Parashat Beshalah: It’s Hard Enough as it is
Parashat Beshalah tells the story of Keri’at Yam Suf, the great miracle of the splitting of the sea. King David speaks about this miracle in Tehillim (114), where he writes, "Ha’yam Ra’a Va’yanos" – "The sea saw, and fled." Apparently, the sea "saw" something before it "fled" – meaning, before it consented to split into two bodies of water and let Beneh Yisrael pass through. The Midrash understood this Pasuk to mean that the sea split in the merit of Yosef, who "fled." As we read in Parashat Vayesheb (39:13), Yosef fled from the house of Potifar, where he worked as a slave, when Potifar’s wife tried to seduce him. It was in this merit, the Midrash writes, that the sea split for Beneh Yisrael to save them from the pursuing Egyptian army.
This comment of the Midrash requires some explanation. Why was the particular aspect of Yosef "fleeing" so special, and deserving of such a great reward? Yosef withstood temptation as a teenage boy in a foreign country. This itself was truly heroic. What was so significant about the fact that he fled?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (1901-1978) explained that the Midrash here teaches a fundamental and critical rule about religious life: we are to run away from spiritual challenges. We should not be looking for "tests," to put ourselves in situations that arouse temptation or make religious observance difficult. A recovering addict does not keep a container of drugs on his kitchen table to prove to himself that he is capable of abstaining. Similarly, the Gemara in Baba Batra (57b) teaches that if a man has two paths he could follow to reach his destination, and deliberately chooses the path where women are present and not modestly dressed, he is considered a Rasha even if closes his eyes. Voluntarily choosing situations of religious challenges is wrong – even if one successfully hurdles the challenge. Yosef’s greatness was not just in resisting temptation, but in running away from temptation. He refused to stay there for even an extra moment, lest the Yeser Ha’ra figure out a way to overcome him.
The rationale behind this rule is simple. Namely, we’ve got our hands full as it is. We already have plenty to deal with. Any conscientious religious Jew knows that observing Halacha can be challenging and demands great amounts of discipline and effort. The tests that God sends us are enough for us. We should not be in the business of subjecting ourselves to further tests.
But there is a deeper reason for this principle, as well. Anytime God subjects us to a test, we can rest assured that we have the wherewithal to succeed. This is a basic rule that we should all know: God does not send us a spiritual challenge that we cannot overcome. If He brought the situation upon us, we can and must assume, unquestioningly, that we are capable of passing the test. However, we have no such guarantee regarding tests that we bring upon ourselves. We might feel confident in our ability to withstand the temptation, but only God knows the outcome before the situation unfolds. There is thus no justification for voluntarily placing oneself in spiritually challenging situations. Indeed, we pray every day in our morning prayer service, "Al Tebi’enu Li’ydeh Nisayon" – that Hashem should not subject us to tests. Certainly, then, we should not be subjecting ourselves to tests.
We might draw an analogy to a driver who was speeding down the road and could not stop at the red light. He obviously cannot excuse himself from guilt by claiming that he was unable to stop. What was he doing driving dangerously in the first place? He had to anticipate traffic lights on the road. He should not be driving so fast to begin with.
Leading a Torah life is fraught with challenges, and we shouldn’t be looking for more. We must be very careful in choosing the places we go and the kind of activities we engage in. If there are situations that could potentially compromise our religious standards, we should avoid them.
Keri’at Yam Suf was likely the greatest miracle that ever occurred – and the Midrash teaches that it happened in the merit of Yosef’s escaping a situation of temptation. Let us follow his inspiring example and avoid all spiritually threatening situations, and in this merit, Be’ezrat Hashem, we, too, will experience great miracles and receive God’s bountiful blessings, Amen.