Parashat Beshalah 5783

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Fear of Freedom?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Beshalah
By Rabbi Steven Altarescu (’14)The most powerful metaphor in Jewish thought is the exodus from Egypt. The story of the exodus has been read as a model of people seeking freedom in every historical period, as a symbol of rebirth and renewal, as freeing oneself from psychological and emotional conscription.

The visual image of the sea parting, leaving dry land for the Israelites to march through but then closing up and drowning the Egyptians who pursued them, is stirring. The song the Israelites sung when they witnessed the power of God to open the sea for them but close it on the Egyptians is sung every morning as part of the shaharit service.

In the Torah the song of the sea is followed by song, drumming and dance led by Miriam and other women.

The air feels full of celebration for these newly freed people. And yet as they set out into the wilderness they find no water or only bitter water and the people fear that God, who performed miracles for them just days ago, will not provide for their needs and start to complain.

As I have gone deeper into my meditation practice I have experienced moments of fear that connect to the Israelites facing their freedom from slavery in Egypt. The meditation instructions in one form of practice are to let go of any thoughts that emerge in the mind and place attention and focus on the breath either at the spot right under my nose or at another point in the body such as the chest or the abdomen. Of course, this is easier said than done. As anyone who has tried meditating even for a minute or two knows, within a few seconds the mind’s activity moves to the forefront of one’s consciousness and it takes a while to come back to awareness and return one’s focus to the breath. The process of the mind’s activity taking over and then awakening and returning focus on the breath goes on and on. We learn that it requires patience and time, a long time, to realize that this running and returning is part of the process and to accept this process without judgment. At some point there are longer periods of staying aware of the breath and a wonderful feeling of openness and connection. One also learns about the nature of our minds, including the repeated thoughts of regrets, planning, rehearsing and endless to-do lists. One becomes aware of the repetitive narratives of our lives and those we weave about the lives of others including all of our judgments and criticisms of self and others. This continual chatter, the distractions to our focusing on the breath, are approached in at least two ways by various meditative traditions. The dilemma is, are these “distractions” important material for us to “raise up to holiness” as a school of Hasidic thought teaches, or are we to give this mental activity no attention at all and focus on returning to our breath. The latter school of thought believes in focusing not on the mind’s ceaseless meandering, but instead on entering a state of ecstasy, happiness and connection to the sacred within and all around us.

It has taken me many years of practice including going on Jewish and Buddhist meditation retreats to begin to get a taste of the experience of being in these numinous states. As I read Parashat Beshalah and the reaction of the Israelites as they experienced the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, I was reminded of the fear I felt during my initial experiences in states of ecstatic joy.

My mind quieted down and I experienced a deep pleasure, which Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist teacher, labeled dharmic pleasure, a pleasure not connected to any of the five senses. After a minute or two in this state I felt fear arising. I was surprised. Why should I feel fear at this serene moment? I realized, reflecting later, that this experience of feeling free from the narratives of my mind (neurotic though they might be) was discomforting as I identify who I am with this narrative.  In an analogous fashion, the Israelites’ identity is not of a free people ready to feel the Divine power in their lives, but as a people tied to the narrative of the comfort of being slaves.

We read over and over again that the fears and complaints of the Israelites recall imagined memories of the food they ate in Egypt. They cannot yet connect to freedom and God as active positive forces in their lives.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:5)

Sitting on my cushion, fear drove me back to narratives of regret, self-judgment, planning and to-do lists which at moments I desired more than this ecstatic connection to the Divine. The Israelites mirror this fear as they both experience the presence of God guiding them and resort to fear and complaining.

Aviva Zornberg, in her book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,[1] writes about the thinking process of the Israelites. She states that even after experiencing the miracle at the sea, God at first tries to stop them from reflecting on how much better it would have been to have remained in Egypt as slaves, and then after realizing their thought process will not end, sends them on a route which makes returning to Egypt more difficult for them to consider. Zornberg writes: “we perceive the strength of God’s resolve that the people should not ‘think thoughts,’ should not ‘return to Egypt.’ But the problem, of course, is that, in spite of all of God’s precautions, the people do think these thoughts… God, then, is represented as changing their itinerary, in order to prevent what, in fact, happens.”[2]

God’s next strategy after failing to prevent the Israelites from thinking thoughts about returning to bondage is to provide a space, the wilderness, to allow these thoughts without the possibility of acting upon them. Zornberg writes: “Indeed, we might say that God has set aside for them a kind of ‘academic space’ in which, precisely, to do their thinking… a freedom to think, ask subversive questions. It gives them, also, the outrageous freedom to ‘zigzag,’ not just geographically but intellectually, emotionally.”[3]

God has no choice but to allow these thoughts even when they fabricate the reality of the Israelites’ lives in Egypt. Over the course of their time in the wilderness, the Israelites recall various foods they feasted on in Egypt even though the reality presented early in the book of Exodus is of embittered lives from which they cried out to God to save them. Yet these memories occupy their minds and cause them to complain and rebel against God and Moses over and over again. They witnessed the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, experienced the power of God and are told that if they enter into the covenantal process they will be protected by God.

“If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.” (Exodus 15:27)

And yet, the power of my attachment to an identity connected to the old stories my mind retells moves me away from awareness of ecstatic joy and happiness, of experiencing a sacred connection within and around me. Dr. Daniel C. Matt, in his essay, “Beyond the Personal God,”[4] writes in regard to the false narratives about ourselves that we believe have a reality. “These streams of narrative issue forth as if from a single source. To those around us, it seems that a unified agent has authored the story, that there is a center of narrative gravity. This apparent center, this apparent self, is an enormously helpful simplification, but it is an abstraction, not a thing in the brain. Though fictional, it is remarkably robust, almost tangible.”

The fiction of the good food and comfort in Egypt becomes robust in the Israelites’ imagination at times of stress and fear.

Slowly, over many months, I have lengthened the time I remain in a state of joy and happiness and a felt connection to the Divine. The power of these moments is not just while sitting on the cushion but in how they inform the rest of my day with eyes wide open. I see the sacredness of the world when I am not pulled into habitual ways of thinking and seeing, the way of fear and judgment. Instead, open to joy and curiosity I want to walk this journey of life.

Thankfully, over the course of time the Israelites’ narrative of life in Egypt being preferable over freedom has transformed to a narrative that affirms the beauty and wonder of a life connected to the Divine and has become a powerful metaphor for all people who seek physical, psychological and spiritual freedom. The powerful God of the Torah who performs supernatural miracles has transformed to a sacred force we can access through our prayer, meditation and learning.

Matt writes: “God is not somewhere else, hidden from us, but rather, right here, hidden from us. Enslaved by our routines, we rush from one chore to the next, from event to event, rarely allowing ourselves to pause and open.”[5]

[1] Aviva Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Relections on Exodus (Image/Doubleday:2002)

[2] Zornberg, page 201.

[3] Ibid, p. 204

[4] Daniel Matt, “Beyond the Personal God,” The Reconstructionist, Spring 1994. Page 44

[5] Ibid, page 46.

Rabbi Steven Altarescu (AJR 2014) served as co-rabbi with his wife Rabbi Laurie Levy (AJR 2015) at the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley from 2014- 2020. He is a Board Certified Chaplain who has worked at Westchester Medical Center and Northern Westchester Hospital. He is developing his meditation practice and studying painting and mixed media art at the Art Students League and chasing after his four young granddaughters.