Parshat Beshalach: The Obstructed View Might Be the Way To Go

There are moments in life when we stand in front of our children to protect them, and there are times when we physically stand behind them to stop them from retreating.  When they are little, our kids usually hover around our feet whenever they’re in unknown places.  They might grab onto one of our legs, and not let go as we try to walk, or they might plant themselves behind us and refuse to move.  Their positioning around us is a way for them to let us know they are afraid or insecure — they’re not usually subtle.

When we do the same thing as parents, we try to keep it subtle, we want our kids to learn to stand strongly and independently.  As an adolescent, one of my daughters would often get tongue tied when speaking to anyone of authority.  I’m sure many adolescents feel the same way, and usually it’s not a problem, but this became a challenge whenever we would travel anywhere that involved an airport or a border.  Security personnel (and border officers) are trained to notice if someone is uncomfortable around them.  It is not so much what the person is saying in answer to the questions, it is more how they are saying it.  That’s when an adolescent who is getting nervous with questions would send up red flags.  

When that daughter finished high school, she decided to spend a year studying in Israel.  Plans were made, suitcases were packed, long goodbyes with friends…and then the security at the airport.  Everything seemed fine until the El Al security officer asked my daughter why she was going to Israel.  She said she’s going to continue her education, she’s going to university.  He asked her what year she had finished.  She paused, silently counted up all her years in school, and told him she finished 12 years.  At this point I could see the problem building.  The security agent didn’t quite understand, and so he asked her ‘twelve years of what’, at which point she took a small step backward, lowered her voice and said ‘my education.’  Her step backward prompted him to step forward, her lowered voice prompted him to lean toward her –I knew this was not heading anywhere good.  As he leaned in, he asked her if she could clarify where she had spent twelve years, and why she was going to Israel.  She took another step backward and stammered.

The only thing I could do at that moment was to move to stand behind her so she couldn’t take any more steps backward — she tried, she bumped into me and had nowhere to go.  I whispered to her that she’s starting her first year of university and she repeated exactly that to the security agent.  Things resolved quickly and it became clear that it wasn’t what she was saying that was the problem, it was that she was stepping backwards and showing discomfort in talking to him at all.  The red flag of nervous retreat.

It took a few years for her to figure out how to handle her encounters with authority asking personal questions.  None of us like those questions, they are intentionally intrusive and meant to catch us off guard — it works.  When coming home from Israel at the end of the year, the Canadian Customs agent asked her how long was her trip home, did she make any stops?  She paused for a moment and said her trip was 36 hours, and no, there had been no stops.  The agent looked up from the computer, stared for a moment at her and asked for clarification.  Her sister was travelling with her, and explained that the 36 hours included the time on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and the time on the bus to the airport as well as the wait time for the plane, in other words, her entire trip home.  The 36 hour answer was accurate and honest, and it triggered red flags because it did not reflect the mindset of the Customs agent.

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Beshalach, is filled with many of these same moments.  Israel has left Egypt, and immediately the Torah tells us that there is a direct route that God could choose to get them to Sinai but God chooses the longer route.  The worry is that they will see the Philistines, a warring people, and Israel will retreat to Egypt.  God, the parent, is anticipating that Israel will take steps backward and decides they have the time, Israel should not be rushed into a world it isn’t ready for.  God leads them elsewhere.  

Soon after, we are told that during the day, God travels in a dense cloud in front of Israel, and that during the night, God manifests in fire.  Both of these forms are always leading Israel in the wilderness.  At first glance, it makes perfect sense:  the cloud will shield the sun during the day so Israel can travel in its shade, and the fire will provide heat at night when the desert can get quite cold.  It is to protect Israel.

But given the earlier comment about rerouting so Israel doesn’t retreat, there is another reason for the cloud and the fire: they’re opaque.  At any given moment, an Israelite could look forward and see a wall of cloud or a wall of fire, but they could never see past them.  The future is too frightening, too unknown, too unknowable.  God has placed Israel behind the Divine ‘back’, not only to protect them, but to actually block their view.

Israel has just left Egypt, they can only look at the world as slaves, they have not found their footing or understood their independence.  Blocking their view of the future allows them to grow without the encumbrance of thinking they should already know who they should become.

It’s a beautiful parenting moment — when do we stand in front of our kids, when do we stand behind them, and when do we proudly stand to the side once we know they’ve found their footing.

This same daughter who had challenges answering probing questions at airports has since grown into a confident woman.  The family jokes and laughs about those moments from the past…but whenever we travel as a family, she’s not allowed to speak to any of the agents.

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