Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hope where you'd least expect it / B'Shallach

I grew up reading Snoopy cartoons, the creation of Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000), each day. From the page of the newspaper, Snoopy said, “Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.” Curiously, Snoopy didn’t shut out the possibility of hope: “so little hope” suggests there is some. Apparently “hope springs eternal” even in dogs.

The Israelites are struggling with hope. Despite being witness to God’s power and miracles in Egypt, they arrive at the Reed Sea no wiser.
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness! What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Exodus 14:10-12)
At one and the same time, the Israelites are gripped by fear (“greatly frightened”), sure they are doomed (“it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness”), and looking for someone to blame for their predicament (“What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?”). But they also evince a glimmer of hope (“the Israelites cried out to the Lord”).

Hope is what makes it possible for all of us to face -- well, everything. Even Snoopy had some hope. We hope for improved health, greater success, better relationships. We hope that what plagues us will give way to our own personal redemption. We hold out hope for ourselves and for our loved ones. The nasty irony of hope is that the worse things are and the more you need it, the harder it is to hold on to.

It sounds like pious platitude to say, “So long as we are alive, there is reason to hope.”
But the Rabbis go further. They tell that hope extends beyond life. Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer tells us that Pharaoh’s story does not end with his death in the Reed Sea.
R. Nechunia b. Hakkanah said: Know the power of repentance. Come and see from Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who rebelled most grievously against the Rock, the Most High, as it is said, Who is the Lord that I should hearken to his voice? (Exodus 5:2). In the same way that [Pharaoh] sinned through speech, he repented through speech, as it is said, Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty? (Exodus 15:11). The Holy One Blessed be God delivered [Pharaoh] from among the dead. Whence do we know [Pharaoh] died? Because it is said, I could have put forth my hand and stricken you… (Exodus 9:15). [Pharaoh] went and ruled Nineveh. The men of Nineveh were writing fraudulent deeds, everyone robbed his neighbor, they committed sodomy, and similar wicked deeds. When the Holy One Blessed be God sent for Jonah to prophesy the destruction of [Nineveh], Pharaoh heard and arose from his throne, rent his garments, clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes, and had a proclamation made to all his people that they should fast for two days… (Pirkei de-Rabbi Ishmael, Friedlander pp. 341-2)
The midrash tells us that all the Egyptians who pursue Israel drown in the Sea, save one. Pharaoh alone survives. Just prior to his death, he does teshuvah: he repents and acknowledges God. After his death, God resurrects him and seats him on the throne of Nineveh, king of the very city to which the prophet Jonah is sent. Pharaoh has changed; he understands what is at stake. He leads his people in fasting and repentance. They now have hope. Pharaoh, whose unyielding stubbornness doomed the Egyptians, saves the Ninevites.

What a stunning rabbinic imaginary excursion! Hope sustains every human being who is caught in Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for “Egypt” means the “narrow straits.” It can readily be understood as a metaphor for all that traps, frightens, and threatens us. Hope need never die. Even death itself does not eclipse hope. This isn’t to say that any of us are counting on resurrection and a seat on the throne of Nineveh, but it is a reminder that good often emerges out of the darkest events. Does this redeem the events that devastate our lives? That’s for each individual to judge for him or herself. But hope abides where we give it a home, and its timeline stretches beyond ours.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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