Accepting a calling
Beshalah | Exodus 13:17 -17:16
In the days before
GPS, we would follow
“posts” of clouds, fire.
– Ron Kaplan
January 8, 2014
Legal principles sometimes serve as moral axioms. That is why even Jews who are not fully halachic should be interested in what Halacha says; as much as Halacha is Jewish law, it is also the Jewish way of coding the world and the human condition.
Take the adage “Agents are like those who appoint them” (“Shiluho shel adam k’moto”), the principle that allows our legal appointees to sign contracts on our behalf. The word for “agent” is from the Hebrew root “shin-lamed-haf,” “to send,” so those we appoint are our “sendees.”
Most of us are unlikely to be legal “sendees” but are often dispatched for moral ends. The most obvious case is doing a favor. If you fail to drop in on my elderly parents as you said you would, I may not be able to take you to court, but I am justified in holding you morally culpable.
Things become more serious when God does the sending. The paradigmatic case is the prophets who hesitate at being sent, perhaps because they know the literal meaning of the phrase — not just having legal capacity to represent the people who appoint them, but being just like them (k’moto). Being God’s “sendee” makes a prophet just like God — doing God’s work, speaking in God’s name, and as much as humanly possible, living a life that reminds people of God’s presence.
Everyday English has no word large enough for such a task. Theological vocabulary speaks of “calling” — the only word with power enough to make sense of this week’s parsha, named Beshalah because it is about “being sent.”
It begins with Pharaoh sending the Israelites to freedom. But Pharaoh is doing God’s will, our commentators say, making Israel “sendees” of God, second-hand, and charging them with their Jewish calling: to reach Sinai, receive Torah, occupy sacred space, and build sacred community there. As these inescapable obligations dawn on the people, they even plead, on occasion, to be returned to Egypt, rather than endure history as God’s agents and have to be just like God.
We, the Israelites’ descendants, also have a calling, but hesitate to accept it. Being called is a reminder of how wrong we are to imagine the world exists for us, instead of the other way around. It is daunting to be called to be just like God.
Like the Israelites before us, we too are called to be God’s presence in the world. Our lives are mere cameo appearances in the grand drama of history, but we do play a role. And no one else can play it for us, because (here’s another halachic axiom with moral overtones) Ein hashaliah oseh shaliah: “An agent cannot appoint another agent.” The calling is ours, no one else’s.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).