Parashat B’shalah

By Steve Alatarescu

As we know, the God of the Torah can be seen as protective but also capable of unspeakable cruelty. The God of liberation portrayed in the plagues in this week’s parashah, B’shalah, needs a makeover in order for us to have a God Who helps in our present-day liberation, personal and communal.

The Israelites in our parashah are portrayed as needing the protection and the direction of a tough God. God sees us as scared and soft. The Israelites experienced the plagues, including the killing of the first-born, and, in this parashah, the drowning of Pharaoh and the Egyptians in the sea. They follow Moses, perhaps shocked by the course of events, and faithfully go through the Red Sea. They can’t help but know that this God is serious about their liberation and they are about to learn about God’s plan for becoming a holy people.

Indeed as God is worried about the Israelites being scared and turning back we are told at the beginning of the parashah: ‘God did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines because it was near . . . and the people might have a change of mind when they see war.’ (Ex. 13; 17)

They are not a people ready for struggles, for they have been living in servitude for hundreds of years. God wants to free them in order to move them towards holiness.

How do we translate these notions for ourselves? While the Israelites experienced the power of God through plagues, miracles and wars, we need to find out how our God wants us to struggle, to be liberated and move towards holiness in our lives in these days.

Thankfully our ancestors provided us with maps and directions towards holiness.

Over the centuries our Jewish sages and mystics have taught wonderful lessons based on seeing the exile in Egypt as a metaphor for the soul going down into the body or ego. The act of leaving Egypt is then seen as the act of our soul, the spark of God within us, gaining dominance over narrowly focused material and selfish concerns.

As hard as it was for the Israelites to get out of Egypt, not to turn around and go backwards and to fail as many times as they did, most of us know how hard it is for us to grow and mature. Thankfully Judaism continually provides us with spiritual opportunities through prayer, holidays and rituals.

Indeed the 49 days of the counting of the omer from Pesach to Shavuot have been transformed from an agricultural or Temple event to a period of personal growth. In Hasidism each day of the counting is transformed into combinations of sefirot (Divine manifestations) to focus on improving our character as we move towards receiving Torah. (The Art Scroll Siddur, page 286, among other prayerbooks, contains a guide for this work for each of the 49 days.)

Tu B’Shvat has also been transformed by our sages and mystics from an agricultural and legal event to an opportunity to work on becoming spirituality attuned with deeper parts of ourselves. Each glass of wine in the Seder represents one the four worlds understood in Kaballah to represent the worlds of the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual qualities within us. Each of them needs our focus in order to grow towards holiness.

These are examples of how our tradition has provided us spiritual opportunities through our sacred stories. The exodus story of the overwhelming ‘forces of Egypt’ becomes a personal struggle against our negative qualities that keep us from being in touch with our souls, our spiritual selves.

The waters of the Red Sea represent for us those forces in our lives that we have to break through to make change happen in ourselves and in our personal, political or workplace worlds. As the Israelites just had to take the first step before the seas opened, I also find that I have to assertively take the first step with great faith that God will be with me and help get me through the obstacles so that I can persevere. The Torah is our guide and our inspiration to get us through the narrow straits and the deep seas and come out whole and eventually holy.

There is a wonderful prayer in the siddur that is part of the Sabbath liturgy ‘give us our portion in the Torah, satisfy us with Your goodness and give us joy with Your deliverance.’

We each have a unique share of Torah, our portion that our siddur teaches us is our God-given right. On Tu B’Shevat we have an opportunity to reconnect with our unique portion, our Tree of Life that, through our care and tending, can enable us to bear our beautiful fruits, our personal creative and spiritual potential.

May we all be blessed to ripen and allow our God-given potential to emerge and be shared with the world.