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Parashat Be-shallah: Standing at the Sea

by Charlie Schwartz | Published on February 1, 2009

A swift, strong punch to the stomach. That’s how it felt, returning to Israel after my final Wexner Institute as a Fellow. Not long after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, I found the fresh air of unabashed excite­ment surrounding President Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion suddenly knocked out of me, replaced by a uniquely Middle Eastern scent of stag­na­tion and despair. As the unilat­eral cease­fire barely holds, the feeling here is less of improved secu­rity and more that the count­down till the next erup­tion of violence has begun once again. Even with Israel’s restored faith in the oper­a­tional capacity of the IDF, there is growing fear that the destruc­tion and loss of life in Gaza and Israel will not engender any funda­mental change. This lack of change extends to the polit­ical arena, where the well-manicured Facebook pages, Obama-esque websites and YouTube enhanced debate plat­forms of elec­tion season repre­sent the same candi­dates deliv­ering the same unin­spired, vision-less rhetoric. Yet, in spite of this, I keep returning to stories of hope from our tradi­tion and my own expe­ri­ence that serve as reminders that change is possible, that better times may be within reach.

This fall, I partic­i­pated in a tour of Bethlehem through Encounter, an orga­ni­za­tion founded by Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnae Rabbis Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles that brings Jewish leaders into direct contact with the Palestinian narra­tive.  Our first stop was an elemen­tary school in an area in which I had been stationed while serving in the IDF.  I was stunned to find the guard tower in which I had lived for up to a week at a time removed, the earthen barrier that had blocked the main road into Bethlehem cleared.  Even more amazing was being welcomed as a guest into a school I had only seen through the heavy glaze of bullet proof glass.  While life in Bethlehem is still diffi­cult, seeing phys­ical barriers to normalcy removed proved to me that the situ­a­tion is not static, that progress, however small, can indeed be made.

It is this possi­bility of change that perme­ates the Book of Exodus. In this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the climaxes of the Exodus story, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Having shed the phys­ical bonds of slavery, the Israelites arrive at the sea as Pharaoh’s army descends upon them. With seem­ingly nowhere to go, the fear and despair of the Israelites is palpable in the text. Yet God does part the sea, and as the Israelites emerge through the narrow passage they are truly reborn into freedom. The Israelite’s freedom is not utopian; rather, it encom­passes the harsh reality of the desert, the hard­ships of wandering and, ulti­mately, the gift of the Torah.

My hope is that we, Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians, are like the Israelites standing before the sea. With seem­ingly nowhere to go, the fear and despair is palpable here as well. Yet my own expe­ri­ence and the lessons of our tradi­tion teach me that we can emerge from these times into new, better real­i­ties. As President Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of history is long but bends towards justice.” Let us work, hope and pray to ensure that it also bends towards peace.

This dvar torah by Encounter alumnus Charlie Schwartz was distrib­uted in the Wexner Foundation’s weekly newsletter in February 2009. Read a profile of Charlie and see more of his writ­ings in our alumni profiles section.

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