January 18th: Beshallach
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
In Beshallach, we read about the long awaited Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.
“They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13.20-22)
The excitement and drama is incredible as God’s Redemptive power is on display. Huge numbers of people who have lived in slavery their entire lives are suddenly able to go marching forth—with God leading them with giant pillars of cloud and fire!
In all the redemptive glory, however, we can fail to notice the internal dynamic at play. Not only is freedom dawning within each Israelite and within the community, but also awakening is purpose. A well-known passage from the Psalms can focus our attention.
“When Israel came forth out of Egypt,
The House of Jacob from a foreign people,
Judah became the place of God’s holiness,
Israel the place of God’s power.” (Psalm 114.1-2)
God’s Presence is triumphant—in Egypt and at the Red Sea, but notice how the Psalmist emphasizes the Presence of the Divine in the community. Not only is it manifest in the world—in nature and in supernatural events, it has entered the people of Israel and will be manifest on the human level.
The Children of Israel are on their way to the Promised Land—with holiness of the Land held up as a central part of our holy mission, but, for the forty years in the wilderness and for all the years in the Diaspora, God’s Presence is found in the hearts and minds and communities of God’s people.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the field of historiography was taking shape—and being influenced by Darwinism, scholars saw in civilizations the life patterns of species and organisms. There seemed to be a pattern throughout history as civilizations developed and rose and then fell. It was a life cycle, but there was one curious exception—the Jews! Though we had endured defeats and diaspora and seemingly continual persecution for some 4000 years, historians and historiographers marveled at the way our ever-dying people managed to survive and even thrive. The religious explanation is, of course, that God is active in history and that Jewish survival and agency are part of God’s plan. However, for these historians and social scientists, supernatural or theological considerations were not part of their working or thinking vocabulary. How did the Jews manage to avoid the cyclical rise and fall of every other civilization?
A very persuasive theory came from the poet Heinrich Heine who spoke of Judaism’s portable homeland. The Torah and the way of life it teaches comprise a way for us to live spiritually and culturally wherever we are and whatever our physical condition. Many Jewish thinkers picked up on his notion and used it in their teaching of Judaism and in their conceptual crafting of modern Judaism. Our God and our relationship with God are not dependent on any particular land or landscape; they exist in the commitment we have and the approaches we have developed over the years. In the words of the Psalmist:
”The Jewish people are the place of God’s holiness,
The Israelite people the place of God’s power.”
I do not know if Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradion had this in mind, but his famous teaching in Pirke Avot (3.3) resonates with this sensibility: “When two people sit and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.” If God is universal, and if Torah can help us to access God, then we can live in holy relationship with God anywhere.
In both Israel and in the Diaspora, the salient aspect of Jewishness is whether and how we manifest Torah—God’s holiness and energy—in our lives.