Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh: Embrace the music and the dance of faith


Photo: Bill Motchan

Temple Emanuel


What inspires you? How are you empowered? The Torah portion Beshalach teaches us about the importance of faith, patience and action. We read about the importance of keeping our word and the importance of singing and dancing. There are moments we find our strength from others, from God and from within our own being.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told the Talmudic story of R. Yehoshua ben Hananya, who asked a young man sitting at a crossroad, “Which is the way to town?”

The young man pointed to one of the paths and said, “This way is short but long. The other way is long but short.”

Yehoshua ben Hananya set out on the first path and quickly arrived at the town but found his way blocked by gardens and orchards. He returned to the young man and said, “Didn’t you tell me that this path was short?”

“I did,” said the young man, “but I also warned you that it was long.”

We are programmed to be faster and better, often conflicting actions. Upon fleeing Egypt, “God led the people by a roundabout by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

First, they remembered to bring with them the bones of Joseph, who had exacted the oath to take him with them when they left. Commentators suggest many reasons for this slow and long route. The slow and steady pace might serve to reduce the trauma of escaping Egypt. The slower pace would allow the people to become accustomed to the taste of freedom. Each step allowed them to experience God’s miracles. By taking our time, we learn patience which may bring us to faith and, consequently, action.

At the Sea of Reeds, Moses lifts his arm over the water so the people can cross. Tradition teaches that Moses was saved in an “ark” in the water, so he does not strike it. A beautiful midrash added that the waters did not part until the first faithful soul stepped forward, believing the crossing could be safely done on dry land. There was a time for action and a time for faith.

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh

In Chapter 13:21, we read: “God went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light that they might travel day and night.”

Our ancestors were guided by forces they could not touch. Yet they had faith to follow the gifts from God. How often do we sense a light, a force greater than ourselves to bring us to safety? We place one foot in front of the other knowing our Promised Land is before us. Often these steps are measured with patience. Is not patience a form of faith?

Moses sang unto God; Miriam and the woman sang and danced as only free people can do. And as only newly freed slaves can do, they cried out for water and food, and water again. They were scared. They experienced passion and a lack of faith almost on the same moment.

They battled the Amalekites, whereas Moses sought the assistance of Joshua, Aaron and Hur, knowing that a true leader engages others. We are empowered when we empower others. As he held his hands upward, the people found faith raising their eyes to a source greater than themselves.

Rabbi Sacks quoted author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote, “Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through emotions.”

Patience, passion and faith.

The Israelites were concerned about their basic needs of security. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. Even in the face of struggle, the people found prayer through song and dance.

I am convinced that in the darkest moments of life, we must find the faith to sing out to God and allow the words, the music, the dance, to encapsulate our very being that came from the Eternal One. We find strength from the quiet leader within, and the leaders who steadily step forward. We embrace the leader who leads us in dance and the leader who joyfully sways to the music.

Faith is a gift that must be slowly unwrapped and embraced. It is a treasure to be worn, shared and even exchanged as we grow.

In the words of the Psalmist, “Come let us sing joyously unto God.”

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.