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Parashat Beshallach 01/29/2010

Parashat Beshallach 5770

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

In our Parashah and the next one, the process of Israel’s redemption from Egypt is completed, and the purpose for that redemption begins its fulfillment.  Concomitantly, the Israelites’ experience of Gd’s protection grows, and, one would expect, their faith also grows.

There are 5 major incidents in our Parashah and all of them have a bearing on the growth of faith:

  1. The splitting of the Sea of Reeds (not the Red Sea)
  2. The bitter waters at Marah
  3. The manna
  4. The lack of water and the appearance of the miraculous well that followed them for 40 years in the desert
  5. The attack of Amalek

Splitting the Sea

The need for the splitting of the Sea was precipitated by Gd’s leading the Israelites into a trap.  Beshallach begins with the statement that Gd doesn’t bring Israel from Egypt to the Land of Israel by a direct route.  The reason for this is that they were likely to encounter opposition from the Canaanites who were to be displaced, and they were as yet unprepared for such a confrontation.  Indeed, Malbim comments that the roundabout route was for the purpose of two kinds of preparation:

  1. Natural preparation – they needed to shed their slave mentality and learn to be self-sufficient adults
  2. Spiritual preparation – they needed to learn faith and trust in Gd.

Instead of the direct route, Gd instructs Moshe to turn the people back towards Egypt and to camp in a place where it will appear that they were lost and wandering aimlessly.  This would encourage Pharaoh to attack, and would set the stage for the final destruction of Egypt.  Now Moshe knew Gd’s plan all along, but the people didn’t.  Torah testifies that they did indeed follow Moshe’s instructions and camped at the edge of the Sea.  When the Egyptian army approached, trapping them, Gd instructed them to move “forward” – right into the Sea!  According to the Midrash the leader of the tribe of Yehudah, Nachson ben Aminadab, plunged forward, literally up to his neck in water, and the sea miraculously split.  Clearly this was an act of great trust in Gd on the part of Nachson.  The rest of the nation followed Nachshon’s lead; by that time the sea had become dry land and there was no longer an opportunity to demonstrate faith or trust.

Our Sages tell us that at the splitting of the Sea “even the humblest maidservant had a clearer vision [of Gd] than the prophet Yechezkel [Ezekiel, whose vision of Gd on his throne forms the 1st chapter of the Book of Yechezkel and forms the basis for a whole branch of Kabbalah].”  This is alluded to in the Song of the Sea, where Israel says “This is my Gd [zeh Keli]…”  The word “this” is taken to mean something that one can as if point to, it is so clear.  Just prior to their singing the Song, the Torah has the following paragraph:

And H” saved Israel on that day from the power of Egypt.  And Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore.  And Israel saw the great power that Gd had done in Egypt, and the people were in awe of Gd, and believed in Gd and in Moshe His servant.

The point to be made here is that the belief followed the experience.  Israel saw, and afterwards came faith.  Even though the experience was not maintained, for we do not find maidservants prophesying later on in Torah (and in fact, Moshe later comments “Would that all of Gd’s people were prophets” when two men begin prophesying unexpectedly), even a glimpse of reality is enough to change one’s whole perspective.  Still, this changed perspective needs to be built upon and stabilized, as we soon see.

The Bitter Waters

The Hebrew here can be read in two ways (note that the word for water – mayim – is a plural form in Hebrew): “They could not drink the water because they (the waters) were bitter” or “They could not drink the water because they (the people!) were bitter.”  What is the Midrash telling us here?  Water is a common metaphor for the transcendent – the ocean of Being.  In Jewish tradition it is also a metaphor for Torah.  If we are bitter, constantly complaining that things are not the way we want them to be, then it is very hard to absorb wisdom, to drink from the fountain of infinity.  If, on the other hand, we trust in Gd that whatever is happening is under His supervision and is for our good, then we approach life with an openness that is conducive to our growth.  At Marah Gd gave us our first few mitzvot and “there He tested [the people].”  Rashi comments that Gd tested whether or not they would accept the mitzvot out of love of H”, as this is essential to be able to receive Torah.

The Manna

The manna was another response on Gd’s part to the people’s complaint of lack.  In this case the matzah that they had brought out of Egypt was used up, and they complained that they had no bread (nor any way to get any).  I remember many years ago driving through Utah and seeing a sign “No services next 110 miles – check your gas.”  I thought of the original settlers of that part of the country, who of course had no services at all in front of them, not just a 2-hour drive, and of course I thought of the 40 years of wandering in the desert.

In response to this complaint, Gd provides the manna, saying explicitly that he was doing this “so that I can test them, whether they will follow My teaching or not.”  In particular, they were not to leave any manna over to the next day, and on the 6th day, when they miraculously gathered a double portion, they were to prepare it for the Sabbath, and then not go out to gather on the Sabbath, when there wouldn’t be any in the fields in any event.  The point of this exercise was to develop trust that Gd would provide every day.  There was no need to try to stockpile the manna, and indeed it was impossible to do so.  There were no manna banks, but then, there were no manna bank fees either.

The manna was, in fact, not any kind of ordinary food.  It was ethereal, yet physically satisfying, and it was, according to Rabbinic tradition, completely absorbed, so that nobody who was subsisting on manna ever had to relieve himself.  (I don’t know of any similar tradition about the water from the Well.)  Our Rabbis say that Torah could only be given to people who were subsisting on manna.  The reason given is similar to what we stated above – only someone who recognizes his complete dependence on Gd, and who has surrendered completely to Gd, is able to be open to receiving Gd’s Word.  The experience of the manna created a situation where this faith could develop.

The Well

When the people are again lacking in water, Moshe is instructed to strike a particular rock and bring forth water.  This well, or spring, followed the nation for 40 years, and is associated with Miriam (water, the moon, the tides are often associated with women for obvious reasons) – there are no further complaints about the water supply until immediately after she passes away (in the book of BaMidbar [Numbers]).  Malbim comments here that Gd needed to “make them understand that they need Gd’s Providence at every moment, therefore he left them to the forces of nature [i.e. no water in the desert].  The people needed to understand the reality that all existence is dependent on Gd’s Will.  Nature is not a given; rather it is a cloak that can obscure the underlying infinite reality.


The attack of Amalek, the grandson of Esau and the archetype of evil (Haman is a descendent of Amalek) occurred when the nation was camped at Rephidim.  The Rabbis interpret Rephidim as indicating “weak hands” (rafu y’deihem) – they lost their grip on the teachings that they had been given at Marah.  The lessons are first, spiritual growth requires continued focus.  Amalek attacked specifically the stragglers around the camp, the weak ones.  When the entire people was focused and united in their spiritual growth, they were automatically protected.  When they slacked off, that protection slacks off as well, and measures for physical defense must be employed.  Second, the physical universe responds to our spiritual status.  When the nation is spiritually strong, it is able to rule over its surroundings, and otherwise if it is not, Gd forbid.  (The application of these lessons to the current situation both in the Mideast and in the US should be plain.)

Beshallach marks a transition in the life of the nascent Israelite nation.  In Egypt they had been slaves to a boorish, oppressive people, but it was to those very tormentors that they had to look for their sustenance.  Now, finally freed once and for all, the people needed to be retrained in its thinking, to be servants of the Almighty, and to look only to Him for sustenance and protection, for ultimately, Gd is all that exists.  Their faith in Gd had to be nurtured by carefully titrated doses of experience of Gd and Gd’s activity in the material world.  This entire preparation will culminate in the giving of the Torah in next week’s Parashah.