Beshallach

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. In the Fourteenth chapter of Exodus, we come to one of the great climaxes of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Three days have passed and even though Moses promised Pharaoh that they would return after three days, they do not return and the Egyptians send out the army, a host of chariots, to attack the former slaves and bring them back to Egypt.

3. When the People of Israel look up and see the Egyptian army advancing in the distance, they react as you might expect, with panic. In one of the less flattering moments in the Torah, Israel turns on their leaders and on Moses with all kinds of accusations. “Why did you bring us out into this wilderness?” “Why did you bring us here to die?” “Didn’t we tell you that we wanted to stay and serve the Egyptians rather than leave and die in the wilderness?” My favorite accusation was “There were not enough tombs in Egypt that you needed to bring us here to die?” Considering that Egypt was the classic land of tombs, it is a really ironic complaint.

4. Moses tries to calm them down and they stop complaining to see what Moses wants them to do. But Moses really doesn’t know what to do. God has not given him any instructions. So Moses turns to God to ask, “What should we do?” The Rabbis of the Talmud say that there was a difference of opinion as to what the best course of action should be. Should they stand and fight? Should they surrender and go back to slavery? Should they run? If so, where should they run? If they run north they will encounter the border garrison of Egyptian soldiers. If they run south they will enter a sandy desert. If they run west they will encounter the attacking army. If they run east, they will drown in the sea. What should they do?

5. God finally says to Moses, “What are you doing, wasting time and praying to me? Lead the people into the sea and hold your hand over it and see what happens.” Moses does and the greatest miracle the world has ever known opens up before them as the water parts, giving Israel a path to freedom and serving as a grave to the Egyptian soldiers.

6. This is just the first time that Israel will get nasty with their leaders. By the end of our Parsha they are complaining about the lack of good food and water. No matter what God does for them they have something new to complain about. There is never a council where the leaders and representatives of the people gather to discuss the challenges that they are facing and how best to address them. The people act spoiled and mean. It always seems to be about “What has God done for us lately?” Moses says one thing and the people often do the opposite. Finally, God will get so disgusted with the people that God decrees that they will all die in the wilderness and only their children will inherit the Promised Land.

7. This was not a really good week here in the United States. Last Shabbat, a lone gunman attempted to assassinate the member of Congress who represents Tucson, AZ. She did not die but seven others who were with her, including a nine year old child, were killed, and Representative Giffords and a dozen others were wounded and taken to the hospital. Only Ms. Giffords remains in critical condition but she appears to be making remarkable progress, a miracle that I am sure her family sees as great a miracle as the crossing of the sea. The deranged shooter was tackled by some bystanders, a small woman wrestled the ammunition away from the shooter so he could not reload his gun and a young aide ran to save Ms. Gifford’s life. In those horrifying minutes, there were heroes, or maybe angels, who rushed in to save lives.

8. Just like our ancestors, the entire country then erupted into a debate on the reasons for the shooting and how it could have been prevented. Is this a good example of why we need better gun safety laws? Is this a good example of how our mental health programs are lacking? Is this a testimony to how limited our law enforcement officers are in handling criminals since they stopped him for running a red light but all they could do was give him a ticket? If they had arrested him, the tragedy could have been averted.

9. I can tell you now that I am a big supporter of better gun laws in this country, and I do believe that we could treat those with mental illnesses better. But the real issue, both for President Obama and for former governor Sarah Palin, the real issue is civil discourse. What used to be intelligent debates about real issues in this country, has mostly settled down into two sides shouting at each other, not listening to what the other side has to say and not caring that the other may have a few good points. It is all about yelling the loudest and getting your opinion out on the right cable or radio news talk station.

10. We like to think that such raucous debates are only in the political realm, but it can be found almost everywhere these days. The news shows often feature one side shouting at the other side. Talk show hosts regularly shout down the people who disagree with their opinions. People will publish on the internet and in letters to the editor the most vicious attacks on those who do not agree with their position. Most people with an idea or a position, if they don’t want to be attacked, keep their heads down and their mouths shut, thus cutting off the kind of debate that is the heart and soul of democracy. Town hall meetings, city council meetings, county commission meetings even condo owners meetings, can quickly escalate out of control as people scream that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

11. Some people say that this state of affairs is because we no longer have the relationships with our neighbors that we used to have. We spend our time watching TV, listening to the radio and surfing the internet that we don’t have regular human contact anymore. I have to remind everyone that we need to welcome the Temple Emeth newcomers that we do not know. We are no longer practiced at welcoming strangers. Politicians don’t live in Washington DC anymore; they finish their work and fly back home to their families, to their local offices and to the fund- raising they need to do. If we don’t talk to each other, we end up shouting at each other. How can we have civil discourse if we don’t practice often what it means to be civil?

12. The Talmud is based on Sages debating the issues with each other. They were very good at debating points of law and sometimes they are so good, that we can’t really tell which side finally won the debate and which opinion is to be considered the law. The Sages debated with people they liked, with people they did not like, with Jews and with Romans, with friends and foes and they even debated with Sages who lived in the generations before their own. Only a few times did the debate erupt into personal attacks; when it did, it never ended well. A mean word from one Rabbi resulted in the death of his closest friend. A moment of disrespect caused the head of the rabbinical court to resign and they only reinstated him after some serious repentance and a commitment to living a more humble life. In the Bible, a mean word from King David brought about the death of a great Jewish general. The sages teach us that “Life and Death are in the Power of the Tongue”

13. In the race toward ever more shocking attacks, political enemies begin to start contemplating not just destroying their opponents ideas, but destroying the opponent as well. And if we complain that this kind of incitement could cause serious repercussions, we are laughed at and accused of being just like the opponent and worthy of being destroyed as well. This is far from civil discourse. This is no different than speaking inappropriately in public. Freedom of speech may be one of the four freedoms we celebrate in this country, but it does not give us the right to hurt others either physically or emotionally. We can hurt feelings as easily as we can hurt bodies.

14. Judaism reminds us that we need to watch what comes out of our mouths as much as we watch what goes into our mouths. We are not genetically disposed to be mean and cruel to others. We are not hard wired to be kind. We need to learn how to do both and Judaism would have us practice being kind and concerned rather than combative and angry. Judaism still encourages students to study with partners, debating back and forth the meaning of Jewish texts and learning from the position that each of us takes. Calling names does not resolve a problem. Only speaking clearly and listening to others will bring about the resolution of issues.

15. There is a story told of a man who on a dark and stormy night gets a flat tire on a dark country road. As the rain pours down, the man tries to change the tire. The darkness is only broken by flashes of lightning followed by the crash of the thunder. The man is completely miserable and the repair takes a very long time. Finally as the lightning gets brighter and the thunder louder, the man finally turns his eyes to heaven saying, “Dear God, I could use a little more light and a lot less noise.”

16. Last weekend a Congresswoman stopped to talk to voters in front of a supermarket. As she spoke to a young girl, shots were fired. The killer clearly wanted to murder the congresswoman. This deranged man might have killed with or without the highly charged speeches of the most recent election in Arizona. There is no evidence that civil speech would have saved lives that morning in Tucson. But civil speech can save our country, making it a better place for each other, a better place for the sharing of ideas and a better place for democracy. Let us resolve to be the one who listens at least as much as we speak. Let each of us be responsible to bringing more light into our discussions and removing the noise that isolates us. Let us resolve to make our words strong, informative and passionate, but never hurtful, mean or inciting. Only if we can hear what our opponents say, can we hope to have them hear what we have to say. And when we listen to each other, we can solve problems, make friends and literally change the world.

May God help us make our words a blessing and not a curse, and may we use them to build bridges between ourselves and others, and not tear apart the ties that bind us to each other in freedom and blessing

As we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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