Beshalach: Divine Wisdom Moves a People from Knowing God (י.ד.ע) to Remembering What is Required of Them (ז.כ.ר)
The root ז.כ.ר, remember, “connotes much more than the recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention upon someone or something. It embraces concern and involvement and is act not passive, so that it eventuates in actions.״Nahum M. Sarna, 1991 The Jewish Publication Society, Page 5
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar MIndfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Beshalach, we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
Welcome to our looking at the parasha of Beshalach from the lens of Mussar Mindfulness. And in this parasha, two middot/soul-traits get conflated: Emunah/Faith and Bitachon/Trust in God. Faith in the Jewish tradition is a belief in God but is not something you either have or do not have. Rather, it is something that can be developed over time. It gets developed in Mussar practice by experiencing the felt-sense that God will take care of us. And we do witness in this week’s Torah portion that God actively attempts with intention to provide a felt-sense that God will take care of the Israelites: by providing a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, by providing water to drink, by providing quail and mann (manna) to eat, and by providing a day of ceasing, a day of rest called Shabbat so that the former enslaved people will begin to stop being enslaved to always doing.
We bring the analysis of intention versus impact in order to help us understand what went wrong in this parasha. It was God’s intention to provide for the Children of Israel. However, the impact of God’s intention was not felt or internalized by many if not most of the Israelites. God could not control how God’s intentions and sustenance were received. And the Israelites reacted rather than were able to use tools of patience, wise discernment, and mindfulness.
Let’s delve into a classic definition of Bitachon/Trust in God in the Mussar tradition with a classic Mussar text called Duties of the Heart by Bahya ibn Pakuda. Trust in God is considered a calmness of the soul and liberty of the mind, not unlike equanimity in the Insight tradition. And before we continue, we review what we witness in the wilderness with the Israelites. They face four crises: 1) a water shortage; 2) a food shortage; 3) another water shortage; and 4) an unprovoked attack, an act of war, by a desert tribe. And as if that external unpleasant stimuli was not enough, the Israelites add to their own suffering with their reaction to the crises. There is neither calmness of the soul nor liberty of the mind. There is no balanced Bitachon/Trust in God.
Ibn Pakuda teaches that Trust in God is living with a sense that whatever happens is part of God’s plan for you and that God has your good will in mind, that whether arises will be for the good long term even if we do not understand it or find it pleasant in the present moment. A lack of water, food, and an act of war can then be interpreted as for God’s will and for the Good, even if we do not understand it. There is a security in that God knows what experiences the Israelites will need to stretch them, to cause them to develop new tools and skills, to move into the next phase of their spiritual curriculum.
Ibn Pakuda’s has 7 criteria for placing Trust in someone or something: 1) they must be compassionate; 2) they must never desert you; 3) they must be strong enough to accomplish what you need; 4) they must know what is good for you; 5) they must be responsible for you throughout your life; 6) your well-being must be in their hands alone; 7) they must be generous and kind. Who meets these 7 criteria that merits our placing our trust in Him or Her?
For ibn Pakuda and the Mussar tradition, the only answer is the Almighty. Today, we can also see how healthy providers and parents can possibly fulfill this criteria for children. Indeed, this is the first and most important relationship for human beings and if a child can experience this trust in the first provider, the parent, then a lifetime of balanced trust can develop.
We are told in this Torah portion that God is testing the Israelites. There is not clear consensus from our beloved commentators what is the intention of God’s testing. For Rashi, our par excellence rabbinic commentator from the Middle Ages France, he believes that God’s intention is to see if the Israelites will simply follow God’s rules around how to collect the Mann, when to collect and when not to, how not to allow it to remain overnight, etc. For Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, God’s intention is to gain the Israelites’ trust by creating a dependency upon God for food and water: a dependency that God will fulfill.
Let’s put this testing into context from a Mussar Mindfulness perspective. We are dealing with a people (millions of individuals!) who have only known slavery. It was God who brought them out of slavery. It is God who has provided water and food in a desert environment where there is a scarcity of reliable, daily water and food. The dependency upon God is already present. It is the only relationship dynamic with God that the Israelites have known. Their life experience has been one cosmic shift from dependency on the slave owner to dependency on God.
No testing by God is needed to verify this people’s dependency or their awareness of it. So what is God’s intention? Is God searching for Gratitude (Awakening to the Good and Giving Thanks) from the Israelites? Is a Co-Dependent relationship the best and healthiest foundation to balanced Gratitude? The power differential between God and the people is too great to foster the relationship that God seems to be seeking. Former slaves are too imbalanced in Humility/Anavah to have the proper self-worth to pass God’s test. Dependency is too difficult a relationship dynamic to lend itself to balanced Trust and Gratitude. Indeed, one might assume that the people would develop Trust in God after God fulfills their need for water and food, but opposite occurs. The people move into stronger and stronger reactivity: from complaining, to delusion, to finally anger and the seeds of hatred toward Moshe and God in the finally water crisis in this parasha.
It is not the Children of Israel’s lack of Trust or Faith, or Knowing God, that leads to their suffering. It is that they are thirsty and hungry. That unpleasantness triggers the animal brain of fight or flight or freeze and we witness all of this in this Torah portion. Let’s put this into perspective: if there are 600,000 Israelite men in the desert, then there are 600,000 women and possibly 600,000 children (based on the statistic that impoverished countries, like Niger for example, have up to 50% of the population under 18 years of age; and the average life expectancy of a slave was at most 21 years). We are dealing with an impoverished, young population that up until now were fed just so they could labor for the Egyptians. Now they are being fed only when they “complain”, and they do not perform labor after eating. If anything, they are told rules and to rest. Allow that confusion to settle in!
So what is God’s strategy to move this people out of their reactivity? War. Not unlike what leaders of nation-states do today when they want to distract the population from their current discontent. The Children of Israel were forced into a war of defense after being attacked by a desert tribe called Amalek. And the only way our people survive this war is by acting as a team, by working together, by lifting up and holding Moshe’s arms. In God’s hidden wisdom, our ancestors were being trained out of slavery into a free people who would eventually be responsible for one another through the rule of law.
Practice for this week:
Chose one relationship that you need to “remember” better with mindful practice . What person in your life is in need of your mindful, passionate concern and actions? How can you help sustain them this week? Do one small act each day, if able. Record your experience in your Cheshbon Hanefesh Journal.
Podcast Audio Below:
Awakening Nitzavim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 52nd Sitting – Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar
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