Parashah (portion) B’shalach – At The Edge of The Wilderness
Exodus 13:17 – 19:16
Our Torah portion opens with liberation: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go…” [Exod. 13:17] As we approach biblical stories as myth, we no longer read the text literally; but see it, instead, as the expression of a universal spiritual unfolding. To us, therefore, our text speaks here of our inner Pharaoh-the voice of fear and exclusion within. This inner Pharaoh is finally releasing the grip that perpetuated the illusion of our separate sense of identity. In this first step on the spiritual journey, a spark of light enters into our consciousness that illuminates for us the darkness in which we had forgotten we live, having become numbingly habituated to it. Once the spark is perceived, once the tiniest flash of light has come through, there is no turning back, try as we may.
In the biblical myth, we learn, two paths are laid in front of us; a direct path to the Promised Land of enlightenment and a more circuitous path: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” [Exod. 13:17-18] Our mystics teach, arguably, that in the early stages of one’s spiritual journey, the direct path might not be the preferred one for it is fraught with inner “battles” that could overwhelm one who is unprepared, causing him/her to abandon the journey altogether. Alternatively, this have been a warning directed at those who, even in biblical days, might have been tempted to shortcut the journey by using mind-altering substances, and ran the risk of not only hurting themselves physically, but also psychologically ill-equipped as one might be to face the inner demons one might awaken in the process.
The way of the wilderness is the one preferred here. The Hebrew for “wilderness” is “midbar,” whose three letter root also makes up the word “medaber” which means “speaking.” Perhaps the wilderness in question refers to this silent place in consciousness where one is able to hear that which is being spoken, to open up to the still small voice of one’s inner Divine spiritual guide. As the Israelites begin their journey we learn that they first encamped “at the edge of the wilderness. The Eternal 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 journey day and night.” [Exod. 13:20-21]
It is interesting to notice the image of the two pillars that the authors adopted to represent the guiding Divine force through the spiritual journey. Why have a pillar of cloud during the day and one of fire at night? Why not just one pillar of fire for both day and night? The answer I find in the last few words of our verse: “that they might journey day and night.” For those of us who believe that the spiritual journey is solely a journey of increasing light, this stands as a stark warning. The spiritual path includes both moments of great light and those of great darkness. Our inner guide will remind us that in those moments of great darkness there is a pillar of light to illuminate the way; and that in moments of great light there always lies the shadow, eager to reclaim its hold.
And so we begin this remarkable process of self-transformation, of self-liberation, taking the circuitous road less traveled. Each of us is invited to partake in the journey. It is a journey which might take us 40 years, as it did for the Israelites in our story. Or one that might take us 40 days, as it did for Moses at Sinai. None of us knows how long our individual journey will be. But one thing is absolutely certain, we will surely never find out if we remain at the edge of the wilderness and never take our first step.