This weeks Torah portion, Beshalach, conveys some wonderful insights into the contemplative practices that we have been exploring together at the JMC.
The story opens as the Israelites have embarked on the exodus from Egypt following a long and painful process of liberation. The text tells us that Pharaoh expressed regret for allowing the nation to flee and spearheaded a military effort to re-enslave the nation. As Israel is encamped along the sea of reeds they turn their gaze and behold the Egyptian armies chasing after them. The people go into a panic, they are afraid and many start crying out to God for assistance. Some even begin to accuse Moses of wrongdoing: “Are there not graves in Egypt that you had to bring us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by taking us out from the land of Egypt.” Reinforcing their earlier argument when Moses first came to speak on Israel’s behalf they said, “this is exactly what we told you in the beginning. It would better for us to work in Egypt than to die in the desert!”
Moses answered the people: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance God will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. God will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Moses basically tells the people, “you’re all over the place! You’re afraid, you’re crying, you’re praying, you’re accusing, and you’re complaining. How can you forget all that has happened until this point? We have been enslaved for over 200 years. We have almost completely lost our identity in that place, and you want to go back!? Right now we are here, and we are about to embark on a life-altering journey. Stand firm. Be aware of the change that is taking place. These Egyptians that you see before you – you won’t see them ever again, that part of your life is over.“
The Israelites are standing on a precipice, they are blinded by their inability to be aware of the events that have been unfolding before their eyes. The Torah says that they turned their gaze and saw the Egyptian armies approaching. With the turning of their gaze, it’s as if they had allowed themselves to be distracted from the true reality of the transformative experience at hand.
Moses had to remind them to be still.
Through the stillness of contemplation and meditation we can allow ourselves to be present with the events of our lives. It ensures that we can be there for the unfolding of our journey. In moments that we may feel lost or confused, we can envision a path that opens for us amidst the mighty waters of our lives. However, our practice has to be about more than our own personal journeys.
The sea was opened for Israel in order to bring them to Sinai- to bring them into a covenantal relationship with the Divine and to bring awareness to humanity of our responsibility to the universe. We will not see these Egyptians again. We will no longer allow the existence of a world that can have enslavement in it. After our experience of injustice in Egypt, we cannot afford to let that happen again. It is through being still that we can learn to be present in all of our relationships. This is the way to heal our world through acts of goodness and loving-kindness.
In response to the events in Tucson last week, President Obama conveyed these beautiful words that reflect the ideas of contemplation and gaining perspective on the unfolding of our lives:
“We are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth what matters is not wealth, or status, or power or fame, but how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”
Let us never turn our gaze away from the task at hand, and may our community create a space that will be for the betterment of the lives of others throughout the world.