?  NO!  The same response – they complain- Where is the water? Why have you taken us out to die?  What are you doing to us? At this point, Moshe is at his wits end, he complains to God: Od me’at uskaluni, they are going to strangle me!  So, God does one more miracle and instructs Moshe to hit the rock!

The cycle is clear, test after test and they fail each and every time! Why didn’t they learn? They had just experienced the water – didn’t they know that God would provide it for them ?!? 

The pat, standard answers are: listen, you have to understand – (a) they were slaves for so long, they have a slave mentality which is hard to break; or (b) one-time events don’t change us.  While there is definitely some truth to those answers, I think that there is one more critical piece.  After all, it has now been a number of months since the plagues began, they have witnessed many miracles, and yet have not quite gotten it.

 To understand why – we return to the very first incident: the Jews are frightened and Moshe’s response is –

(יג) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת יְקֹוָק …

(יד) יְקֹוָק יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן: פ

Stand by and watch GOD SAVE YOU, GOD WILL FIGHT and you will be silent!

Stand by and watch- observe, almost as a bystander. That is the answer, right there. Why didn’t the Jews learn the lesson, inculcate it? Because they were passive participants, they watched but did not act! Observation does not lead a person to change. Participation does.  Action does. Intellectual awareness of an idea or truth does not necessarily lead to us act upon that truth.
With that understanding, let us return to our original question, but let me rephrase it slightly.  Now, let me ask: “why after the first episode with the water, when Moshe sees that the Jews do not get it, does the Midrash contend that Moshe came and taught them Torah?” The answer to that question lies in one critical word in the Midrash.

במרה נתן להם מקצת פרשיות של תורה שיתעסקו בהם

Moshe gave them parshiot for them to (literally) be busy with, to deal with, think about and grapple with the ideas contained within.  This is not a lecture nor a teaching exercise, rather it is an exercise in learning.  The goal is not necessarily to impart knowledge, but to have the Jews immersed and engrossed in the learning of Torah.  This is the antidote to standing idly and watching God act.  Now, it is time for you to act.  That activity often comes via the fulfillment of mitzvoth, but just as importantly it comes through activity in learning.

The key to change, says the Midrash, is to understand it is not enough to simply stand back and observe or think about God.  Of course, that is positive, worthwhile and necessary, but it is not enough and that alone will not bring about change. To change, we need activity and participation as well.

That message could not be anymore relevant today.  We have been affected and somewhat spiritually enslaved by certain aspects of a foreign culture.  To break out of it and to affect religious change, we too must become active participants in our Judaism. 

I think that it is not only important, but critical, for every Jew to become actively engaged in their Judaism, especially in their Torah learning!