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Active Hope

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman

If you want to have better physical and mental health, work on boosting hope. Research shows that high levels of hope are correlated with a host of positive outcomes, such as healthier habits (better sleep, healthier eating, increased exercise), greater success in school and at work, more fulfilling relationships, and greater overall satisfaction with life. But there is one caveat. The benefits of hope only apply when the hope is directly tied to taking action toward a goal. Hope that leads to passivity, is not hope. Hope is not just the belief that the future will be better than the present, but most importantly, it is the belief that you can do something to make the future better.

At first glance, hope, so defined, has very little to do with this week’s Torah portion. The themes seem more to do with faith and trust that God can make the future better, not people. There is little human agency in the narrative, as God dominates the story; He destroys the Egyptians in the Yam Suf. The same could be said of the previous two Torah portions, as well. God performs the ten plagues and is totally responsible for the Children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

Yet, this perceived passivity is not the full story. After God destroyed the Egyptian army, the Children of Israel were attacked by Amalek. However, instead of Divine intervention, the war was fought through natural means. Yehoshua, sword in hand, led the army against Amalek. While the Torah relates that when Moshe’s hands were lifted, the Children of Israel would gain momentum and when his hands were lowered they would start losing, this was less Divine intervention and more Divine inspiration. The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 3:8) explains that Moshe’s raised hands motivated the Children of Israel to think about God, which gave them the courage to prevail.

The episode of God defeating Egypt followed by the Children of Israel defeating Amalek, is the first of three cases of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks refers to as a double narrative, consisting of a before and after. In each , an act is first performed entirely by God, with the Children of Israel being passive. This is followed by the Children of Israel partnering with God, but ultimately taking a fully active role in the process.

The second double narrative where this before-and-after takes place is the Revelation at Sinai, where God is dominant. This is followed by the building of the Tabernacle, which is primarily constructed by the Children of Israel.

The third double-narrative is the formation of the two tablets: the first were completely the writing of God, and the second involved a more active participation by Moshe. God is modeling for Bnei Yisrael how to take an active role in their own development. In Rabbi Sacks’ words: “God is transformed from doer to teacher. In the process, human beings are transformed from dependency to interdependency."

While Rabbi Sacks uses the destruction of the Egyptians as an example of the total passivity of Bnei Yisrael, upon closer inspection, that is not entirely the case. While God is obviously primarily responsible for the redemption of the Children of Israel from Egpyt, He also made sure to require active participation from them, even in that process. Most prominently, when they are stuck between the quickly-approaching Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds, God tells Moshe to stop crying out in prayer and just start traveling (Shemot 14:15). The Talmud adds to the narrative the celebrated courage of Nachshon ben Aminadav who was the first to jump into the water (Sotah 37a). Human action was necessary to precipitate the miracles at the Yam Suf. Rabbi Yehuda Brandes suggests that the same theme is evident when God commands the Children of Israel to participate in the process of the Pesach sacrifice. It was essential that they become active partners in the redemption, and not just passive recipients.

If we want a better future, we can’t just sit back and hope or pray to be saved. A hope tied to passivity is not really hope. We must be willing to actively attempt to bring about the change we want to see. By linking our hope to action, we partner with God to improve our future.




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