Parsha Beshalach: Learning about guiding

This week marks the end of the second year of Derech Tsofeh.  To celebrate, we have a guest d’var Torah from Rabbi Justus Baird, who is the Dean of Auburn Seminary in New York.  Rabbi Baird is an Eagle Scout and a former chief of Colonneh Lodge of the Order of the Arrow.

Dear Scouts:

One of my favorite, and scariest, roles on camp staff in the Texas hill country was leading the “Death March.” Every Monday night, an eager assembly of youth and leaders – as few as 40 and as many as 120 – would line up at dusk by the trading post, awaiting adventure. Most had a canteen. Many had walking sticks. Older Scouts spun yarns about past marches as they waited.

In the late 1980’s at El Rancho Cima, the so-called “Death March” was a night-hike through semi-rugged backcountry. The singular, and unspoken, rule of Death March was that everyone had to return. Everything else was fair game.

At camp I worked the waterfront, but hiking was my love. The Death March begot exhilaration, and awe, in whomever guided it. More experienced guides knew the actuarial tables for the hike: getting lost, a broken leg, a missing camper.

As I read the opening of parshat Beshalach this year, memories of the Death March bubbled up. Exodus 13:17-22 has much to teach a Scout about leading by guiding.

It’s unclear from the text how much forethought Moses had put into the question, “Where will we go after we escape?” But God was ready; God would serve as the divine Guide for the Israelites’ long walk. “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the Wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

The first divine lesson of guiding is “know well whom you are leading.” A good guide sizes up those under his or her care, anticipates their response to challenges along the way, and before anyone moves makes gut decisions about what they can and can’t handle.

Next, we read that “Moses took with him the bones of Joseph …” to fulfill a promise made earlier. This is the second nugget of wisdom for guides: respect the crazy requests of those in your party. Let them bring their bones with them.

Finally, we read that “The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”

Here we learn that guiding is a 24/7 job, kind of like parenting. Those you lead are under your constant care until you arrive at the destination. And more than that: how reassuring it must have been to the Israelites to have these two visible divine cues as they wandered into the unknown, day after day. Can you imagine what entering the Wilderness might have felt like if they did not believe God was guiding them? That is the deeply powerful, and spiritual, role of the guide. The right guide at the right moment empowers us to achieve what we never could without the guide. Quite literally, without a guide, we would be lost.

As you read B’shalach this year, ask yourself: what can we learn about guiding well – by imitating the divine Guide?

Mazel Tov to Nelson Block on completing two years of Derech Tsofeh!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Justus Baird