Friday, January 26, 2018

Parashat BeShalah: Determination

A Message for Parashat BeShalah 2018
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It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. (Walt Disney)[1]

Am Yisrael was trapped. They were frozen in their tracks as they stared out at the seemingly endless waters of the Red Sea while the Egyptian forces charged from behind. Believing that they had exhausted all sensible options, they cried out to God. He responded through Moshe:

 “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they should journey onward.” (Shemot 14:15-16)

The tone of His words – “Why do you cry out to me?” – portrayed God’s annoyance with their petitional gesture. He demanded that they cease all prayer and trek forward. What was wrong with Am Yisrael’s tefilot at that time? Why did God deem it inappropriate for them to turn to Him at this point of helpless despair?

As Am Yisrael marched ahead, something unexpected took place:

And the messenger of God that was going before the camp of Yisrael moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. (14:19)

R. Yaakov Kaminetzky z”l suggested that the angel  changed his position at this time in order to force Am Yisrael to step into the sea without the assistance of God.[2] Meshekh Hokhmah voiced a similar understanding. He suggested that “the messenger of God” referred not to a celestial angel, but to Moshe, and explained that Moshe moved from his place at the front so that the people would proceed on their own.[3] God’s words and actions at that time made clear His will that Am Yisrael cross Yam Suf on their own. Why?

In her best-selling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck delineated two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. She explained that people with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are “carved in stone.” When they fall short of a desired goal – flunking a test, botching a lucrative business deal, or breaking a diet for an unhealthy craving – they view themselves as total failures and become stuck in that state. People with a growth mindset, however, believe that their basic qualities can be cultivated through efforts, strategies, and help from others. They therefore view their shortcomings as fertile grounds for potential growth.[4]

Dweck explained that people with a strong growth mindset can “stretch beyond the possible.” She cited, for example, the case of actor Christopher Reeve, who was thrown from a horse and became completely paralyzed from his neck down. Doctors advised him to come to terms with his reality and warned that denial would only deepen his disappointment. Reeves ignored them. Five years later, he defied the conceived rules of science and regained movement in his hands, arms, legs and torso. Dweck remarked: “Clearly, people with the growth mindset thrive when they’re stretching themselves.”[5]

I had the special merit to be a firsthand observer of a man who possessed an unparalleled determination to accomplish the unfathomable – my rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel z”l. Although he suffered from the severely debilitating Parkinson’s disease for more than two decades of his life, R. Finkel stood at the head of the largest yeshivah in the world. He steered Yeshivat Mir in every step of its progress. From individually collecting the money to sustain the yeshiva and overseeing the distribution of the monthly stipends, to testing each potential applicant and delivering a half-dozen shiurim throughout the week, Rav Nosson Zvi was involved with every aspect of the yeshivah. Indeed, it is told that R. Finkel once sat with a wealthy businessman and requested a large donation. The man responded, “I can’t,” and assumed that he had put the matter to rest “I can’t either,” the rosh yeshivah counter, “But I do anyway.” Needless to say, the man swiftly opened his pocket and paid out the full donation.[6]

Carol Dweck cautioned our dismissal of students’ weaknesses as “unchangeable.” She warned against self-defeating assurances such as “Don’t worry, you’re just not a math person,” and suggested that we instead inspire them to work harder in the spirt of what they want to become.[7] I believe that God sent a similar message to Am Yisrael as they stood on the brinks of freedom at Yam Suf. Two centuries of slavery had engendered within the people a general sense of despair and dependency. God sensed that now was the time to shift that mentality. He demanded Moshe, “Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they should journey onward,” and forced a new attitude onto people. It was a mindset that was charged by a strong sense of determination and self-confidence. It convinced them that they could now stretch themselves to accomplish the impossible.

God’s message at Yam Suf is eternally relevant. As you encounter the daily challenges of life, remember His words long ago – “Why do you cry out to me?” And then, “Journey onward!”

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Printed on the ice cream cups at Walt Disney World.
[2] R. Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emet LeYaakov (Brooklyn, NY, 1996), pg. 2909.
[3] R. Meir Simha Cohen, Meshekh Hokhmah (Shemot 14:15, s.v. mah).
[4] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 6-9.
[5] Ibid., pg. 22.
[6] As told by Hanoch Teller in For the Love of Torah (Nanuet, NY, 2012), pg. 253.
[7] Greg Walton and Carol Dweck, “Willpower: It’s in Your Head,” The New York Times, Nov. 26, 2011.