Beshalach: Hotel California

In last week’s Parshah (Torah Portion), Bo, Pharaoh finally agrees to let Bnai Yisrael (The Israelites) leave Egypt Shemot (Exodus) 12:31-42. In this week’s Parshah, Beshalach, almost as soon as they leave, Pharaoh changes his mind and chases Bnai Yisrael and his army, and eventually corners them at the Red Sea (Shemot Chapter 14:1- 9). The Israelites cannot go back because of Pharaoh’s army, and they cannot go forward because of the water, and they panic, crying out to Moshe (Moses) and to God (Shemot 14:10-12). Moshe then tells the people Shemot 14:13 “…Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of God that The One will perform for you today; …” God Responds in Shemot 14:15 by saying, “…Why do you cry out to me? Speak to Bnai Yisrael and let them journey forth!”

Interestingly, the people cry to Moshe and to God, and Moshe says not to worry; God will take care of everything. However, God does not seem to be happy with this, and essentially says to the people—and to Moshe—do not cry to me, do something. God’s position seems to be that God has been doing everything for the people up until this point, and now it is time for them to take some responsibility. Then God instructs Moshe to lift up his staff and the sea will part; and sure enough, this happens (Shemot 14:16-22).

This is the story in the Torah itself. However, the Midrash, Shemot Rabbah 21:9 adds an interesting dimension to the story (a Midrash is a story from the rabbinic period that adds to the narrative of the Torah). According to this Midrash, the sea did not split right away when Moshe lifted up his staff; it was not until a leader of the tribe of Yehudah (Judah), Nachshon Ben Aminadav, jumped into the water and the water came up to his nose, that the sea actually parted.

If you read this story in the context of the actual narrative in the Torah, clearly the message is that to make miracles happen–or, in other words, to achieve what seems unachievable–we ourselves have to take the first step. We do not simply sit back and wait; we have to join in an active partnership with God as Nachshon did. We should all make miracles happen, in our homes, at work and everywhere else in our lives. When we work out complicated dynamics in our relationships with our friends and family, that is a miracle. When we help our children to achieve a challenging goal, that is a miracle. When we accomplish a seemingly insurmountable task at work, and we do it while treating everyone we work with (especially the people we supervise) with dignity and respect, that is a miracle. When we volunteer our time to a social justice cause when we think we have no time to spare, that is a miracle.

However, there is another message in this Parsha as well, and this is the message of faith – especially blind faith, which is an area that makes many of us uncomfortable these days. We look at faith and see it linked to fundamentalism and we are scared of the horror that it causes in the world. Therefore, let me be very clear. Without a doubt, Judaism is a religion that values questioning. The entire basis of Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) is based on questioning. However, there are times where we have to take a leap of faith. Nachshon demonstrates this concept. He believed in God, in himself, and in the destiny of the Jewish people.

There is a prayer we recite towards the end of services on Shabbat morning called Ain Kelohainu. The first stanza reads, “There is none like our God, There is none like our Lord, There is none like our King, There is none like our Savior.” The second stanza reads, “Who is like our God? Who is like our Lord? Who is like our King? Who is like our Savior?” The order of these two stanzas is strange. It would seem more logical to first ask the question “Who is like our God?” and then give the answer, “There is none like our God.” Why is it the other way around? In Judaism, in any religion there has to be a leap of faith to some degree; however, once that leap of faith is taken, then we question, question, question. Judaism—and in my opinion, all religions—are at their best when they are asking complex questions. They are at their worst when they are not asking any questions. At the very least, a lack of questioning indicates a lack of caring, and at worst, it is the lack of questioning that can potentially lead to fundamentalism. People think faith is what fuels fundamentalism. I do not believe that this is true. Faith is beautiful. However, it must be tempered with questioning.

After the Read Sea parts and the people cross through, they sing a song of praise to God (Shemot 15 1-19). In line 11 the song asks a question, “Who is like you among the heavenly powers, God? Who is like You? . . .” This line can be read as both extraordinary praise to God, and also possibly as questioning. Even in the moment of our greatest praise of God, in the moment of our greatest demonstration of faith, it is acceptable, perhaps even obligatory, to question.

These two messages—the first, of joining in partnership with God to make miracles happen and the second, of having faith in God while maintaining a commitment to questioning—are linked, not separate. We are engaged in a partnership with God to make miracles happen, in this each partner must have faith. Each partner must also question. It is through this partnership, based on faith and questioning, that we will truly fix this very broken world. Let it be soon. Let it be today. Let it be this very moment.

Questions For Further Discussion:

Have a conversation with friends and family about this week’s Parsha. Here are some questions to guide you in your conversation.

  1. What do you think was going on in Nachshon’s mind before he jumped in?
  2. Do you think he was scared?
  3. Do you think he hesitated?
  4. Has there ever been a time in your life where you knew that there was a right thing to do but you were scared to do it?
  5. What did you do?
  6. How did you arrive at your decision?
  7. How do we inspire people to take the first step in difficult situations?
  8. Are you a “Nachshon” in your life?

This weeks Song:

This week’s title is taken from the song, “Hotel California.” This week’s teaching is named in memory and in honor of Eagles’ guitarist, Glenn Frey. At first glance, I am sure there does not appear to be an obvious connection between this song and this Parsha. However, the last line of the song reads, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” The lyric challenges us to think about what freedom is ultimately about, what choice is ultimately about, and what our ability is to make decisions. This is what Moshe and the Jewish people are confronted with at the parting of The Red Sea.

To hear and watch the video for Hotel California, click HERE.