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Dear Friends,

I was recently reminded of one of the first Jewish stories/jokes I learned.

It speaks of a man of deep faith who was traveling on an ocean liner that was overwhelmed by a storm and began to founder. The frenzied crew offered the man a life vest. He declined, saying, “God will save me.” They offered the man a seat in a life raft, but he said no, insisting, “God will save me.” The ocean liner sank, and the other passengers climbed into the life raft. As he trod water, he was approached first by a navy frigate, then by a submarine, and finally by a fishing vessel. In each case, the man refused their help, insisting, “I trust in God, and God will save me.” Ultimately the man, exhausted from his exertion, drowned.

When he came before the Throne of Glory at the gates of heaven, he said, “God, before you pass judgment on me, I have just one question: why didn’t you save me?”

There was a brief pause, and then a great voice boomed, “Who do you think sent all those ships?”

It is an old joke, but it reflects an even older lesson.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Beshalach, our ancestors finally begin their journey out of Egypt. Ten plagues have been visited on the Egyptians, and Pharoah finally acquiesces to God and Moses’ demand to let the people go. Shortly after, Pharaoh has a change of heart once again. He sends the entire Egyptian army out to capture our ancestors and return them to Egyptian servitude. The Israelites suddenly find themselves trapped. The Reed Sea blocks their path forward as the Egyptian army can be seen approaching in the distance.

The people, overwhelmed with fear, turn to God and Moses for help. Moses begins to pray, and God rebukes him rather than celebrating his piety and trust, saying, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” (Exod. 14:15).

The great teacher Rashi understands God’s response as saying, “Now isn’t the time to prolong prayer because the people of Israel are in distress.” In other words, Rashi says, stop with the acts of piety and actually do something.

The Medieval scholar Rabbi Bahya Ben Asher takes this further, commenting: “…the matter does not depend on God at all, but upon Israel.”

For him, the path through the crisis is entirely in the people’s hands, and based on his commentary, a modern teacher makes this observation:

Jewish tradition is quite clear on this point: loving God and turning to God with emunah (faith, trust) is a high Jewish virtue. But that emunah doesn’t remove our need to be the vessels for God’s actions in the world. God acts, quite often, through us.

It is an old joke, but it reflects a lesson that is as relevant as ever.

Over 100 hostages are still in the hands of Hamas terrorists, Hamas and Hezbollah continue to fire countless missiles at Israeli civilian population centers, the IDF tragically saw its worst single day of losses since the war began, and the war, now in its 112th day, continues to exact heart-wrenching human tolls.

At services each week we continue to pray for the release of the hostages, the safety and security of Israel, and peace for Israel and the entire region. It is important. But it is not enough.

Many of us begin and end our days by checking for the latest news out of Israel. It is important. But it is not enough.

Prayer and study are hallmarks of what it means to be part of the Jewish community, but just as God told Moses, there are times when they are not enough. This is one of those times.

So what actions are possible when we are so far away? A few thoughts:

  • Join me this Sunday at 1 pm to learn with Gil Hoffman. An expert on media and media bias, Gil will address the weaponization of social media and help us better understand what actions we can take to address it. It is just one of the many programs we are sponsoring, cosponsoring, and signing on to help promote. Each is valuable in its own right.
  • Continue to support relief efforts such as our Greater MetroWest Emergency Fund or causes and organizations working in the region to offer support, help those who are traumatized, and once the war is brought to an end, to advance efforts for peace between Israel and her neighbors.
  • Make plans to visit Israel. We have a number of congregational members who have or will be headed to Israel to visit and volunteer. There are many opportunities to visit and help in the coming months, and I would be happy to help make those connections. In addition, our next TSTI Congregational Mission will begin on December 22, 2024. Join me!
  • Keep learning and advocating. The civilian toll of this war is beyond tragic, but as Bret Stephens points out in a recent NYTimes Op-Ed (, this has been, and continues to be, Hamas’ plan all along. It is beyond comprehension that anyone could WANT such things, but the fact that they do and then put the onus for this terrible situation entirely on Israel is evil. The more we know, the more we can counter the lies with facts. Thankfully, it seems that facts do matter, as a recent study ( showed that, despite all the lies, 80% of Americans still support Israel and understand that this is a war against Hamas, not the Palestinian people writ large.
  • Show up and help maintain strong American Jewish institutions. Now more than ever, we need strong synagogues, a strong Federation, and strong organizations such as ADL, AJC, and AIPAC that advocate on behalf of our people here and in Israel. Now more than ever, they need—and we need—your moral AND financial support.

As Moses and the man on that sunken ship learned, faith IS important. But not to the exclusion of real, impactful action.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen