Parashat B'shalah

Nothing Is Unchangeable

If a sea can split, anything is possible.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

For most of the past 3,000 years, civilization was shaped by smallpox. The disease decimated entire populations, destroyed cultures, swept across continents, and altered the course of human history. Smallpox killed five reigning European monarchs in the 18th century alone. For people born in previous centuries, the disease was a fact of nature, a part of life on this planet that appeared as impossible to prevent as natural disasters.

american jewish world serviceAnd yet, over the last decades, the facts of nature changed. Widespread vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries worked. The disease was eradicated. In 1979 the World Health Organization certified the end of smallpox. 

The Pivotal Moment

In this week's parashah, B'shalah, the Israelites also faced a fact of nature that appeared immutable and devastatingly dangerous. As they fled slavery with their taskmasters in hot pursuit, they came up against the Sea of Reeds--a churning, impassable ocean. But suddenly, their horizon literally expanded: "Moses held his arm out over the sea and the Eternal One drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground (Exodus 14:21)."

This was arguably the pivotal moment in Jewish history. We tell and retell the story of the parting of the sea in every weekday, Shabbat, and holy day prayer service, morning and evening. It is recounted in prayer more frequently than the details of the creation of humanity or the giving of the Torah. 

Why do we need to hear this story so often? 

Because it is in this moment that we realized that nothing is immutable. We saw that seas can split open and diseases can be eradicated. The facts of the world ceased to be facts.

And we responded to this new awareness with action as we charged forward into the sea: "The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left (Exodus 14:21-22)." 

Change Through Human Deeds

I often find myself looking at the world from the perspective of the Israelites before the sea split. The massive gap in wealth between rich and poor nations feels as absolute and unchangeable to me as the Sea of Reeds must have felt to Moses as he saw it in the distance, and as unassailable as smallpox appeared to my great-grandparents. However, this week's parashah reminds me that nothing is truly unchangeable. 

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Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.