by Beruria Steinmetz-Silber
Jewish tradition describes Bnei Yisrael, while in Egypt, as being on the lowest level of impurity. As such, they could hardly have merited redemption. In his work Shem Mi’Shmuel, the Sochatchover Rebbe writes that the exodus from Egypt was done out of God's attribute of lovingkindness. The redemption from Egypt was a great light that God brought upon Bnei Yisrael, a light by which they would make themselves and their actions good, so that they would then merit redemption on their own accord. God’s redemption of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt is really only the beginning of salvation. This beginning empowers Bnei Yisrael to own their actions so that they will merit salvation by the time at which they are at Yam Suf. While the first stage of salvation—the exodus from Egypt—was unmerited, the second stage of salvation—the splitting of the sea—was done from Bnei Yisrael’s merit.
The Sochatchover compares the light of the initial salvation to a loan. As with a loan, the borrower uses the loan to provide for herself; essentially the loan gives the borrower what she needs to repay the loan. This, the Sochatchover says, is the attribute used by the heavens: kindness is performed towards a person as a sort of seed money; the individual uses this kindness to start him towards meriting the goodness on his own. The wise person, says the Sochatchover, is the one who realizes that kindnesses performed towards her are not hers; they are a loan she must repay by using the kindness to retroactively merit the goodness and, we might add, merit future goodness.
We are blessed in so many ways, both individually and collectively. Let us be like the wise person, who recognizes that God’s lovingkindness to us is like a loan that sustains us so that we can retroactively merit it. Let us make sure not to take God’s chesed towards us for granted, and instead recognize it as commanding us to further chesed in the world. When we read this parsha that takes us from the undeserved redemption to the one that Bnei Yisrael merited through their actions, let us be reminded of our responsibility. We must take this seed capital and use it to grow, so that, through our actions outward, we will merit this lovingkindness.
Finally, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that, this year, Parshat Beshalach falls on Tu b'Shevat, the new year for the trees. With the blossoming of the first flowers—the almond trees bloom along the roads of Israel—may we use the trees themselves as a reminder of this call to responsibility. Just as the trees draw upon the blessings given to them—rain, sunlight—to bring flowers and fruit forward into the world, may we too synthesize our blessings and craft them into action that reflects our own roots. With the rejuvenation of life after a cold winter, may we be rejuvenated to strengthen our commitments and move forward with new growth.