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

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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Parshat Beshalach: The Miraculous, Wondrous, Unimaginable, What-cha-ma-call-it

A while ago I saw a funny cartoon (I think today it’s called a meme though I still don’t understand why we can’t just keep calling it a cartoon…) that I thought speaks beautifully of our era.  It generally goes like this: two rabbits sitting on a park bench and the caption reads: ‘Life Before Google’. One rabbit says to the other, ‘I wish I knew more about the history of rabbits’ and the other rabbit says, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.’   Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how everything is at our fingertips and communication is but a few clicks away. When my husband is late getting home, I admit I have said to him: ‘if only there were a handy little device in your pocket that could help you let me know.’

So, I can’t help but wonder if there is any excitement left in the unknown.  Do we feel that things are beyond our reach conceptually? Could we ever be the rabbits on the park bench?

One of the great moments of mystery is when we explain to our kids that they’re going to have a sibling.  I remember understanding never to tell a child that we love them so much, we just couldn’t wait to have another.  It’s like telling your spouse you love them so much you couldn’t wait to be intimate with someone else. It sounds logical but it’s a terrible thing to communicate.

Whichever way we told our kids about a new addition to the family, I am always struck by the things kids filled in because we neglected to address their perspective.  Some of my kids assumed that the new baby would live with my parents. Friends of mine mentioned their kids thought the new baby would come home with its own mother because they didn’t agree it could share theirs.  Other friends mentioned that they dropped their daughter with her grandparents on the way to the hospital to deliver the new baby. After coming home with the baby, the daughter refused to visit the grandparents for a long time, afraid the parents would pick her up with yet another new baby.  When we think we know everything about something we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, we are suddenly struck with understanding how little we really know.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Beshalach, Israel leaves Egypt and starts to complain about not having food.  God sends manna from heaven. The description of manna is that it’s off-white, moist, spoils easily, it’s flavour changes person to person although it always looks the same.  The Sages tell us that the way God sends the manna and feeds Israel is a means of building trust between God and Israel. In essence, the Torah is describing mother’s milk.  

It also fits the context in that Israel, as a people, were just born by walking through the dry canal of the Red Sea and now they want to nurse and bond.  In fact, later in the Torah, Moses will get angry with God and say he no longer wants to ‘nurse’ the people. Remembering that Israel left Egypt with full supplies of everything they need, including cattle, it completes the image of a newborn in a household filled with food but unable to access any of it.  The newborn needs a special food relationship that nourishes and builds trust.

But while the imagery is familiar to us, it is completely unknown to Israel.  The Torah says they wake up in the morning, look outside and see the ground covered with this stuff, at which point they exclaim: ‘what is that stuff?’, in Hebrew: ‘maan hu?’, in transliteration: ‘manna’ and in translation: ‘It’s manna’.  And that is how we get the word ‘manna’ that literally means: the ‘what is that?’ (the word what-cha-ma-call-it comes to mind).

We are so baffled by it, that we perpetuate the name that embodied the wonderment.  And yet, it is the Divine expression of what goes on naturally between the females and babies of every mammal in creation.  We’ve taken it for granted to the extent of not recognizing it when we see it in our parshah.

The Torah shows us that wondrous things occur around us constantly.  With our phones in our pockets, and seemingly unlimited access to everything through our electronics, we can still be the rabbits on the bench.  Abraham Joshua Heschel used to teach that we should opt not to ask God for success or power, but choose instead to ask God for wonder. It sits around us all the time, it’s a matter of perspective.