By Sara Klein Wagner
Every week, Jewish congregations across the globe take a Torah scroll from the ark in an annual cycle of study and renewal. The readers may be rabbis or cantors in front of congregations, or they may be volunteer readers, or even first time b’nai mitzvah students accepting the responsibility of the Torah for the first time. Yet, even in this variety, we all study the stories of the portions at almost exactly the same time from year to year and place to place. While the stories and portions do not change, there is always something new to consider—some new lesson to garner—based on the moment we are living in.
The portion of Beshalach is the lens from which we can study and look at the world in this moment. Beshalach tells the “song of the sea;” that moment at the edge of the sea when the people of Israel were confronted with a barrier that was preventing them from escaping slavery to move into freedom. The people stood at the edge of the waters, as a terrifying army was approaching, and had to make a choice: return to slavery, be crushed by an army, or move towards freedom despite an overwhelming obstacle. And then, at the most critical of moments, the sea parted and the people were able to move forward.
A wonderful community member and leader, Carol Jones Levitch shared the critical nature of that moment at a recent meeting, sharing the thoughts of Rabbi Yohoshua B Gordon, who said:
“The people had spent 210 years in Egypt, with nearly 100 of those years marked by brutal oppression. Pharaoh, having forgotten Joseph and his contributions to Egypt’s greatness, became obsessed with the ‘Jewish Problem,’ subjecting the people to cruel enslavement. Finally, G-d charged Moses with leading them out of Egypt. After Moses and Aaron spent nearly a year in negotiations with Pharaoh, including G-d bringing the 10 Plagues upon the Egyptians, the people miraculously left, embarking on their journey to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Regretting letting the people out, Pharaoh led his special forces to pursue them. Encamped around the Red Sea, the people found themselves trapped.”
Rabbi Gordon explained that the teachings that the people were divided into four camps: those who wanted to fight, those that wanted to flee, those that wanted to return to slavery, and those that needed to pray. Each had strong opinions as to what to do next but divided they remained.
But then, an interesting thing happened: Moses rejected all four options. “Don’t be afraid!” he reassured the people. There is only one answer when confronted with these impossibilities: do not accept the apparent obstacles. Move Forward!
How relevant is this today? When Jewish people are facing one crisis after another, when it feels like we are at the edge of a sea and being pursued from all sides, what should we do? The answer remains: Move forward! We have collectively and individually faced a myriad of problems and challenges. Obstacles seem insurmountable, but the lesson to not give in comes forth in Beshalach. Change always comes when we get to work and keep going forward.
When Carol shared this lesson, we were in a group discussing Jewish education in our community. The possibilities seem as large as the sea, and we are working together to build up the future of Jewish education across so many platforms. Likewise, the desperation around houselessness and gun violence in our community seems overwhelming. But little by little, progress is beginning. Just like the journey through the desert or an ocean, the miracle is not that the sea parted, it is that the people were brave enough to take the first step. They moved forward.
As we move forward, we can become a catalyst for change here in Jewish Louisville and across the broader community. We can listen, we can learn, and we can be present for one another. Over the next month there are so many ways to come together and get to work. We can volunteer, we can participate in learning opportunities through the Shalom Hartman Institute, we can sit together as Jews at the Louisville Jewish Film Festival, we can study the past through a display provided to us from the American Bar Association. We can challenge gun violence or poverty in a number of ways. We can move forward.
The Jews fleeing slavery took their first steps towards a future filled with hope and longing. The first step was perhaps the hardest, but the responsibility to continue moving forward is no less important. As we all work on the causes that will make our Louisville community safer and stronger and our Jewish community, we can keep our momentum. The year ahead will be filled with choices – attending Jewish experiences, educational, spiritual and cultural, volunteering for a cause you care about, extending friendship to a newcomer caring for the most vulnerable. Whatever you want to do, do not be afraid of taking that first step.
Sara Klein Wagner is President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Louisville and the Trager Family JCC