There was no turning back. The people had crossed the Sea, the Egyptians were drowned. The old life was over, and there was nothing but the future ahead, through the undifferentiated wilderness. Well, there’s a happy thought.
It must have been remarkably disorienting. After leaving a life that was completely structured, albeit in slavery, the Israelites faced an uncertain future, led by a man they hardly knew. Granted, they’d known Miriam and Aaron from within the community, and they had seen Moses and Aaron do all sorts of magic on God’s behalf (so they said) to get Pharaoh to let them go, but still….what was ahead? I think I’d be terrified.
This all happened at the “Yam Suf”, what we tend to call the Red Sea, of Sea of Reeds. This week’s parasha, Beshallach, contains Moses’ Song of the Sea and Miriam leading the women in song and dance, at the shore of the Yam Suf. “Suf” is spelled the same way as “Sof”, or ending, and in the great Rabbinic tradition of finding meaning in the sounds and spellings of words, perhaps we can say they were standing at the shore of the Sea of Ending. It was the demarcation. The language in the text is very “Genesis-like”, that is, the waters are split (“the waters form a wall for them on their right and on their left” Ex 14:33) as they were during Creation. Their old life was over, forever. A new future was created right then and there. There was literally no going back, though the people soon began to wish to do so. They kept this up until they were about to enter the Land, in fact. They never stopped whining and pining for Egypt, as if the life there was so good. Not surprisingly, their first concern was food and water, which at the very least, had been provided for them under the Egyptians. Even though God provided water and manna for them throughout their journey, the wistful, distorted memory of life in Egypt remained.
So it is when we cross over a clear line, and begin a new kind of life. Perhaps it’s through divorce or death, a major move, or more contrived demarcations like graduations. They bring us to that terrifying new land stretching before us. At some point in our adult lives, we run out of milestones and the future can look as undifferentiated as the wilderness on the other side of the Sea of Ending.
Perhaps Beshallach warns us to be careful of making the past seem more that it was. Distance and time can make the old life look not so bad, and we have to remind ourselves of that when the present and future are unsettled. We each have moments of “Yam Sof”, a Sea of Ending. When we cross over into a new place of Creation, with little more than a dream and some flat, crumbly bread to sustain us, we can gain strength from the song sung on the far side of a long-distant shore.