THE TORAH PORTIONS from Exodus read during January are always a bit jarring and at the same time uplifting and hopeful.
Jarring because they tell the story of the Exodus in the middle of winter, months from our spring holiday of Passover, which celebrates that event.
Uplifting and hopeful because they remind us that spring is just around the corner, and they teach us that even in the worst of times, with our own determination and faith, things will get better.
In these portions Moses makes repeated demands that the Pharaoh set the Hebrew slaves free.
When he refuses, God brings the plagues down upon the Egyptians and the Pharaoh finally relents.
However, after letting the people go, he changes his mind and sends his army to retrieve them.
Thus, when the Israelites came to the Red Sea, the powerful Egyptian army was at their back and things looked hopeless.
Tradition tells us that Nashon, a young boy, finally stepped into the sea and the water parted to provide them a way across.
Imagine the faith it took to take that first step.
Rabbi Chaim Stern saw three themes in the portions that tell the story of the Exodus … freedom, community and justice, and faith.
Though the Israelites had to be persuaded to leave the safety of slavery in Egypt, the promise of freedom finally convinced them to go.
The desire for freedom has always been profound within the human spirit.
Throughout history people have been willing to sacrifice everything, even their lives, to be free.
In today’s world, as people flee climate disasters and violent oppression, it is even more important to open our hearts to their desperate search for freedom.
The Torah reminds us to welcome those seeking to be free.
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
When the Pharaoh told Moses he would release only some of the people, Moses refused, demanding that all who wanted to leave should be freed.
He understood the importance of community when embarking on such a perilous journey.
He also knew that there would be no justice if only a select few were allowed to go, leaving behind others to endure slavery.
Moses demanded not only freedom for all who left, but justice for everyone who chose to go, not differentiating between groups within the community. “There shall be one law for the native-born, and for the stranger who resides among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
Throughout the story of the Exodus, the people repeatedly saw God’s hand with their own eyes, and “they had faith in the Eternal One, and in Moses, God’s servant …” (Exodus 14:31)
Unfortunately, faith is much more difficult in today’s world. We can’t visibly see God in the middle of catastrophes or crisis situations as did the Israelites.
However, though it may not be as obvious as a burning bush or a parted sea, God’s hand is always working through ordinary people as they respond to help in crisis situations.
Gandhi said, “God never appears to you in person but in action.”
It is our actions as partners with God that can make our world a more holy place, whether it be through helping the poor and the refugee, responding to a natural disaster or just reaching out in kindness to a lonely soul.
Faith is believing we can make a difference even though we may be small in number and a situation might seem hopeless.
We must never lose faith that, though unseen, the Divine is present in us and through our efforts.
Rabbi Yael Levy’s teaches this beautifully in her reflection.
The Mystery appeared and said:
I have made myself known in days gone by, I have traveled with your ancestors.
But today I have heard your cries and I have seen the injustice, the devastation, the despair. And I will come through in a new way.
I will appear in your united spirits, your joined hands, your raised eyes.
I will come through your communities, your gatherings, your circles of support.
Take care of your souls. Keep your spirits vibrant.
I am here: Possibility. Power. Transformation. Strength.
Reach out to each other and feel my Presence.
( A Way In: Jewish Mindfulness)
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected] olympus.net.