Archive for Beshallach

Beshallach: Splitting the Sea, All Over the World

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This week we’re reading about Divine providence, which may or may not
correspond to the fact that I’m writing to you from city of
Providence. (Some questions are too deep for me.) Parshat Beshallach
is the grand finale of the Exodus narrative- the Israelites march
free, Pharoah’s army is drowned, and Moshe and Miriam lead the people
in joyous song. The image of the “splitting of the sea,” so that the
Israelites could escape the pursuing army, is well known, and retold
in many forms:

“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord led the
sea with the strong east wind all night, and God made the sea into
dry land and the waters split.” (Shemot/ Exodus 14:21)

Rashi brings an interesting midrash to bear on the final detail of
the verse above- it hinges on the fact that “mayim,” or “water,” is a
collective noun in the plural form. Thus, it can mean a little water
or lots of water, an ambiguity which Rashi interprets in a surprising
way:

” ‘and the waters split’.. . . . All the water in the world.” (Rashi,
quoting an earlier text.)

Huh? Why would Rashi say that some creek in Mongolia or a pond in
Topeka also “split” along with the Sea of Reeds? I see two
possibilities. First, if “all the waters in the world” split, then
obviously the miracle was that much greater, and if you’re going to
praise God for a great miracle, it might as well be the biggest one
you could imagine.

That’s a more literal understanding of Rashi’s comment, but I’d like
to suggest a second, more metaphorical understanding. Perhaps Rashi
is hinting that the Exodus story- a story in which the God of all
humankind stands firmly with on side of the weak and oppressed- is
not only about God’s relationship with the people Israel, but is
universal, applicable to any situation where there is injustice and
suffering. In the Exodus narrative, God “split the sea” so the
Israelites could find safety and freedom, but “all the waters in the
world”- that is, all the places where people feel blocked in and
unfree- can be crossed over where there is faith and courage and
willingness to be God’s partner in overthrowing injustice.

That, to me, is the larger meaning of the miracle: not that the laws
of physics were suspended, but the generalities of history, wherein
the strong prey on the weak, were overturned by a God who cares about
human dignity and freedom. The book of Exodus relates this deeper
truth in the form of a story about our ancestors, but Rashi reminds
us that justice is never found in one place only- it’s all over the
world, or it is incomplete.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the first link leads to a page where you can find a
summary of the parsha and further commentary, and the second link
leads to the text itself.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bshalah_
index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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Beshallach: Faith in the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

Shalom from sunny Los Angeles! As I’ve been travelling from Boston to
St. Louis to Los Angeles and soon to San Diego, reading about our
ancestor’s journeys seems especially appropriate.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites leave Egypt,
and are taken the “long way round” in order to avoid some difficult
areas. Unfortunately, the Sea of Reeds lies between them and safety,
and Pharoah’s army is in hot pursuit. The sea splits and the
Israelites cross on dry land, leaving the army trapped behind them,
but this doesn’t end their troubles; now they’re in the desert with
no water.

So we read in Exodus 15:22-27 (abridged below), after the salvation
at the sea:

“Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the
desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not
find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from
Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. The
people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? So he
cried out to the Lord, and the Lord instructed him concerning a piece
of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.
There God gave them a statute and an ordinance . . . . They came to
Elim, and there were twelve water fountains and seventy palms, and
they encamped there by the water.”

Now, on the one hand, if you’re thirsty, you want water right at that
moment, and that’s perfectly understandable. However, many
commentators have seen in this passage a certain lack of faith on the
part of the Israelites- could they really have witnessed all the
plagues and the splitting of the sea and believed that God would then
abandon them to die in the desert?

One 19th century European commentator, known as the “Chafetz Chaim,”
from the title of his most famous book, also notes that the oasis of
Elim was just beyond Marah, the place where the Israelites
complained “bitterly” about not having water. (“Marah” means “bitter”
in Hebrew, like “maror,” or bitter herbs.)

Here’s what the Chafetz Chaim had to say:

“They came to Elim directly from Marah, and Elim was but a short
distance from Marah. Thus, when they complained to Moshe about the
bitter water, there was fresh water almost under their noses. Had
they not complained, but travelled a little further, they would have
found water. However, that is the way people are; they have no
patience, and like to complain.” (Taken from “Torah Gems,” an
anthology of Hasidic commentary.)

This insight of the Chafetz Chaim helps us understand better what
kind of faith the Israelites had, or didn’t have. Faith, to my mind,
is not necessarily a matter of what you believe, or don’t believe;
it’s not just an intellectual matter. Faith is also putting one foot
in front of another when you don’t always know where you’re going.
Faith is an energizing attitude towards life itself, which propels us
forward with courage in the face of difficulty.

That’s the kind of faith the Israelites needed; the faith to keep
going, to keep walking forward, even if they were thirsty, because
the oasis was just a little ways ahead. So often, the “water”- or the
love, forgiveness, wisdom, peace, and other blessings- are “right
under our noses,” if we just keep ourselves going forward on the
journey!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Beshallach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

BeShalach (Ex. 13:17-17:16)

OVERVIEW

The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plagues force Pharoah to surrender; however, once the Israelites have actually started to leave, 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 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. The people repeatedly complain, despite the fact that God provides them with miraculous food and water. At the end of the parsha, there is a battle with the nation Amelek.

IN FOCUS

“Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him because Yosef had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’ ” (Genesis 13:19)

PSHAT

In the final chapter of Genesis, as Yosef is about to die, he tells his extended family that God will eventually bring them out of Egypt and bring them to the Land of Israel. He then makes them swear that they will bring his bones out of Egypt when they leave. (Genesis 50: 24-26)

Many generations later, Moshe fulfills this promise as the Israelites are hurriedly escaping from slavery. The rest of the people are armed for battle, but Moshe remembers the commitment made to their ancestor.

DRASH

Before we discuss what the Torah might be trying to teach us with the image of Moshe carrying Yosef’s bones, a brief word about ancient burial practices is in order. We know from archaeological evidence in Israel that burial was sometimes a two-stage process: after a period of time, a body’s bones were sometimes reinterred in a small box called an ossuary. Although it says in Genesis 50:26 that Yosef was embalmed (see this week’s Reb on the Web for more on that subject), I think the Torah is portraying Moshe retrieving a small ossuary, not a full-sized coffin.

In either case, it’s a fascinating image, a single sentence tucked in among the epic depiction of one nation escaping another. A famous midrash says that the rest of the Israelites were busy looting the Egyptians, and only Moshe remembered the promise to Yosef. (Talmud, Sotah 13a) Taking the midrash no further, it’s a powerful image of commitment and fidelity, not to mention clarity of purpose in a crazy, chaotic situation. We might also read this midrash as a statement of the importance of Jewish responsibility for each other – not only did all the Israelites have to leave Egypt together, even the bones had to come out- nobody could be left behind.

A later interpretation of this passage makes a pun between the word for bones and a word which means identity or essence of character:

    Moshe took the bones [atzmot] of Yosef. . . . the essence [atzmut] of Yosef, his character and the content of his spirit- that’s what Moshe took for himself, at the moment when he accepted the role of being the leader of Israel. Just as Yosef returned goodness in place of evil, [when he said to his brothers], “I will sustain you,” (Genesis 50:21) Moshe took upon himself to lead this flock with this trait, changing their stubbornness with patience and forgiveness and treating them only with kindness. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

In this reading, what Moshe realizes that he needs to take out of Egypt is not something physical, but an intangible personal quality- he takes with him the generosity of spirit that Yosef displayed after Yaakov died, when his brothers feared that Yosef would take revenge on them for selling him into slavery as a young man. As we see later on in this Torah portion, and then throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers, Moshe would often find himself in conflict with the people he was leading, who often complained and showed little gratitude. Thus, he would need the same qualities of forgiveness and understanding that Yosef had- this was essential to his journey, and to ours.

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Beshallach 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plagues force Pharoah to surrender; however, once the Israelites 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 parasha, there is a dramatic battle with the nation Amelek.

IN FOCUS
“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)

PSHAT
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 God 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.

DRASH
The 15th century Sephardic Torah commentator R. Yitzhak Abarvanel (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 Abarvanel 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 Abarvanel’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? ed.]

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, though acts of charity and compassion, some of what has been given to us.

To cultivate the quality of wonder; to practice gratitude; to act responsibly with all we’ve been given- that’s the test, every day.

Note: Yehuda Nachshoni’s book which elucidates different Torah commentaries was helpful to me in preparing this column; the specific chapter in Nachshoni which discusses these issues was pointed out to me by R. Robert Wexler at the University of Judaism.

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