Beshallach: Being in Place

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This week’s Torah portion is Beshallach, which tells of the escape from Egypt, the crossing of the
Sea of Reeds, and the miracle of manna in the wilderness. The manna is
a miraculous food that the Israelites gather each day, but they are
told that on the sixth day they’ll gather enough for the sixth and
seventh, thus obviating the need to collect the manna on Shabbat, the
seventh day.

However, as will surprise few readers of this commentary, sometimes
the Israelites just won’t listen and have to find things out the hard
way:

“Yet some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but
they found nothing. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will you men
refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? Mark that the Lord
has given you the sabbath; therefore God 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.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 16:27-29)

This passage is one of the few places in the Torah where Shabbat
practices are explicitly defined. In this case, we learn that one
aspect of Shabbat is not “going out from your place,” which is
understood by the ancient rabbis to mean that we should not go more
than a certain distance (a little less than a mile) from the town or
village or city or other inhabited place where we are on Shabbat. In
other words, somebody in a big city like Los Angeles or Toronto could
walk a few miles to visit a friend within the city, but somebody in a
small town might not be permitted to walk a mile outside of town to
visit their friend who lives out in the woods. [Please note: walking
and carrying things are two different issues, we’re only talking about
walking here.]

So the next question might be (actually, I can hear someone thinking
it out there): why is it OK on Shabbat, the day of rest, to walk miles
within the city but not OK to walk about 20 minutes outside the city
to visit someone in the nice green outdoors?

On the one hand, it’s a question of history: in ancient days, even big
cities weren’t miles and miles across like a modern metropolis, so we
should probably understand the intention of “staying in our places” as
not going from one city or town to another, that is, not setting out
on a journey.

Yet we can also understand the “Shabbat boundary” [techum Shabbat] as
a reminder to pay attention to the nature of the earth we’re standing
on during the 25 hours of Shabbat- it’s a kind of mindfulness of place
which refrains from the restlessness and excitement of needing to go
somewhere different. If you’re in the country, stay within a mile or
so of where you are; if you’re in the city, don’t leave your community
to go on a long trek across the fields or roads.

The practice of Shabbat teaches us not to need what we don’t have at
hand on Friday afternoon, including the need to be anywhere other than
where we are (excluding emergencies, of course.) With all the rushing
around the average North American does, it’s a tremendous spiritual
discipline to be relatively still for 25 hours- and only through
staying “in our places” can we truly notice, appreciate, and feel
blessed by the people and environment around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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