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parshat beshalach

September 19, 2019

Seeing God Work In Our Daily Lives

Rivky Stern

Executive Producer

In Parshat Beshalach, we see one of the most epic stories of the Torah – the epilogue to the Exodus – the splitting of the sea. Pharaoh has freed the Israelites, he’s sent them out of Egypt. But then he has a change of heart. He dispatches his army into the wilderness to go chase down his former slaves.

The Israelites see the mighty Egyptian military coming, and they’re terrified. They scream to Moses – we wish we would have peacefully died in Egypt, rather than be massacred in the wilderness. And then, of course, God saves them. The Almighty splits the sea, allowing Israel through, and destroys the Egyptian army in the waves.

And the nation has one of the most incredible and inspiring responses ever. They look at God, and they are awestruck; the text tells us, Vayaaminu, and they believed in God, and in Moses, God’s servant.

And you know, every year, I get overwhelmed by the whole thing. God saves them and loves them, and in response, the people feel that love, and give it right back to God.

But here’s the thing that gets me every time. This story, this chapter, is incredibly and inspirational and beautiful, only when you read it in isolation. Only if you freeze the frame right here, with the swelling violins and the romantic connection between God and Israel, and forget all about what happens next.

Because, well, what happens next?

The people are hungry, and complain. In response, God saves them.

The people are thirsty, and complain. In response, God saves them.

The people are hungry again, and complain. In response, God saves them.

Seeing a pattern, anyone? Right after the people declare their belief, right after this epic, loving connection between God and the people of Israel, the people almost seem to lose their faith – and for no apparent reason, because there’s no indication that God will stop saving them! Indeed, every time they complain, there’s God, saving the people, again!

This lack of faith in God evinced by the people in the desert… it seems like a pretty consistent pattern, and a distressing one, at that.

However, there is one oddball thrown into the mix of Parshat Beshalach.

There’s this episode with Amalek, who attack the nation in a surprise battle. Unlike the previous three episodes, this time, the nation calmly follow Moses’ lead, and they win this surprise battle.

So why are they faithful when it comes to the Splitting of the Sea, and Amalek, but they’re full of doubt that God will provide for them, when they are hungry and thirsty? How can we possibly reconcile these two reactions?

In a video on Aleph Beta that we released this week, I address this question. My theory is that we have two different relationships with God, one in which we see God as our protector about “big” things – that’s where we care about military prowess, and the ability to protect us from our enemies. But the other relationship is one in which we see God as active in our lives in my “little” concerns – will I have enough food on the table for my family? Will my car will start the morning of my big job interview? Those are two different types of faith – and in this week’s parsha, we see that the people of Israel succeeded in their faith in the first aspect, but in our parsha, they could never really get to the second.

But here’s the thing. As Rabbi Fohrman reminded me when I talked to him about this theory, the Torah wasn’t written in neat little parshas. Maybe this theory works for Parshat Beshalach, when we have some stories about God’s military might, and some stories about God caring about my “little” concerns. But does this theory follow through? If we can’t see these themes playing out through the entire narrative of the Israelites’ time in the desert, well, then the theory falls apart.

So that’s my question for all of us. Does this theory hold? Do we see the Israelites continuing to have emunah, and see God in military struggles? Do we see them continue to struggle to see God in their more mundane, regular activities – in their worries about food, and other “little” hardships?

So I kept digging, looking through not only this parsha, but the Israelites’ entire experience in the wilderness. I wanted to see, when the Israelites are in a position where they are in trouble, when do they hold on to their faith in God? And when do they give up and lose their faith entirely? Does the pattern – continuous faith in God’s military protection, versus a loss of faith in God’s everyday help – continue?

And here’s the thing: I think it does. Because remember the classic stories we all come back to, when we think about how the Israelites kept rebelling during their time in the midbar? Remember the Golden Calf incident? Remember the rebellion of Korach and his followers, the panic after the spies, more complaints about the food they’re being given, over and over, the people scream at Moses, rebel against God and their leaders? None of these doubts were about whether God could provide for them militarily. These doubts were about whether God was there for them, whether He would be close with them, whether He would be able to really understand and empathize with their daily life. With their continuing food panic, they struggle – as if to say: God doesn’t understand us; we need more food. With the Golden Calf, they panicked – as if to say: God doesn’t understand us; we need a leader. Over and over, the people fear that God just doesn’t get them.

However, they don’t always have that same fear. Because look at all of the military stories of the book of Numbers. They battle with Arad, Sichon and Og, and Midian, and in each of these battles, the people calmly and patiently trust God, fight, and defeat their enemies – even as, interspersed between these stories, they lose faith about everything else.

The lessons we see through the Israelites’ struggle with faith – different types of faith – feel very real. There’s the magnificent God – the God who looks out for our nation, for our entire world. But that same God is also one who is there, with me, through the little things. Can I have faith in both? It can be difficult. When it comes to the big things, my faith feels more certain. When anti-Semitism looms, will God protect us, making sure that the Jewish people survive continues to endure? Yeah, I believe so. But will God help my unemployed friend with his financial struggles? There, it feels harder to muster the same certainty. But when we talk about faith, finding God in the marriage of the two types is always my goal.

I’d love to hear what you think, and how you relate to this struggle. Watch the video, and leave comments.