Parshat Beshalach: Trials and Tradeoffs

Steve Prefontaine #254 leads the field during the 3 mile race at the AAU Championships on 25th June 1971 at Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon, United States

Steve Prefontaine #254 leads the field during the 3 mile race at the AAU Championships on 25th June 1971 at Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon, United States


It must be the course of human behavior or a facet of our psychological makeup that we frequently hold the notion that if we can merely overcome one set of particularly challenging circumstances – that on the other side – having successfully waded through life's troublesome terrain – we will be greeted with safety and security. As if to say, that when we finally cross the finish line, our family, friends, and delighted onlookers will cheer for our having made it to the end. We’ll be wrapped in those warm thermal blankets and served refreshments as we sit down to rest and recover from our exhaustion. We’ll wipe the sweat from our brow and proudly brandish our medals of achievement – a shiny medallion signifying to others that we’ve made it to the end. Finito! La Fin! Das Ende! But rarely is that ever the case. Because more often than not, upon crossing one finish line, almost instantaneously, we find ourselves running yet another race. Cycling yet another track. Another course that needs circumnavigating. Another lap that needs swimming.

In a discussion last night with Dr. Joy Ladin, a nationally acclaimed author and openly transgender employee of Yeshiva University in New York, she spoke candidly about the struggles of gender transition. With pinch of sarcasm and a large helping of honesty, she shared her travails of navigating gender identity and expression. Personally, one of the most poignant sentiments of her talk was the idea that after her gender reassignment surgery, there would arrive a sense of relief having finally made it to the other side of the shore - finally embodying the individual whom she always felt inside. But following her transition came only new issues. With a newfound identity came new, more complex hurdles to overcome. To me, it sounded as if reality had set in. As it always does. And while I am tempted to characterize this experience with the idiom, out of the frying pan and into the fire – I'm hesitant. Because I am doubtful that the challenges that ensued after her transition were in any way graver or more severe. Because, as Joy eloquently puts it, “Rainbows and unicorns were not waiting for me on the shore across. Transition was only the beginning.”

I believe that at any point in our lives when we transition – having ultimately attained newfound freedoms, autonomy, or broader ranges of existential mobility – those feelings of relief that accompany change are often fleeting. Most of the time we are greeted by a new set of problems to solve. We merely exchange one assortment of complications for another. But this phenomenon isn’t unique to any one individual – any one gender, race, or religion – but rather the story of life itself.

In our Torah portion this week, parshat Beshalach, the Children of Israel have escaped the terrors of slavery in Egypt. They erupt in joyous song praising the Lord of Hosts who led them to safety. For nineteen verses they sing of revenge, salvation, Pharaoh’s chariots and army having drowned in the sea – the glorification and strength of God:

“You blew with Your wind – the sea enshrouded them; the might sank like lead in water. Who is like You among the heavenly powers, HASHEM! Who is like You, might in holiness too, awesome in praise, Doer of wonders! You stretched out Your right hand – the earth swallowed them. With your kindness You guided this people that You redeemed; You led with Your might to Your holy abode.” [1]

Miriam, the prophetess, sister of Aaron, then takes her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums of their own and danced the night away. The Children of Israel are seemingly engulfed by euphoric celebration. The culmination of Moses’ bravery, senseless injustice, the wonders of God, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and the miraculous walk on “dry land” had resulted in this emotionally powerful moment of relief. They had been released from imprisonment – Egyptian shackles no longer bound the Israelites – But then, then, literally from one verse to another, it was all over:

“Moses caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds and they went out to the Wilderness of Shur; they went for a three-day period in the Wilderness, but they did not find water….They complained against Moses saying ‘What shall we drink?!’” [2]

Our commentators explain, “The Talmud (Arachin 15a-b) lists ten trials by which Israel tested God after the Exodus, and one of them is this challenge of ‘What shall we drink?’ On the surface it seems impossible that a nation that had just been witness to the momentous miracles at the sea could have doubted God’s readiness or willingness to give them a necessity of life.” [3]

It appears that Israelite sovereignty wasn’t as easy as they thought. Water was still a necessity. A small detail, but certainly not insignificant. While the Israelites were indeed a free nation, they were also thirsty. The Exodus was just the beginning of a long road ahead. As it were, the Jewish story is one of endless dilemmas and tradeoffs. Swapping one enormous obstacle for another. Again and again. Rabbi Marc D. Angel comments, “One might want to live a good life but can become despondent when recognizing the impossibility of accomplishing all of one’s goals. There is simply too much to learn, too many tasks to do, too many obligations to meet. Being overwhelmed by the challenges, a person may give up.” To this point, R. Tarfon wisely advises:

The day is short, the task is great…[But] It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.
— The Koren Pirkei Avot, 2:15-16

In light of all there is to do, all the races to run, obstacles to overcome, and shores to cross – while the grass may be a new shade of green on the other side - it’s never greener. Ever. And thus, as R. Tarfon advises, all we can do is continue swimming from one shore to another and expect that a vacation from life storms. Because you can’t stop the weather. As I often say to myself and others in times of frustration and anxiety: 

Go BIG or go home. But NEVER go home.

1] Exodus 15:10-13
[2] Exodus 15:22-24
[3] The Stone Edition Chumash, p. 381

Aaron Sataloff