Spiritual progress is rarely linear. In life, unlike in the movies, there are no simple “happily-ever-after” endings or instant and enduring transformations. Instead, we take a few hard-won steps forward, fail and fall back, and then, hopefully, regain the lost ground and continue to forge our way, intermittently, ahead.
Nowhere is this painstaking journey more clearly portrayed than in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach. We experience the ecstasy of the Exodus, the long-awaited liberation from Egyptian bondage, and the miraculous passage through the Sea of Reeds. Then we grumble about the food and water. Just one chapter after the exultant Song at the Sea, we are whining to God and Moses, “If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we ate our fill of bread.”
The Israelites shuttle wildly between fear and faith, hope and despair, cowardice and courage.
Sometimes we do, too.
Life is like that.
Our challenge is to remember that even the failures are part of the journey that will eventually take us toward the Promised Land. There are no shortcuts. As Torah teaches, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” Instead, we walk a way that frequently winds back upon itself. The path that God chooses for us leads us into daunting obstacles that test and sometimes even turn back our progress. It is hard, confounding, and frustrating.
It is also sacred.
Rabbi Yael Levy reminds us of this in her poetic commentary, with which I will leave you:
How do we leave the narrow places?
The hardened hearts?
The constricted minds?
How do we go forth from habits
From behaviors, from beliefs
That are so old, so ingrained,
We think this is who we are?
The Israelites were led the long way around—
By way of the wilderness,
By way of the sea,
Because it is so difficult to leave what has been,
Even when what has been is painful,
Even when what has been is no longer of service,
Is no longer true.
Our ancestors stood at the shores of the sea.
Frightened and desperate,
They cried out.
They wanted to run, to hide, to turn back,
But they stepped forward
And the waters opened
And together they walked across the sea on dry ground.
. . . And then, moments later,
Fear crept back.
Doubt, despair, desperation took hold,
And the Israelites raised their voices and cried.
Our ancestors sang with joy and wonder
And they stumbled in doubt, bitterness and fear.
Their journey brings us to the edge of the sea
Again and again and again.