Pesach - Seventh Day – Shirat Hayam April 26, 2008 Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Weisblum, PhD
Springtime is here. The weather is getting warmer. We put away our winter coats; peal away the layers of jackets and sweaters. Everything is brighter and we are imbued with this sensation of optimism, renewed with strength and new insights. Fresh air, outdoors – ah, the outdoors – with it, comes the onslaught of sports, our favorite teams, competition and physical challenges. Baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, boating, hiking, swimming, bicycling. Maybe this year we will strive to improve our personal bests, get inspired. "Just do it!"
Some of our greatest motivators and inspiration come from successful sports figures. Why? Because successful athletes have never lost sight of their dreams. No athlete ever made it to the top by accepting mediocrity or turning away in the face of a challenge. With mottoes like" Keeping your eye on the ball", "Winners never quit, quitters never win" motivational mantras pulse through the veins of every successful athlete.
Tennis star Bjorn Borg attributes his success to perseverance: "My greatest point is mypersistence. However, down I am, I fight until the last ball."
Champion Golfer Jack Nicklaus says, "Resolve never to quit, never to give up, no matter what the situation."
And U.S. and World ice skating Olympian champion Sasha Cohen claims Gold is her favorite color, referring to the silver and gold medals she's amassed in her 23 years.
And who isn't inspired by the courageous cyclist Lance Armstrong, who against incredible odds and debilitating pain rode to the top of his game. "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever."
Today, we talk about survival. The ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds, unbearable circumstances. Finding the light through the darkness. Exhibiting strength to carry on when the option to stop the struggle seems like an easier choice. How do you overcome the obstacles that exist solely to beat you down? Why not just give in?
Each week we remember the miracle of the Exodus. During Passover, we retell the story in detail. There is a common saying when we find ourselves in a difficult situation. We say we are caught between a rock and a hard place, meaning there is overwhelming danger on either side of us so it appears there is no escape. Well, imagine yourself with the sea in front of you and the Egyptian soldiers, on horse, on chariots, with weapons behind you. Is there anything more descriptive than being between a rock and a hard place? Imagine the hopelessness, the frustration, the demoralization of the Jewish people who have just been given their freedom from slaver, only to find themselves trapped between two incredibly insurmountable dangers? And then the waters part and they're supposed to walk between these two humongous walls of liquid? A rock, a hard place – and the option to drown?
There is a wonderful parable about two frogs who find themselves trapped in a big pitcher of milk. The first frog who always sees his glass as half empty, the eternal pessimist, assesses his odds of escape. "I'll never get out." He begins to splash around in an attempt to escape, but after numerous tries, he tires, gives up and eventually drowns to the bottom of the pitcher. The second frog, the eternal optimist says, "There is always a way out. I'll figure it out." So he begins to splash around too. But when he gets tired and worn out, he perseveres, he keeps trying. Eventually, the cream rises to the top, the milk begins to thicken, and turns to butter, giving him just enough leverage to leap out of the glass and escape the fate of the first frog.
Here's another example. After having gone without food for a number of days, a fox stops at the edge of a river for a drink of water. The hungry fox sees a fish and he begins to salivate. Since a fox can't swim, he use a little clever psychology to lure the fish to come to him. "You know little fish, the river is a very dangerous place for a little guy like you to be swimming around in so freely. After all, there are many bigger fish who will try to make you their dinner. You may even get captured by the fishermen's nets and that will be the end of you. Why don't you jump out here where you will be safe with me? "Hmmm," the fish replies. "What you say is very true. In the water, we face danger everyday, but at least we have a fighting chance. If you take us out of our natural habitat, we won't be able to breath and death will surely come."
Jewish people have always survived, long after everyone has predicted we would be wiped out, annihilated, killed, dead, and extinct. Our long existence has been a mystery to many, the bane of many more. Survival is what we do best. We are comfortable in our own skin, as they say, knowing that we are strangers in every land. Not that we don't belong, but we never wholly fit in. Survival, swimming for our lives, always treading water, is where we gain our strength. We just don't give in or give up. Why? Because at the very core of our being is the belief that G-d loves us. We believe that tomorrow will be better than today was, and not as good as the next day will be. We are prepared to accept that life is filled with challenges and around each one is another lesson to be learned. We do not accept that we are victims. Instead, we view our lives as meaningful and important and essential. Even in the harshest times, the times when brutality reigns over us, as it has so many times throughout our history, we persevere. We don't quit. We look for the silver lining. We reach for the reason to draw higher. We climb up the ladder, we don't look down. Like the frog, our Kiddush cup is always half-filled.
As the Jewish nation reached the other side of the Red Sea, unharmed, while the Egyptian soldiers and horses were drowned behind, they sang a song, praising G-d for their safe passage and redemption. The "Shirat Hayam. So as not to forget the miracle, and also to keep a constant daily reminder that we can overcome all obstacles, the Shirat Hayam is recited each morning during Shacharit and aloud twice a year during Shabbat Shirah and today, during Passover. In the song, we claim our habitation; our very home is with the L-rd. Like the fish in the second parable, who says he will survive in his habitation, our strength comes from living in the ways of G-d, serving him in all aspects of our existence.
"Your right hand is most powerful. Your right hand, O L-rd, crushes the foes, who rise up against You." The song continues with the account of the successful passage of the Jews and the demise of Pharaoh's army. It ends with praises to G-d, "Who is like you among the powerful? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders. G-d who reigns for eternity." First sung by Moses and the entire nation, afterwards, Miriam reaches for her tambourine and sings and dances with the women of the nation, as celebration that, in this defining moment, the nation has been transformed into a spiritual nation under G-d. Not only do the Jewish people recognize that they have survived in the face of all inexplicable odds, but only with G-d's help, they will always be able to accomplish great things and overcome obstacles placed in front of them.
Do you remember the famous Jewish columnists, Ann Landers and her twin sister Abigail van Buren? Really the Friedman sisters. Ann Landers was once asked what the single most useful tidbit of advice she had for all humanity. Her answer, "Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, "I will be bigger than you. You can not defeat me." Answered like a real "Lantzman!"
Our sages taught us that where there is life, there is hope. And in that life, we are supposed to make the most of every moment, not letting the little stuff, or even the big stuff, get in our way of living life. Living life to the fullest is the greatest praise we can give to G-d.
May this Passover holiday remind us that our own hopes, determination and inner strength, with G-d at the helm, is the source of our greatest joy and accomplishments.Chag Sameach.