Brad Baker shared this D’var Torah on January 11, 2014 at Temple Beth Israel.
Imagine you’re suddenly taken from a good, free life and made a slave.
It takes your breath away.
A father and mother who vowed to protect their children…now cannot.
And it’s not only you. A proud, productive people moving to hopelessness and despair. Generations will come and go in servitude. But now, in B’shallach, the Israelites are streaming out of Egypt. How exhilarating! The babies are crying; the toddlers are wide-eyed. Most of the children are traumatized, and most everyone else simply follows. “Hurry up! Go this way,” the people hear. They know only to follow Moses.
Then, Chapter 14 opens with “Adonai said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back…’” Stop—is this crazy? We are going backwards? Back toward Egypt? Amazingly, the text tells us, “And they did so.” God communicates through Moses, and the people follow because he—or because God—is a good leader. We know from prior parshas, and from how much Moses needs coaching in this one, that he may not be a natural leader. But each of us has the capacity to be a good leader in a particular moment—the right moment.
Everyone has a unique talent to share with others, and from that context we can lead.
Hallelujah. God has given us, each, a gift. And when we share this gift, it grows and grows. Then, we become part of a movement—in fact, a leader in a movement that expands over time.
So what is your gift to share?
Throughout B’Shallach, we read that praising God is part of our role in life. We see, hear and feel this. The beautiful song of the sea is a song of praise. The drowning of the Egyptians culminates with the Israelites’ awe of and faith in God. Recognizing, sharing, and leading with our gift is one way that we praise God—just as Moses did, even if he was sometimes reluctant, hesitant or frustrated.
Leadership requires a vision and a mission. It leverages strategy for persuading people and directing events.
In B’Shallach, God models how leadership can evolve as part of the evolution of a people—a community that is in its infancy as B’Shallach begins and sets out on the path to adolescence and independence when they later will lose Moses and enter the land. We see that God’s mission from the beginning is to develop a people to praise God. This is not a short-term goal. Our people are contracted to praise God forever. In its literal meaning: Hallelujah! How, in B’Shallach, does God proceed?
God begins by ensuring that the newly freed and wandering Israelites are protected from witnessing war, perhaps minimizing their trauma at a critical moment and helping them to move forward. We read, “God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness and the Sea of Reeds.”
Then we have that strange direction to turn back. This allowed Pharaoh to believe that the Israelites were confused and lost, luring him to pursue so his warriors could be drowned. I believe God used this to help secure not only the Israelites’ awe and praise, but also their belief in Moses’s leadership by having him hold out his arm to open the path in the water.
Both of these themes repeat in chapter 17, in the battle with Amelek. The Israelites go to war, but really God does battle in their stead, again using Moses’s raised hand as an intermediary. The Israelites are protected from war through God’s leadership in a way that secures Moses’s position as leader.
God understands that the psyche of future leadership cannot be built on the formative foundation of murder, revenge or battlefield souvenirs, even though the reality is that the Israelites do have to face war. What leadership does require is the vision to see others and to empathize with others. God pushes the people to stop and see others, to witness their own past, to witness God’s power, in this formative stage.
So begins the transition of an enslaved people to one with a mission.
Imagine again that you are there, this time at the sea when “Adonai hurled the Egyptians into the sea” and “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore….” Do you gloat? Pick up souvenirs from the dead? No. Adonai washes it away. There is no dwelling on the revenge, but instead we “had faith in Adonai and His servant Moses.” Even here, we have some of our innocence protected and the focus is on praising God and recognizing leadership. It is about God delivering Israel, not about the killing. This is God’s loving kindness, a holy shield to protect our innocence and our collective memory in preparation for our leadership to come.
We can follow God’s example in our lives today by helping to lessen the nightmares in our own communities—from hunger, lack of shelter, accessibility challenges—that can traumatize even the eldest of us and certainly affects the youngest so they may not develop their personal missions or realize their future leadership potential. We know God wants us to be a well-fed, well-rested, generous people that offers praise. And God shows us how.
• With acts of loving kindness, God sustains us in the wilderness: water from the rock, manna, and some protection from the worst of war.
• By helping a people set forth on a path that would ultimately enable them to change the world.
• By fostering a change in society’s mindset that has kept us alive and vital—giving praise—for 5,774 years.
All the while that God is providing in the wilderness, he’s also promising us the land of milk and honey—Canaan. We are reminded that we left Egypt with little and still will become a great nation. We are learning that when we become royalty in Canaan we must strive to take care of the needy, to assuage their trauma.
Tied up with this tzedakah—this righteousness—are the other mitzvoth: being present at Minyan, tithing money for the community, the seasonal gleaning of the harvest, the seven year rest for the land to lie fallow, and the jubilee year for the spirit—the neshama—in all of us to be set free.
Leadership does not depend simply on shul membership numbers, but on community impact.
Vitality is not dependent on age, but on engagement.
Loving kindness, with understanding toward others, is not bought with money but fostered in bump spaces and through dialogue.
Hallelujah. Shabbat Shalom.