30 Jan 2015

Beshalah 5775: Something Old, Something New

Four centuries had passed since Abraham had made a covenant with G-d and had been promised that, although his offspring were destined to become slaves in a strange land, they would leave the land of their captors with great wealth and triumph. They would return to the land promised to him and his children, the land of Canaan, a land “flowing with milk and honey”.

I am G-d Who brought you out of Ur…to give you this land, to inherit itYou must know that your seed will be sojourners in a land not theirs;  they will put them in servitude and afflict thembut I will bring judgement on the nation to which they are in servitude and after that they will go out with great prosperity…in the fourth generation they will return here. (Gen., 15:7,13-14,16)

This week we read of the auspicious exodus, an event that we regularly maintain at the forefront of our national psyche through our liturgy and religious practice. It was all going as planned; however, something happened that became the centrepiece of the story that was neither mentioned in the terms of the covenant with Abraham, nor planned with Moshe before the exodus from Egypt.

Not five days had passed since the nation walked out of Egypt, when G-d decided to suddenly change course and settle the people by the shore of the Red Sea.

G-d spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to turn back and camp before Pi haHirot!…You are to encamp by the sea!’ (14:1-2)

What occurs at the Red Sea is legendary. It is one of the greatest miracles ever reported in history, and it brings closure, once and for all, to the Egyptian slavery and the hold that Pharaoh has on the people of Israel. It firmly sets the nascent nation upon the path to freedom. But why would such a momentous event not be included in the original plans? Why would Abraham not be told of this as he was told of the other details that would become key components of the exodus? Why would Moshe only hear of it moments before? It is clear that G-d was keen to make this a spontaneous event. The fact that it is new is the element we highlight when we mention it daily.

The redeemed ones praised [You] with a new song upon the sea. (Siddur, Morning Service)

 The spontaneity was important here because over the centuries, the passionate and personal covenant that G-d had made with his beloved Abraham had become institutionalised. Fathers taught it to their children, mothers sang about it as they put their young ones to bed, the hope of the day on which they would be liberated was the cornerstone of the people’s frame of mind and approach to life. And it all came to pass, but there was little left in the well-established covenant that carried still the passion of our iconoclastic ancestor and his personal love of G-d.

This is a hazard that any institution faces. The entrenched, complex, established nature of institutions ironically tends to hamper the supple, passionate and personal elements of the original ideas that gave birth to them. It is the challenge that a grass-roots charity faces when it grows to become a firmly established organisation, or that a small business experiences when growth brings it to corporate levels. Even synagogues must grapple with maintaining the personal and unique elements that went into their founding when either number of members or of years — or both — become so abundant as to render them established foundations. Indeed, even individuals who set out on a career path with passion and a desire to make a difference all too often become entrenched in the firm stability that success brings. When anything becomes institutionalised, it risks losing the very innovative ideas and motives that went into its original creation by the very convention of its existence.

Still, institutions need not lose these important responsive and personal elements. It does, however, require careful thought about the presence of such elements in the culture. When an institution has room for novelty and innovation, when ‘new’ is not a bad word, when the space for responsiveness to changing circumstances is kept sacred and cultivated, institutions thrive and gain strength in the greatness of their size. But when ideas that were once new and exciting become ingrained and stale, its institutional demise will only be a matter of time.

The foretold liberation from Egyptian slavery was riveted into the hearts of the people, and since it was taken for granted, it lacked any modern and personal components for the particular individuals who experienced it. G-d therefore made it relevant and individually meaningful by doing something completely new, out of order and spontaneous. We learn from His exciting twist that age-old ideas need new and relevant additions and that a shira hadasha, a new song can serve to bring a tired and traditional repertoire to life.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck