Parsha Beshalach is an important chapter in the Jewish story. It chronicles the events of the first few weeks in the Wilderness, the “honeymoon” between God and the Jewish People. The key players in the story are the Israelites, God and Moses.
So here’s the story:
The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plagues force Pharoah to surrender; however, once they have left their slavery, Pharoah has a change of heart and decides to chase after them with his army. The Israelites come to the Sea of Reeds, but are able to cross on dry land after God parts the waters, which then come together and drown the pursuing Egyptian army. Moshe sings his "Song of the Sea," and Miriam leads the women in dance and rejoicing. Still, the people are dissatisfied with conditions in the wilderness, and repeatedly complain, despite the fact that God provides them with "manna" and water. At the end of the parsha, there is a dramatic battle with the nation Amalek.
The important aspects of the parsha are:
The Song of the Sea, manna, the developing relationship between God and Moses and The Battle with the Amalekites.
The Song of the Sea
Moses spontaneously composes a Song of the Sea and the Israelites exclaim “I will sing to God, for he has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. God is my strength and my might. He has become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him.” (Ex. 15:1-2)
The ultimate declaration of obedience to God comes from the Song of the Sea: “Adonai Yimloch L’olam Vaed” – “God will reign for ever and ever.” (Ex. 15:18) This is still an important part of our liturgy. Of course, this declaration of Kingship was prompted by the defeat and destruction of Pharaoh and his entire army at the Sea of Reeds. There, God “battles” for the Israelites, and “gain[s] glory through [the defeat of] Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Ex. 14:18) by hurling the Egyptians into the sea.
The Hebrew people have escaped to freedom in the wilderness only to find that there is no food or water in the desert; they complain and even nostalgically recall the food they ate in Egypt as slaves. They seem to blame Moshe for their troubles; he, in turn, reminds them that it was God who took them out of Egypt. God responds that He will provide food from heaven- the "manna"- as much as each person needs, with a double portion on Fridays so that the people do not need to gather on Shabbat. Each day the manna will fall, and whatever is left over will go bad; the people must collect their portion every day, and not attempt to hoard it. "God said to Moshe: 'See here, I will rain down for them food from heaven, and the people will go out and collect a daily portion every day. Thus I will test them, whether they will follow My Torah or not.'" (Exodus 16:5)
The Israelites aren’t always keen on following exact directions. The Torah tells us: “they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank.” (Ex. 16:20) “Yet some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather and they found nothing.” (Ex. 16:27) Finally, God loses his cool and lays it on the line: “Know that God has given you the Sabbath; therefore, He gives you two days food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is; let no one leave his place on the seventh day.” (Ex. 16:29) This time the Israelites get the message and fall back into line.
The Developing Relationship Between God and Moses
It’s also interesting to examine the evolving relationship between God and Moses. Initially when the Israelites are encamped next to the Reed Sea and Pharaoh is about to regret his earlier decision to let them leave Egypt, God speaks with Moses and reveals to him what will happen next. When the Israelites become frightened by the advancing Egyptians, Moses tells them not to fear: “God will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Ex. 14:14) God responds by asking Moses “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your arm and hold your rod over sea, and split it.” (Ex. 14:15-16) Here God is, in effect, coaching Moses, helping him see to the opportunity in front of him and to take appropriate action.
Of course, after the Israelites cross over, God again coaches Moses to drown the Egyptians: “Hold out your arm over the sea that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.” (Ex. 14:26) Always the faithful servant, Moses follows directions.
Later, after the Israelites travel for three days in the wilderness of Shur, they arrive at Marah, where the water is bitter and not drinkable. Again they start grumbling against Moses asking “what should we drink?” Moses becomes exasperated and cries out to God, who responds patiently by showing Moses a special tree. Moses gets the message, throws wood into the water, and the waters become sweet and drinkable. This is, of course, a nice story for the Shabbat before Tu B’Shvat. Note how Moses now needs only a helpful hint, rather than a direct command, before dealing with the situation.
Still later, the Israelites grumble again, this time about a shortage of food. God responds by revealing his plan to Moses to “rain down bread from the sky”, six days a week. After hearing this, Moses, with some help from Aaron, is able to ease the people’s fears and to convince them that God has heard them, has not abandoned them, and will meet their needs. Moses has finally come to “find his voice” by taking God’s coaching to heart.
Finally, at the end of the Parshah, when Amalek arrives, Moses responds by immediately telling Joshua to “pick some men for us and go do battle with Amalek. I will station myself on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.” (Ex. 17:9) With help from Aaron and Hur, Moses is able to hold the rod up until sunset, channeling divine power and enabling Joshua to defeat the Amalekites. We see that Moses is now able to take charge without God’s coaching. He has also learned to allow other Israelite leaders to help him accomplish his mission. At the very end of the Parsha, God comes back into the picture and instructs Moses to pass on the story of Amalek’s defeat to posterity, by creating a written record of the events of the day and, then, placing it “in Joshua’s ears”, so that Joshua might understand the spiritual dimension of his battlefield experience. Moses has definitely matured as a leader.
Big Ideas (most essential points, themes, etc)
The idea of transformation – the idea of changing as individuals and ultimately as a people from being slaves to becoming free human beings. Not an easy process. After all, a slave doesn’t have to think or make decisions or ponder or make choices. A slave’s life is mapped out for him – his daily existence is an uncreative, tedious repetition of the day before and the day before that with no rest, no break, no day off, no vacation. Over time, a slave loses his ability to dream. He becomes a machine, a robot, nothing more than a cog in the wheel of his master’s plan. The Israelites had lived in this reality for 400 years. Roughly 10 generations. Imagine that you are a slave and your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents were slaves. Most of us cannot even trace our families back that far – so you can imagine the mentality of the slave that evolved over this very difficult period of time.
Stripped of all creativity, all imagination, all vision the Israelite slaves were a blank slate – a tabula rasa, as the philosophers say. And after the final plague, the death of the first born, Pharaoh finally relented and let them leave the mud pits of Egypt with their new leader Moses. God had a very specific plan for these people. He had Moses lead them into the desert. And here we identify another important theme of the parsha and that is the desert.
Why the desert? What is it about the desert that provides the ideal setting to become a nation? what are its qualities that make it the place where spirituality is inevitably born? The desert is a place that pits humanity against the absence of comfort; it is a place where one stands alone against the harshest of realities. It is the ultimate test of mettle, of character, of strength. It is also a metaphor for the slave’s mentality – it is a place stripped of all materialism, all distractions – there is only the human brain and human will against an unforgiving, barren, tedious environment with nothing to divert one from its stark reality. The desert is a blank slate – also a tabula rasa. There is nothing there. And anyone who has ever been in a spiritual desert – a place with no hope, no faith, no future – knows that this place, this state of mind is as low as you can go.
The desert epitomizes loneliness and it is a metaphor for spiritual barrenness. It is a place where one's own life force can be amplified or even sensed for the first time in the desperate silence and the infinite distances that stretch across the harsh land. These two features alone, silence and infinity, are a clear reflection of the soul of humankind which is spiritually infinite but ultimately alone. Every major religion of the world has made recourse to the desert as a crucial aspect of spiritual awakening. By virtue of its material desolation, the desert offers a means of spiritual purification and salvation. The desert in terms of the slaves who left Egypt offered a way to purify their slave mentality – to rid themselves of the psychological chains that kept them as slaves.
Ultimately it took 40 years of wandering in the desert to purge the slave mentality from the hearts and minds of the Israelites. The original generation that left Egypt had to die off - so deep was the slave mentality ingrained in their hearts and minds. It was only their children who had not experienced slavery, that were able to enter the Promised Land.
What is the significance of manna? Is it a test?
The 15th century Sephardic Torah commentator R. Yitzhak Abravanel (d.1508) notices a fundamental problem with this verse: when we say that someone is being "tested," we assume that they are going to have to do something difficult. The classic example from the Torah is in Genesis 22, when God "tested" Avraham by asking him to bring his son Yitzhak as a sacrifice. However, as Abravanel points out, God's beneficence in providing the miraculous "food from heaven" seems like an act of lovingkindness, not a difficult challenge! What kind of test is it to provide someone with food and water that they simply collect without any trouble at all? Nevertheless, the plain meaning of the verse is that God is giving Israel some kind of temptation or challenge. Rashi interprets the phrase "follow my Torah" as applying specifically to the instructions pertaining to the manna. Thus, for Rashi, the test that God gives the Israelites is whether they will follow the specific commandments not to leave the manna over till the next day, and not to go out collecting it on Shabbat. (See verses 16:19-27) Other commentators understand the test in broader terms. Ibn Ezra understands the test in light of the first part of our verse, which says that one's portion of manna must be collected every day. Ibn Ezra imagines God saying that the test is "so that they will rely on Me every day." Similarly, Ramban writes a long commentary on this verse, in which he expounds the drama of the Israelites' situation. They were in the desert wilderness, a "wilderness of snakes and scorpions," taken there out of slavery by an unfamiliar ancestral God, who each day provided a strange food that neither they nor their ancestors had ever seen before. The people didn't know if this invisible God would in fact provide food every day; they only received it one day at a time, with no assurances for the future. Under those circumstances, writes Ramban, the test is whether they would follow God even if they only had one day's supply of food. Philosophically, then, Rashi sees the test as one of obedience, whereas Ramban sees the test as one of faith. However, either approach answers Abravanel's question- yes, providing the Israelites with sustenance is an act of beneficence, but these too can be tests. To put it another way, the test of the Israelites was not a test of endurance or sacrifice, but a test of character under conditions of plenty. Freed from the need to work hard every day just to eat, would they grow spiritually, or would they become spiritually lazy? Different aspects of this challenge can be inferred from the different commentator's interpretations. Ibn Ezra says that the test for the Israelites was to rely on God every day; turned around, we can understand this as the challenge of practicing gratitude, of becoming alive to the wonder of our continued existence. Every day we can wake up and be thankful for what we have--or we can take our situation for granted, and forget the Source of All Life. Following Ramban, we can ask ourselves how willing we are to take spiritual risks when the future is not assured--do we follow a Godly path despite the detours and unfamiliar terrain such a journey must inevitably entail? Do we demand absolute predictability--which, after all, is the one thing the Israelites had as slaves in Egypt--or are we willing to take things "one day at a time," opening ourselves to faith? Another commentator, Hizkuni (France, d.1250) quotes an interpretation that the test was to see if the Israelites would use their time to study Torah*, now that they had leisure time on their hands. That question applies as directly to our age as it does to the Torah story under consideration. What do we do with all the time saved from our modern 'time-saving devices? Do we watch another episode of ER, or use the time to make the world a better place or to grow spiritually?
*Remember Torah is not necessarily in proper, logical order.
Finally, returning to Rashi, we can infer that gifts carry with them responsibilities. The manna was a gift from God, but God asked that it be treated with respect and reverence. Do we, in fact, appreciate with reverence the gifts we have been given, and act accordingly? If the manna was symbolic of the sustenance we all too often take for granted, we can ask ourselves if we give back to God, through acts of charity and compassion, some of what has been given to us.
On Yom Kippur, prior to reciting the public confession of sins, we chant a lovely piyyut which lists the many ways we relate to God. It starts off, “Ki Anu Amecha v’Ata Elohenu.” - “For we are Your people, and You are our God. We are Your Children and You are our father. We are Your servants, and You are our master. We are Your congregation, and You are our portion.” I believe that the purpose of the piyyut is to remind both ourselves and God that, as we have seen in Parsha Beshalach, our relationship is multidimensional. If one aspect of the relationship is troubling, then we can find other aspects that are comforting. This perspective should help to provide us with the strength needed to both seek and to find forgiveness.
Let us be mindful that all of our relationships have many facets and present many opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.