Sunday, February 5, 2012

What Now? - Parashat B'Shalach 5772 Drash

[Please review Exodus 16:2 – 17:7]

No sooner are Bnei Yisrael safe from the pursuit of the Egyptian Army, than the complaints begin against Moshe and Aharon. How did we jump so fast from the Song of Joy to the Song of Oy! The transition is quite startling, isn’t it?
Further: these early grumblings vaguely remind us of events we see unfold later in Sefer Bamidbar when the Bnei Yisrael complain that they are sick and tired of the mahn, and demand meat (P’ Bha’alotcha) and when they complain for lack of water after Miriam’s death (P’ Chukat.) Are these complaints qualitatively the same? How do these early events relate to the later ones? And is there a lesson for us in all of this? (Duh, of course there is. Read on.)
To answer these questions, put yourself in the sandals of a Hebrew slave. OK Hebrew slave, you’re a little tired and cranky because you’ve been up all night crossing an ocean – without the benefit of a boat!  As you stand on the far shore of the sea, it’s hard to believe the supernatural storm that raged here last night. The sky is sunny, the water so placid; it’s so flat you could skip rocks. Did it even happen? Did I imagine it?
And then you see it: an Egyptian chariot wheel washed up on the shore, the Pharaoh’s golden crest on the hub glinting in the sun, little waves gently lapping its edge. And it all comes back to you, in every vivid detail. The sounds, the smells.  Oh, it happened, all right.
OK, now what? We’re out. We’re free (I think). What’s the next move?
This is where we pick up the thread of our Parashah. Now what? Refer back to Exodus 12:39 – “…for they had made no provisions for themselves.”
Back in Egypt, everyone was so focused on this monumental, miraculous event, the actual leaving and the whirlwind of miracles that enveloped their leaving that no one – not even Moshe – gave a moment’s thought to the day after.
I remember when we first came home with our newborn twin girls from the hospital, our firstborn. We had spent so much time and invested so much energy in the preparing for the birth! And the great event was behind us now. Here we were, at home.  It was exciting and humbling at the same time. No doctors, nurses, midwives, labor coaches, birth instructors. Just the two of us and these soft, sweet, vulnerable, needy little puff balls. We’re on our own. OK… Now what?
Bnei Yisrael was a newborn nation. Now what? What do we eat and drink? Where are we going to live? When do we travel? These and a million other questions that are generally lumped together and called “Logistics.”  What Moshe needed was a Quartermaster General.
And so this infant nation, incubated in the womb of slavery; this nation, unique in that it was a nation midwived from the belly of another nation, cries out for food and water. This is not an unreasonable request. When a baby’s tummy is empty, she cries, as the Bnei Yisrael does here.
Unlike the complaints we see later in Sefer Bamidbar, the complaints we read of here were born of a legitimate concern over the question of ‘what now.’ And Moshe tells the infant people, “Hashem, our Father, has heard your complaint – and it is legitimate.”
One way to understand the second half of Sefer Shmot and entirety of Sefer Vayikra  is as an answer to the great question of the post-Exodus “what now?” How will we organize ourselves? What will our future society look like? It was scary and exhilirating all at the same time. We were venturing into uncharted territory here. And so in our parashah, the basic provisions of food and water for the people are made. In subsequent parshiot, we will observe the framework of the holy and exalted Jewish Society begin to take on additional form and substance.
Ok, great. If all this is true, why does Moshe backhand the Bnei Yisrael? Ah, Grasshopper, now we come to the point: it was not for what they asked, but for how they asked it. And this is a great lesson we can take from our Parashah. What we say is important, but how we say what we say can be just as important.
When people think of the mitzvah of Shmirat HaLoshon, of guarding our speech, we generally think of avoiding gossip mongering and slander. And that’s proper, as far as it goes. But even when we have something meaningful to say, we must consider the ”how.”  We must consider the effects of our words on others, on the “what now” after our words have sunk in and had their effect.
We all have a natural desire to have our voice heard, and to receive the approval of others for an idea well articulated. We speak cogently and concisely (hopefully!) to make our views known, and to persuade others of their validity. Occasionally, we might even aspire to eloquence.
The Torah, however, calls upon us to do more. Think about your audience – of one or of one thousand. To whom are you speaking? Will your words be received in the spirit which they are intended, or will they be misconstrued? be resented? Or Ch”V will you inadvertently embarrass the other person? Pirkei Avot 2:15 – “Let your friend’s honor be as dear to as your own.”  You can be on base, yet totally off track.
In Masechet Shabbat, 33b, the story is related of Shimon Bar Yochai. He was condemned to death by the Romans, and hid for 13 years in a cave. When he emerged, he saw the Jews of his day involved in mundane pursuits – farming, animal husbandry and the like. This enraged Bar Yochai, who had spent years doing nothing but studying Torah. He fulminated, "How can people engage themselves in matters of this world and neglect matters of the next world?" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice said, "Bar Yochai, go back to the cave! You are not fit for the company of other human beings." Rabbi Shimon went back to the cave, reoriented his perspective, and emerged again. This time, he was able to interact with the people of his generation, and become a great teacher of Torah.
What was so bad about Bar Yochai’s point? Nothing, really. His fault was in the way he expressed himself. The Torah implores us to weigh our words carefully, even the good ones. Don’t speak in haste, or in anger, or in righteous indignation. Take a deep breath. Pause. Ask yourself: how will my words affect others? And maybe – just maybe – I should just be quiet…
Make your words smile. That way, when you do talk, people will be drawn to your message. It is the truly thoughtful person, the Gcdly person, who develops the sensitivity to speak to each person in their own language; to use the gift of speech to elevate, and never to debase; and who weighs the impact of his words, well meant though they may be, on the heart of the listener.
Sadly, we live in an age of shockingly shrill and divisive rhetoric. May it be Hashem’s will that we all think more, talk a little less, and utilize the gift of speech in the cause of goodwill and civil discourse between friends.
Shabbat Shalom.

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