Rabbi Paula Marcus | Temple Beth El, California, USA
.וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא: כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה–וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה
And it was when Pharaoh sent the people, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was close, because God said (to God’s self) “Lest the people regret it when they see war and return to Egypt.
In the opening verse of this week’s parsha, the word nachah-nun-chet-hey is repeated twice. The first time, it’s usually translated as lead, and the second time it’s translated as regret, or change their minds or even repent.
In parshat Beshalach, our people are about to cross the sea. We’re on the verge of freedom but before the story continues, we read that God has a plan to minimize our fear, our anxiety and even our regret. God will lead us on the slow path, through dry land, into and through the wilderness and eventually, to the Promised Land. God has a plan to try to minimize our trauma.
This won’t be an easy task. One can imagine that the experience of slavery and having the energy to flee is hard enough as it is. Imagine the weariness and exhaustion.
We learned just a few weeks ago, in parshat Va’eira, that the people didn’t even listen to Moses when he first told them they would find freedom, because of kotzer ruach-a shortness of breath, a crushed spirit. How will they possibly have the stamina for the long journey ahead?
As we find ourselves in the midst of a world pandemic, which has lasted a lot longer than many of us could have imagined, how do we find the reassurance we need to go forward, with patience and endurance?
While we haven’t seen war as described in our parsha, we have certainly seen the devastation that comes with Covid-19. The loss of life has been indescribable, leading to fear and anxiety, exhaustion and impatience. It has been a very long journey. And we are still in the midst of this world crisis. We’ve been waiting for answers, to better understand the vaccines, the new strains of the virus, and when we might see our way to cures.
As our opening verse suggests, it’s hard to keep faith when we have suffered so much and still see so many challenges ahead. That could be why God made the plan to lead us slowly, so that we don’t turn back. So that we won’t have a change of heart. So that we find a way to keep going.
Rashbam teaches that God guided the people the long way so that they would build their capacity, so that they would have time to learn the skills needed to be able to go into the Land of Promise. The time in the wilderness was preparation for what we would need to realize and integrate what was promised to us. We had to travel the long route.
The first signs of Covid 19 came one year ago. It’s been a long year.
What are the skills we have been learning during this time? Where do we find the guidance we need to wait until the vaccine becomes available to us?
Just a few verses later in Beshalach we learn about how God will reassure and lead the people. The same word, nachah is used again. Understanding that uncertainty, anxiety and fear are reasonable responses to oppression God’s presence will be with the people as a guide.
.וַיהוָה הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן, לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ, וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ, לְהָאִיר לָהֶם–לָלֶכֶת, יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה
“God went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them on the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light so that they could go, day and night”.
This guidance came through a cloud by day and fire by night, physical, yet ethereal manifestations of God’s presence. One cannot touch a cloud or a fire. In this moment we may be guided by forces we can’t always touch. May we trust the path we’re on and be gentle with our tender hearts. May we welcome God’s guidance and may we feel the Divine flame within, illuminating all of our days and nights, finding the rest, the m’nucha מנוחה we need to renew our souls.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).