Friday, January 14, 2011

Believing without Seeing: Parashat B'Shallach

When judging the veracity of a claim or an event, we are always inclined to turn to the eye witness. In Jewish law, the role of the eid עד, the witness, cannot be underestimated in legal proceedings. So much of what we believe is connected to what we can see presently and what we have seen in the past. That which is "seen" and verified is that which we believe to be real. The influence of sight in the formulation of our beliefs is highlighted in this weeks portion: B'Shallach. In this portion, the Israelites see the approach of Pharaoh's army as they flee, but do not see, at least initially, God's redeeming power. In Exodus 14:10-11, the Israelites express their fear:

י וּפַרְעֹה, הִקְרִיב; וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד, וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶל-יְהוָה

And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were so afraid; and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.

יא וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

And they said unto Moses: 'Because there were no graves in Egypt, you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?

The Israelites claim that they should have stayed in Egypt -- certain slavery was better than a precarious existence that would probably be deadly. It was only when they see God's power that they affirm their faith in the God of their ancestors: (Exodus 14:31)

לא וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם, אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיַּאֲמִינוּ, בַּיהוָה, וּבְמֹשֶׁה, עַבְדּוֹ. {ר} {ש}31 And Israel saw the great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the LORD; and they believed in the LORD, and in His servant Moses.

When our ancestors saw miracles, they believed. In the desert without wonders and visions, they doubted. What do we do when miracles are not always visible in our lives? How do we retain faith in a life that often feels more like desert wandering than standing at the edge of the sea?

Sometimes we are lucky enough to see God's influence in our lives. We acknowledge blessings that we receive, we appreciate those moments that are so providential that they cannot be mere coincidences. However, at other times, there is nothing to see.

I do not have an easy answer for how to maintain faith and hope in darkness. However, I do believe it is an essential part of our lives as humans and as Jews. We cannot see the future, and therefore, we must have hope and faith to invest in the present. Without the hope that we can improve the future, our present becomes desolate and depressing. Our liturgy, the constant reminders to praise and acknowledge God, help us access our ancestral memories of redemption. They force us to see the bounty in front of us when we have taken it for granted.

On this Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, let us remember to give praise and acknowledge blessing. More importantly, let our community plant seeds for tomorrow even when we are not sure that we will receive our desired results. Positing faith in the unknown is a critical step toward survival and ultimately, redemption.

David Brooks, NY Times columnist, quoted Reinhold Niebuhr in his column this week. His words, I believe, have quite a bit to teach us:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

Shabbat Shalom