From Anxiety and Fear to Joy and Song ....... Parashat B'shalach Exodus 13:17-17:16 11 Shevat 5778
From Anxiety and Fear to Joy and Song 🙈 👸🙊😰😀
---Rabbi Yonatan Sadoff---
Song of the Sea
We all find ourselves in fear-provoking or anxiety-inducing situations from time to time or, for some, even daily. It is no wonder, as there are so many stresses and pressures in our lives. We are concerned about our own health and the health of our loved ones; we have fear in connection with financial matters (paying bills, sending our kids to university); the work place can invoke all kinds of fears; there's a fear of heights, of small spaces, of water, of wind and you can fill in your favorite fear... We can try to control all of these external situations. For example, if one has a fear of flying, then he can take a bus, train or boat -- but then other anxiety-provoking situations seem to pop up in their place. In short, the problem is the fear and anxiety within and not the external situation. Fear, worry and anxiety will probably not disappear from our lives, but when we find ourselves in that place, what can we do? How can we cope? How can we move ourselves from a place of ultimate fear and anxiety to a place of ultimate joy and song?
This week's Parashah (weekly Torah portion) recounts a dreadful scene that would even inspire Hollywood suspense writers (and has). A situation which, on the surface, seems to leave the Children of Israel neither with the option to fight nor to flee. The Egyptians in fierce pursuit overcome the People of Israel with only a deep sea in front of them! It taps into the deepest fears of death and drowning and perhaps even scarier -- the feeling of being pursued, hunted and trapped!
This is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. After the death of his own firstborn, Pharaoh finally experiences the proverbial "fear of God" in his heart and anxiously insists that the Israelites depart from Egypt immediately. No sooner do our People leave Egypt that he has a change of heart (Exodus 14:5) and orders his chariot as well as every other chariot and officer in Egypt to pursue the Nation of Israel into the desert. The Egyptians chase the Israelites until they catch up with them by the Sea at a place with an interesting name: Pi Hachirot (literally, the mouth of freedom).
Marc ChagallCan you imagine how you would have felt had you been there? You turn around and see your worst enemy coming up from behind accompanied by massive forces. You are a slave on the run, one who has lived in fear every day of your life and here at the "Entrance to Freedom" you are cornered. Massive military forces coming up from behind -- no place to run, death by drowning in front of you, death by sword from the rear. So, how would you feel? This is how the Torah describes the reaction of the Israelites:
14:9 And the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth...10 And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were sorely afraid!; and the children of Israel cried out to God.
14:11 And they said to Moses: 'Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, to bring us forth out of Egypt?
14:12 Is not this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying: Leave us alone, so that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.
14:13 And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you to-day; for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall not see them again - for ever.
We all know the next part of the story. Moses lifts up his rod and God parts the sea, the People cross on dry land and the Egyptians are killed when the waters come crashing back upon them and drown them. And then after they have crossed...the Israelites see the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. How did they feel -- relieved? Not at all! This is what the Torah says:
Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea and when Israel saw the Mighty Hand of God and what He had done to the Egyptians, the People feared the Lord; they had faith in God and his servant Moses.
What we read at the very end of chapter 14 of Exodus is what I would call a "mixed reaction". The People experienced yet another great fear after the fear of the Egyptians --they feared God. As I said earlier, one fear is often replaced with another when the issue is our internal fear. But the verse in the Torah does not end with fear, it adds: "they had faith in God and his servant Moses". And then immediately after that...they broke out in song! How can we understand their great fear, on the one hand, and their faith, joy and song, on the other, at that moment? Consider this section of the reading:
1 Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, for He is highly exalted...
The English seems very straightforward: after they crossed the sea and were safely standing on dry land, after seeing their aggressors dead and experiencing divine salvation, they experienced three consecutive feelings:1) FEAR 2) FAITH 3) JOY. So they sang a song to God.
Grave of Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, Ukraine
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, an 18th-century Hassidic master (also known by the name of his famous classic book of commentaries the Kedushat Levi) offers the following [taken from A Partner in Holiness, a translation of the Kedushat Levi by Rabbi Jonathan Slater]:
Quoting Rashi (11th-century commentator par excellence) who also drew from the Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin:
"This means to suggest that the idea to sing rose in thought [first]" How can we understand Rashi? (asks the Kedushat Levi and answers) In general, when we see the greatness of the Creator, we respond with trembling, fear and awe, and it is impossible to experience any pleasure in the midst of this terrible fear. But...God pours out blessings afterwards and that is surely pleasure...This explains Rashi's comment: in the moment of fear it arose in their hearts to sing a song, and that is the delight that follows fear."
The Delight that follows Fear
I believe that R. Levi Yitzhak is saying something very deep. He is sharing with us the answer to the very essential question: How can we move from a place of deepest fear, panic and anxiety to a place of joy and song (in an instant!)? He admits that it is impossible to experience any pleasure in the midst of terrible fear. But let us remember the end of the verse about the Israelites' fear of God at seeing the Egyptians dead on the seashore. They had faith in God and in Moses his servant! They tapped into something wonderful that any of us can experience at any moment. Faith! Yes, there are moments of fear and dread, but if one has faith they know that there are blessings, joy and light just around the corner. For no matter how scary a situation we find ourselves in, we can trust that there are blessings awaiting us just beyond this moment. Not only that, we can picture or envision that moment; when we do, our thoughts cause our emotional state to shift immediately. And when our thoughts need a little help to move to a place of faith and gratitude for blessings to come -- we can sing and that will uplift our spirit as well. It may then come to our minds to sing and be joyful, even in our suffering, for the blessings to come -- and then we will do it (future tense). "Az Yashir Moshe u'vnei Yisrael" -- then we will sing because our thoughts have moved to a place of joy and blessing.
Joy, Song and BlessingShabbat Shalom! Please leave comments on my blog or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org