Skip to content

Parashat Beshallach 5777 — Shabbat Shirah — 02/11/2017

Parashat Beshallach 5777 — Shabbat Shirah — 02/11/2017

Shemot 13:17-17:15

With thanks to Bob Markowitz for some of the ideas expressed here. Needless to say the interpretation is mine and not his, so direct blame this way!

And it was told to the king of Egypt that the nation [i.e. the Israelites] had fled and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants changed regarding the nation (14:5).

Why does the verse open with “the king of Egypt” and then proceed to refer to him by name, Pharaoh? … The hidden meaning is that when the verse refers to the “king of Egypt” it is not referring to Pharaoh but rather to the ministering angel of Egypt. The angel had great difficulty parting from B’nei Yisrael, for the Shechina left along with them…

This ministering angel, “the king of Egypt,” conveyed to Pharaoh and his servants the grave mistake they had made and the destruction they caused themselves by permitting B’nei Yisrael to leave. Had it been any other nation, the Egyptians would not have been as concerned. However, B’nei Yisrael are different, for they are the main purpose of the entire creation and the spiritual and physical benefit that Egypt received from the Shechina and B’nei Yisrael being in their midst would now be lost.

There’s quite a lot here! I would like to deal primarily with the idea of the “ministering angel” of Egypt. Our Sages tell us that each of the 70 nations of the world (the count is from the genealogy of Shem, Cham and Yaphet at the end of Parashat Noach) has a “ministering angel” that presides over its activities. History on earth is reflected in the interaction of these ministering angels in heaven.

The only nation that does not have such an angel is Israel, which is presided over by Gd Himself. It is on this basis that Israel has the special status of blessing its host countries wherever it is allowed to do so. The United States is an excellent example of this, but it began long ago when Gd promised Avraham “those that bless you I will bless.” When the Jews are mistreated or expelled, the other part of the verse goes into effect. This is what happened with Egypt, with Babylonia, with Spain, with Germany, and we pray that it will not happen here. One way we can make sure it does not happen here is to be Jews, not “Americans of the Mosaic persuasion,” indistinguishable in nearly every way from the surrounding culture. When assimilation gets to a certain point, it appears that Gd stirs up the other nations against us until we are forced to flee to our next destination. If we do not keep ourselves distinct from the surrounding society, we will only get dragged down to its level, and will not be able to elevate it to our own.

I am writing this on November 10, two days after the surprising results of the election. It appears that our Electoral College system elected the candidate who did not get the plurality of the popular vote, although almost half the electorate didn’t vote at all. Be that as it may, the new President reflects the collective consciousness of the people. And many people, who hold very different views than the President-Elect, are very uncomfortable with that fact. What they are uncomfortable with is that they are part of a polity where their views are not, apparently, in the majority, and they feel that their views are superior to those of the other section of society.

What then, is this “collective consciousness,” which is personified as the “ministering angel” of a people? Any society is a complex system of many interacting parts, with innumerable interacting feedback loops. Whenever we find systems like this in nature (the human body is another example) we find that behaviors emerge that cannot be predicted from the behavior of the individual parts. Human consciousness, for example, emerges from the interaction of billions of nerve cells in the brain, yet could not be predicted from the behavior of any one nerve cell. In the same way, each group of people, large or small, has its own ways, its own behavior and ways of thinking. It is this that we call the collective consciousness of that group. If this collective consciousness is coherent, the people can thrive, just as in the case of an individual. When coherence breaks down, the organism or group struggles to accomplish.

One of the ways a society expresses its collective consciousness is through its leadership. Our Sages tell us that “the hearts of kings are in the hands of Gd.” I believe that they are expressing the truth that our leaders reflect the state of our consciousness, and when they act, especially in the area of relations between groups (nations if you will) they are acting out the collective behavior of the people they think they are leading. Therefore, if we want to have better leaders, we must raise the collective consciousness of the society.

Fortunately, Torah tells us that raising the collective consciousness of society is not an impossible task. It requires a small, coherent nucleus. Thus, when Gd tells Abraham he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham convinces Gd to spare the entire cities if there are as few as 10 righteous men in them. We have a tradition that there are 36 hidden tzaddikim whose simple presence is enough to hold up the world. And in Deuteronomy we read that when the nation is functioning according to Gd’s laws, if an enemy arises “5 of you will rout 100, and 100 will rout 10,000.” The larger the group, the greater the ratio – coherence gives even a small group great power over a larger group.

It is our job as Jews to be that coherent nucleus in our host societies, and collectively, in the world as a whole, that will guarantee that negativity will not find a fertile ground to flourish. Our Torah lays out our pathway to do so. If we can accomplish this goal, then truly, through us will all the nations of the world be blessed.

Coda: I would like to add a personal insight. A few years ago I was having some issues in a relationship I had with someone. Coincidentally, I found myself defending that person to a third party who was really down on them. I noticed that as I began to replace my own negative thoughts with positive ones, that I changed, the other person changed, and the relationship changed, all for the better. In this case, since we were still interacting, it is clear that the change in me towards a more positive and loving attitude was reflected in the other party, and of course the relationship followed that.

You are reading this a few weeks after the Inauguration of the new President; I have no idea as I write what he and his appointees to high office will have done or still plan to do. I would hope his actual plans will not match his campaign rhetoric. His first pronouncements after winning the election were considerably more conciliatory, which was encouraging. But I do know this – if those who oppose him and his Party spew venom, it will create an atmosphere that will bring their darkest fears to fruition. (Think “the creature from the Id” from the movie Forbidden Planet, a 1956 classic that is well worth watching.) If we change our thinking to love, respect and appreciation for the person (not agreement with his policies where we don’t agree, but respectful disagreement), we might just change the entire atmosphere of the country, to the point where we can heal some of the deep divisions in our body politic. In his Inaugural address, President Carter said, “If the country is united, I can be a good President.” I think he is the only world leader I have ever heard who gets the point that the collective consciousness of the country determines the President’s actions more than vice versa.

When I posted this idea on Facebook a dear friend replied that this could be very difficult for members of the groups that have been targeted in the President’s campaign rhetoric – which includes more than half the population (including women, religious and racial minorities, etc.). This is very true. I have been blessed with a pretty easy and privileged life and I’m sure I have only an inkling of what real oppression is like. Undoubtedly those more affected have a much bigger challenge ahead of them. That does not change the point that expressing negativity will help create negative outcomes, and expressing even disagreements respectfully and, if possible, lovingly, can help to create better outcomes. As always, life will present us with challenges, and our futures depend on how we react to those challenges.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Beshallach

Pharaoh frees Israel then Gd hardens Pharoah’s heart so he will pursue Israel and Gd will be glorified through Pharaoh, his horses and chariots, so “Egypt will know I am the Lord”. Of course, also so Israel will know He is the Lrd. When they saw the sea part when Moses stretched his hand over the sea, at Gd’s command, with Gd’s Power, and when they saw the parting disappear and Pharaoh and his army drowned, they put trust in Gd and in Moses.

“Egypt” symbolizes being lost in detail, in surface appearances, ignoring Totality, Gd.

“Gd’s glorification” symbolizes healing of our personalities, our bodies, our communities, social and physical world – “healing” means “restoring to Wholeness, Teshuvah, Oneness with Gd.”

“Israel” symbolizes a transition state, somewhat turned toward Wholeness, but not quite confident that one has put one’s trust in the right place – therefore, ready to turn back to the superficial, the limited.

“Moses” symbolizes that aspect of our selves which is always turned to Gd and brings Gd’s power to get us out of our fears and doubts.

“The Sea” symbolizes the vast obstacles that seem to stand in our way when we try to move from the superficial to the Total.

Members of our congregation are, by and large, living lives that place Gd first and everything else second. But to protect ourselves from getting daunted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles we have mostly found that maintaining our spiritual routine as the basis of our life gives us the Joy, the Wisdom, the Connection to Wholeness, to see us across the sea. This spiritual routine serves as Moses for us.

In my experience, reading Torah, listening to it, reciting it, and reciting the prayers in our siddur – even to the limited amount I am able to do – is a very strong contribution to the Joy that I know more and more, the connection to “I Am,” and which grows fuller each today to be a more and more Full expression of the Total Love, Total Joy that is Gd.

I am very happy that we have our synagogue and that we have our congregation as aids in my progress.I hope we will all be able to enjoy increasing involvement in Torah, Siddur, Synagogue and Congregation.

Baruch HaShem