Archive for Beshallach

Beshallach: the Art of our Ancestors

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 14:10)

Good afternoon!

This week we read the climax of the Exodus story: the Israelites leave Egypt but are pursued by Pharaoh’s army, which drowns in the Sea of Reeds after it has been split to allow Israel safe passage on foot.

As the Egyptian Army approaches, the people see the pursuers, become frightened, and “cry out to God,” as in the verse above. While perusing the commentators, I noticed a comment by Rashi that practically leaped off the page, begging for further exploration. (I’m still amazed I never really noticed this before.) Explaining the phrase “cried out,” Rashi says “they grasped the art of their ancestors” [tafsu omanut avotam] and goes on to reference the idea that Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov each instituted or demonstrated various prayers or aspects of our liturgy.

I understand why Rashi might want  to link the people’s prayer to the prayers of the patriarchs; doing so reinforces the idea that the people were saved at least in part because of the merit of those ancestors and promises made to them. Yet the word omanut, which means art or craft, is a very interesting word to apply to “crying out,” especially since it is related to the word emunah, which means belief, which in turn is related to the common phrase amen, which means something like “I believe that.”

I can also understand calling liturgical prayer an “art,” in the sense that it involves intellect, skill and emotions- to master traditional Hebrew prayers takes some practice but also requires a personal, spiritual commitment, much like art requires both technical skill and emotional expression. Yet the “crying out” at the shore of the sea is precisely not a liturgical, fixed prayer, but a spontaneous expression. So perhaps Rashi is hinting that this, too, is a kind of skill or discipline passed along from generation to generation by our ancestors; even to know when and how to cry out requires spiritual openness and a sense that we are worthy of doing so.

I love the idea that prayer is the “art of our ancestors;” it conveys a sense not of obligation or fixed disciplines- though those too are aspects of Jewish prayer- but instead a sense of discovery, creativity, openness, vulnerability, honesty, and expression of our deepest truths. That kind of prayer can come out of “crying out,” but can also arise from gratitude, wonder, and love. We have been given a precious gift by our those who came before; the challenge is to make their art our own.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- Happy Tu B’Shvat to one and all!

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Beshallach: All the Brothers

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach 

Dear Friends: 

This week the story of the exodus from Egypt reaches its climax, with the miracle at the sea and the great song in response. As the Israelites leave bondage in great haste, the Torah notes a small detail: 

“And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 13:19) 

I’ve written about this passage before, but not for a long time, so it’s time to revisit this verse, especially in light of a comment by Rashi that I didn’t consider prior to this year’s Torah reading cycle. First, please note, Moshe was probably not understood to be carrying a coffin, but an ossuary, a small box. Second, Moshe’s retrieval of the bones is the fulfillment of an oath made back in Bereshit 50: when Yosef was dying, he made his brothers swear to bring his bones up out of Egypt when the God redeemed them. 

Now onto something Rashi noticed and I didn’t: there is a slight difference between the report of that promise in this week’s Torah portion and where it is originally found in Bereshit 50. That’s the small phrase at the end of the verse quoted above: “with you.” The reason this little difference makes a difference is that Rashi assumes that the brothers weren’t going to be the ones to carry Yosef’s bones out of Egypt- their descendants would. According to Rashi, Yosef made them swear that they’d make their children swear to give Yosef a proper burial- and thus, “with you” (plural) means “your descendants will carry my bones out of Egypt along with all of your bones.” 

This completely changes our understanding of the verse. Rather than praising only Moshe for a singular act of filial piety, Rashi seems to believe that while Moshe carried Yosef’s bones, all the Israelites were involved in the rescue of the bones of their ancestors, bringing them out of Egypt towards repatriation in the Land of Israel. Not only does this understanding ascribe greater merit to the people as a whole, it also gives us an image of what it means to move forward on our journey: we cannot take just a piece of our history with us, but rather inevitably bring all of it. 

The image of the Israelites carrying the bones of the ancestors with them on their Exodus suggests to me that even when someone is going through a great transformation, they carry with them a legacy: of ancestors good and not-so-good, of deeds both loving and banal, of community and language and customs and hurts and strengths and all the rest of what makes us human. We can’t only carry Yosef with us- the proud and insightful leader- but we also carry Shimon, the zealot, and Reuven, whose failures of leadership and morality earned him rebuke from his father’s deathbed, and all the rest of the brothers and tribes. 

To be a people is to acknowledge that we are bound together with others across history and into a common destiny; to be thus bound, one to another, requires moral courage, because as much as we’d sometimes like to, we can’t leave any Jew outside the bounds of our community. That’s why all the bones of all the brothers came up from Egypt- because to be a people means to leave nobody behind. In our synagogues, schools, charitable institutions and defense organizations, we must try as best we can to be radically inclusive, to bring everybody in, to find a place for anybody who wants one. That, too, is a legacy of the Exodus; Yosef’s plea still calls us to action. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Beshallach: Battle and Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

“Yehoshua did as Moshe told him and fought with Amalek, while Moshe, Aharon, and Hur went up to the top of the hill . . . . ”
(Shmot/Exodus 17:10)

Good afternoon, one and all. It’s a long and rich parsha this week, beginning with the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, continuing with Moshe and Miriam leading the people in praise and dance on the other side, taking a detour into grumbling and conflict, and finishing on a somber note, with the nation of Amalek attacking the Israelites as they journey towards Sinai.

Yehoshua, Moshe’s second in command, leads the people in battle with Amalek, but Moshe himself, along with two others, ascends a hill above the battlefield to watch and pray. Our friend Rashi draws a halachic point from the verse quoted above; he says that the example of Moshe, Aharon and Hur going to the hill above the battlefield teaches that on a fast day, we have three people who lead the congregation in prayer, as the people were fasting that day.

Now, fasting during a battle doesn’t make much sense from the standpoint of physical strength and endurance, so we are meant to understand that there is an introspective and spiritual aspect to the battle with Amalek which is also important. The ancient rabbis see all the conflict and accusation in chapters 16 and 17 as setting the stage for Amalek to attack, either as a punishment or simply by dividing and weakening the people.

This does not, in any way, exonerate Amalek for their evil deed. Rather, the point of this midrash is that two things can be true at once:

1) Evil people do bad things and must be held responsible; Amalek must be fought.

2) Conflict and catastrophe are opportunities for reflection and introspection in order to atone for any part in making it possible for evil people to do terrible things. Fasting is one traditonal Jewish way of engaging in this reflection and atonement; hence Rashi making a connection between fasting and fighting with Amalek.

The past week has been a sad and difficult week in the United States; a sitting Congresswoman is fighting for her life after being shot, along with many others, in a senseless act of shocking brutality, which took the lives of young and old alike. President Obama, in his speech a few days later, used Biblical imagery to make essentially the same point that Rashi does: that justice and introspection are complementary responses to violence of word and deed. We must hold people accountable for their actions, and we must look within ourselves to ask how we, as individuals and as a community, may have contributed to allowing bad things to happen.

A third way of articulating this idea is something Heschel said in his book The Prophets: few are guilty, but all are responsible. That sense of responsibility, for self and others, is truly the foundation of a morally serious life.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beshallach: Daily Liberation

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Beshallach: Shmot/ Exodus 13:17-17:16

In Beshallach, the Israelites cross the Sea to safety, but after celebrating redemption, grumbling and dissension sets in. Amalek attacks the stragglers and the journey to Sinai begins.

Good afternoon! This week we have one of the clearest and most famous connections between the Torah and the siddur [prayerbook], in a quote from the Song of the Sea, which Moshe sings on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds after cruel Pharaoh’s army is destroyed while chasing the Israelites:

“Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!”  (Shmot 15:11)

Even those who go to synagogue only occasionally may remember these verses, recited after the Shma [declaration of Divine Unity} and before the Amidah [standing prayer] every morning and every evening:

Mi chamocha b’elim Adonai?
Mi chamocha, nedar b’kodesh . . . .

This quote is attached to a blessing which calls God the “redeemer” of Israel, and which not only recalls the great redemption from Egypt but also call for a new redemption:

“Rock of Israel! Arise to Israel’s aid! Remember Yehudah and Israel as You have promised, One Who redeems us. . . ”

It’s perfectly obvious from the siddur, or the Passover seder, or our holiday liturgies that the Exodus from Egypt is seen not only as the paradigmatic redemption but also one that prefigures an even greater miracle in the future- we recall the Exodus not to be nostalgic but as an act of radical (I might even say audacious) hope. Yet the grammar of the prayerbook is interesting: it calls God “redeemer” not only in the past tense, but in the present tense [go’alenu] as if the Exodus is happening right now.

Which, of course, it is.

We sing a piece of the Song of the Sea (and in many congregations, the whole thing) every day because every day, within each of us, redemption from Pharaoh is an ongoing possibility. Pharaoh wasn’t just a wicked king way back when- Pharaoh represents that aspect of human nature which treats others as mere means to self-centered ends, which sees humans only in terms of power, control, economics and institutional imperatives, rather than spiritual beings, manifestations of the Divine Image. The very job of Judaism is to overcome Pharaoh every day when we meet each other in right relationship, characterized by the fundamental attributes of hesed [loving-kindness] and tzedek [justice].

So it makes sense to recall the Song of the Sea every day, because every day is a potential liberation from the inner Pharaoh. Yet- to invoke Paul Harvey- don’t forget the rest of the story: after the joy of the miracle came the hard path of making a community and starting across the wilderness. That’s why we remember the Exodus twice daily: because we constantly have to do the work of leading ourselves away from Pharaoh, and towards Sinai, and every day we sing for joy in the opportunity to do so.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Beshallach: Awakening the Spirit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

We have just enough time to sneak in a
little bit of Torah study before Shabbat, and a good thing, too,
because the haftarah this week is the longest one of the year, in the
Ashkenazi liturgical tradition.

The Torah portion, Beshallach, concludes the story of the Exodus with
the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and a great song of gratitude once
the Israelites have reached the other side. In the haftarah, Devorah,
a prophet and judge, gives instructions to her general Barak to defeat
the enemy general Sisera. Sisera’s army is routed, he flees to the
tent of Yael, who lures him into a deadly trap, and once again a great
redemption song is offered by the leader of a grateful nation, in this
case Devorah herself. Because of the Song at the Sea and its related
haftarah, this Shabbat is actually called “Shabbat Shirah,” or the
Sabbath of Song.

The song of Devorah is considered by many scholars to be older than
the story which precedes it; it’s not hard to imagine that victory
songs were part of the ancient culture of tribal and national
leadership. There are other examples of exultant poems in the Bible,
including poems of gratitude from figures as diverse as Hanna and King
David. (Remember, in Hebrew, “shir” means both poem and song.)
Devorah’s song is poetry, but it’s also about war- she, like Moshe in
our Torah portion, is grateful to God that her people has been spared,
and the enemy has not.

Yet one line from Devorah’s poem has made its way from victory in war
to the peace of Shabbat:

” Awake, awake, O Devorah!
Awake, awake, strike up the chant!” (Shoftim/ Judges 5:12)

This line: “uri, uri, Devorah, uri, uri, daberi shir,” which literally
means “arise [or awake], Devorah, arise, my words of song,” was used
in the fifth verse of the famous Shabbat hymn “Lecha Dodi”:

“Uri uri shir daberi , Kavod Ado-nai alayich niglah. . . .”

Perhaps for poetic reasons, the author of Lecha Dodi switched the
words “daberi shir” to “shir daberi,” but the intent, as far as I can
tell, is the same: “arise, arise, the song of my words, let the glory
of God be upon you and revealed. . . ”

Lecha Dodi is also about redemption, in the classic Jewish
understanding: that one day we will be returned from exile and free
and peaceful in the Land of Israel. In the meantime, we only have a
little “taste” of redemption, in the peace of Shabbat. Yet Shabbat
doesn’t happen automatically: we have to awaken our consciousness to
embrace a day of gratitude, of reflection, of connection to others, to
God, and to our own deepest self. Just as an ancient victory could not
be taken for granted- one had to arouse oneself to a state of great
gratitude and praise- so too Shabbat slips from our awareness without
conscious and deliberate acknowledgment.

The songs of our soul don’t just happen by accident- we may be graced
by inspiration but we also choose the circumstances under which our
spirits are most likely to be opened wide. If we want to scale the
spiritual heights, we have to awaken our hearts and let them arise anew.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- Some of my thinking for this commentary was sparked by this
week’s chapter in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, edited by my
teacher and friend Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. You can check it out on
Google books- then go buy one!

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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

“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,


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Beshallach/Shabbat Shirah: Leaders of Song

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

Winter has arrived but the Israelites are leaving- Mitzrayim/Egypt, that is, in this week’s Torah
portion, Beshallach. (Also called Shabbat Shirah, or the Shabbat of
Song, for reasons which will shortly be obvious.) The Israelites go in
a hurry but soon find themselves stuck with the Sea of Reeds in front
of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them. The waters part, the
Israelites cross, and the Egyptian army is drowned when they pursue
after the fleeing slaves. Afterwards, both Moshe and his big sister
Miriam sing songs of praise to God for the great miracle of liberation:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took a timbrel in her
hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And
Miriam chanted for them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for The Almighty has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus

Miriam’s song is short but its expression is interesting. The Hebrew
says “va’ta’an l’hem,” literally, she “answered to them,” but meaning
“called out to them” or as the JPS translates it, “chanted for them.”

Our medieval friend Rashi brings an earlier midrash to explain that
both Moshe and Miriam chanted the songs out loud and the people
repeated it back to them, “answering” the leader with the words of the
song. Picking up on this, the contemporary rabbinic scholar Adin
Steinsaltz, in his book Biblical Images, suggests that because Miriam
led the women in communal chanting and song, it proves her status as a
leader of the people in her own right.

To me, it’s obvious that Miriam is prominent among the Israelites, but
what’s more interesting about this line of interpretation is its
metaphor of leadership: the leader brings the people to song, brings
out their voice and helps them articulate their words of celebration
and hope. I love the image of Miriam and Moshe composing verses and
the people chanting them in response, for it suggests that Miriam and
Moshe were worthy to be leaders precisely because of their ability and
willingness to be creative and freely expressive with the people.

This, in turn, helps bring out the pent-up emotions waiting to be
expressed after years of oppression. Miriam’s leadership consisted not
of commands but of finding her voice so that she may help others bring
out their own. Seen this way, leadership can be understood as
consciously seeking to nurture the human potential of one’s
organization or community, and is practiced not only by great
prophets, but by ordinary humans who bring forth in others the song

Shabbat Shalom,


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