As we read this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), just when the Israelites think they have escaped Egypt, their oppressors chase after them. The situation looks grim and impossible to overcome. The Israelites say sarcastically to Moses, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to take us out here to die in the desert?” (14:11). In their fear they confront their leader. Moses responds, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which God will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.” And indeed, the sea parts and redemption unfolds.
This appears to be a story about Divine action and human helplessness. Just as the Israelites are paralyzed with cynicism, despair, God’s action proves their fear unwarranted. The rabbis of our tradition have a different take.
Moses answered them, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance . . .”. The rabbis believed that this itself was the salvation of God, in seeing your own situation and understanding what is frightful about it. When one recognizes the fear of their situation, then they can be saved – or in our day, overcome the challenges of that moment. In other words, the Israelites’ fear is at heart the moment of heightened consciousness. They have become deeply aware of the danger of their present circumstance. Remember that previously the Israelites had become accustomed to their predicament. They had become acclimated to their servitude and couldn’t even listen to Moses’ redemptive message. Now their angry comment to Moses suggests that they were ready for freedom, but they are aware that their present circumstance is deadly.
That, suggests the rabbis, is the seed of redemption. When we are self-aware enough that we see that what is happening to us is not tenable and it is a danger to us; when our situation no longer seems normal but appears as a spiritual threat, when we become scared – the potential for redemption manifests. Because only then can we be receptive to a different ordering of reality. Therefore as soon as the Israelites share their despair with Moses (Were there not enough graves in Egypt...) the redemption occurs.
What power, interpretive power and what great compassion, on the part of the rabbis to see the positive in the Israelites very fearful and negative reaction. And how powerful for us to see in our own anxieties and fears the potential for a new ordering of our spiritual situation.
We are all challenged with anxiety, despair, fear, and ongoing frustration of this never-ending pandemic. Unlike the Israelites fleeing slavery and learning what freedom was, we have the opportunity to move forward, cross our choppy seas, and work diligently to get to the other side towards courage, hope, calmness and satisfaction. That day is coming and may we all be able to join together for that sacred moment.