The Fickle Finger of Faith

B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16

D'Var Torah By: Alan S. Cook

Focal Point

  • And when Israel saw the wondrous power which Adonai had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared Adonai: they had faith in Adonai and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)
  • Adonai will reign for ever and ever! (Exodus 15:18)
  • The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they triedAdonai, saying, "Is Adonai present among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7)

D'var Torah

Instant gratification—these two words seem to be at the forefront of Americans' minds today. At least, that's what one might be led to believe based on the foods that we consume. So you don't have time to eat a good breakfast, even though you know it's the most important meal of the day? McDonald's comes to the rescue with the McGriddle Sandwich, a decidedly treif meal that offers pancakes, syrup, eggs, cheese, and breakfast meat in one convenient package. Never mind that it also offers up to 550 calories and 33 grams of fat. But for the ultimate in laziness, we can thank the folks who took all of the work out of the peanut butter sandwich. We can now get peanut butter slices, shrink wrapped like American cheese, for those who simply lack the energy to put a knife into a jar. And if that is still too much work for you, you can buy frozen peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts already cut off!

I'm not a Luddite; I have nothing against convenience. But sometimes our quest for instant gratification goes a little bit overboard. This is true in the consumer marketplace, but it also tends to be true in our encounters with the Divine.

In this week's Torah portion, B'shalach, the Israelites have finally been freed from Egyptian slavery, after 400 or so years of bondage and the stop-and-go negotiations between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh. They have witnessed the Ten Plagues visited upon Egypt, as well as the splitting of the Red Sea. After such amazing displays of God's power, it is no wonder that the people "had faith in Adonai and in His servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31). As the Israelites sing their celebratory song at the shores of the sea, they proclaim, "Adonai will reign for ever and ever!" (Exodus 15:18).

Eventually though, the awe and wonder wear off. The Israelites are eager for another big miracle, but none is forthcoming. "Sure," they say, "that was a great trick with the sea and all, but what have you done for us lately?" They want the razzle-dazzle, and they want it now. And when God doesn't deliver it instantaneously, the people get very testy. They begin wondering whether they wouldn't have been better-off in Egypt. There, things were lousy, but there was a sense of predictability to the lousiness. The grumbling eventually reaches its zenith when the people whine, "Is Adonai present among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7).

We might like to look at the behavior of our Israelite ancestors and call them fickle; we might be quick to criticize their readiness to change allegiances so hastily. But often we behave in much the same manner ourselves. We pray to God for things that we feel we need, and then we are gravely disappointed when our prayers are not answered with measurable results. When we fail to pass the test, win the lottery, or get the promotion for which we have prayed, we feel that God has somehow slighted us.

Some congregants were recently telling me about a woman who had come to speak at their chavurah . She considered herself a baalat t'shuvah and took very seriously the Talmudic injunction to recite one hundred blessings every day (BabylonianTalmud, M'nachot 43b). Perhaps she took it too seriously. Not only did she recite the fixed blessings and prayers found in the siddur, she also prayed for a good parking space, enough hot water for her shower, and so forth.

To me, this woman's story is representative of the "white noise" that has crept into many of our encounters with the Divine. We are so focused on the little things that we want from God and on our desire for the instant gratification of these requests that we fail to recognize the various wondrous acts of God that constantly occur all around us. We ask why miracles no longer happen in our world, when the truth of the matter is that we simply have forgotten how to recognize a miracle. The Baal Shem Tov taught, "The world is full of miracles and wonders, but we take our little hands and cover our eyes and see nothing."

We are taught, "A person must bless God for bad tidings just as he blesses for good" (Babylonian Talmud,B'rachot 33b). In our encounters with the Divine, let us learn to cast aside our fickleness, to forgo our longing for instant gratification, and to bless God for the bad and the good, for the big and the small, and for all of the countless kindnesses that God has shown to our ancestors and to us.

By the Way

  • And because [Abraham] put his trust in Adonai, He reckoned it to his merit. (Genesis 15:6)
  • Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me. / Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me. / Praise me or curse Me, / And I will know that you love Me. / Sing out My graces, says God. / Raise your fist against Me, and revile, says God. / Sing out graces or revile, / Reviling is also a kind of praise, says God. / But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God, / If you sit entrenched in, "I don't give a dang," says God. / If you look at the stars and yawn; / If you see suffering and don't cry out, / If you don't praise and you don't revile, / Then I created you in vain, says God. (Aharon Zeitlin [Yiddish poet, 1898-1973], "If You Look at the Stars and Yawn" [in Yiddish])
  • "'You are my witnesses,' says Adonai, 'and I am God'" (Isaiah 43:12). When you are my witnesses, I am God. And when you are not my witnesses, I am not God. (Midrash T'hillim 123:2)
  • You can't always get what you want / but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "You Can't Always Get What You Want")

Your Guide

  1. In Genesis, Abraham abandons everything he has known in order to embrace his new faith. He seeks no proof of God's greatness but accepts it at face value. When was the last time you trusted in something with blind faith? What gave you the confidence to do so?
  2. Compare Zeitlin's poem to the teaching of the midrash. According to each of these sources, what is required of us in our relationship with God? What are the consequences if we fail to fulfill our end of the bargain?
  3. What is the difference between what we "want" and what we "need"? Is it appropriate to ask God to satisfy our "wants"? Is it appropriate to ask God to satisfy our "needs"?

Rabbi Alan S. Cook is rabbi at  Sinai Temple in Champaign, IL. 

Reference Materials

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406

Originally published: