Friday, February 3, 2012
A Born Again Jew - Parashat Beshalach
(I delivered this Dvar Torah at Shaarei Kodesh in 2010, but I think it's still relevant)
What do we think of when we hear the term: born again? What connotations does it have? When we hear the term born again in our society, we think of Evangelical Christians. The term denotes a very personal relationship. An individual is unhappy with the direction in their lives, they see that there is a better way, in this case, accepting Jesus as their lord, and they are born again.
It might surprise you to know that this idea of being “born again” is not so foreign to us as Jews. We see it a lot, just in different words. In our vocabulary, a born again Jew is generally called a Ba’al Tesuvah. This is also a very personal thing. But Judaism is not always about the personal, most of the time, it is about the community and the people. What I want to discuss is how we as a people were born again in this week’s parashah, B’Shalach.
One of the most famous scenes in the Torah is found in this week’s parashah, the splitting of the Red Sea. It is the most famous scene in the movie the Ten Commandments and it actually won it an award for Best Visual Effect. When we look at this scene, we think of another one of God’s great miracles for the people of Israel. If the 10 plagues were not enough for Israel to sell them on their God’s supremacy over the world, than this would do it. On another level, Ramban states that the splitting of the Red Sea was actually to finally break the Egyptians hearts because none of the previous miracles were as great as this one.
But I choose to look at this scene a little differently. I believe that this scene really was for Israel. We say a line from our Torah everyday during our morning service, (read in Hebrew – turn to page… - “And Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.”
Israel approached Yam Suf, the sea of Reeds, as one entity, but they came out the other end born again.
The God of the Torah is a God without form, something quite different than other gods in the ancient world. The God of the Torah is not bound by nature, in fact, God uses nature for His own use. In this case, I like to think of the splitting of the Red Sea as a sort of birth. The people of Israel are like a baby, waiting to be born, but they must go through the birth canal to enter the world. For any of us who have the blessing of having children, we know that there is no greater miracle in our lives than witnessing birth. This being comes from the darkness and insulation of the womb into a world of light. These moments are transformative.
As a newborn, you are totally vulnerable, and the first thing that often happens is the new born is given to the mother and a bond is made. It is at this moment that the newborn develops an awe for his mother, and they start to have faith. Rashbam says that the faith that the Israelites developed for God was that even though they were heading into dangerous wilderness, that they still would not die of starvation. So too a baby looks at its mother for sustenance, warmth, and survival.
When a baby enters the world, its first action is to cry in order to breathe in the air that they need to live in this world. After the Israelites left the Sea unscathed, they did something that is one of the most primal things a human can do: they cried out in song. This song, called Shirat Ha-Yam, is actually the oldest narrative in the entire Bible. It is our primal cry.
This song reveals the faith that Israel had for God. This idea of faith is also strong in our midrash. The midrash says that each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nahshon the son of Amminadab and descended first into the sea; His descent led to the splitting of the sea. I also learned another interesting story that explains why there is a dagesh in the second Mi Chamocha (Mi chamocha with the dagesh, there’s a story that the water was in their throats and only then did the sea split).
Being born again takes faith. It takes faith to know that you can have a different reality, because when you enter into a new reality, you are completely vulnerable. Everything you thought was reality in the past is different: you have to start over to build a new reality.
This happens all the time in our lives, sometimes by choice, like a new career, a change in deep seated habits, and sometimes it is imposed upon us, like the beginning of, or end to a marriage, the birth of a child, a death in our family, or in this case, a bar mitzvah.
Don’t be scared to reinvent yourself, don’t be scared to change yourself for the better, don’t be afraid to build a new life. The beautiful thing about our faith is that we do things as a people; we are rarely alone. When we are born again, we walk together through the Red Sea; we support each other and walk toward the same goal: fixing the world in God’s name.
It is fitting that next week is Tu Beshvat – nature begins anew, a new beginning where anything is possible. Every time we have a life cycle event, we are like a saplings growing into their own, the whole world is in front of us.