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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT B’SHALAH - SHABBAT SHIRAH
January 19, 2008 – 12 Shevat 5768

Annual: Ex. 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 13:17 – 15:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

The Israelites leave Egypt and head into the wilderness. God accompanies them, appearing as a pillar of cloud during the day and as a pillar of fire at night. Being a slow learner, Pharaoh again changes his mind and takes off after his former slaves with his warriors and 600 chariots. The terrified Israelites find themselves trapped between the pursuing Egyptians and the Sea of Reeds. God tells Moses to hold out his rod over the sea and the sea splits. The Israelites cross on dry land and then, at God’s command, the sea closes and the Egyptians drown. Moses leads the people in the great song of praise and thanksgiving to God; Miriam leads the women.

Just three days later, the people begin complaining that the water they find at Marah is too bitter to drink. God instructs Moses in how to make the water potable. A month later the people are complaining yet again, this time about the lack of food. God responds with the miraculous manna and with quails. Along with the instructions for gathering manna the Israelites are given the laws of Shabbat.

Once again the people find no water. God tells Moses to strike a rock and water comes from it. The Israelites are attacked by Amalek; they defeat their attackers with God’s help.

The First Leap of Faith

The Lord said to Moses, “why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)

  1. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Holy One said to Moses: There is a time to be brief and a time to be lengthy. My children are in great distress, the sea is enclosing them, the enemy is in pursuit, and you stand here praying away! Tell the Israelites to go forward. (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)
  2. Rabbi Joshua said, God said to Moses: All that Israel have to do is to go forward. Therefore, let them go forward! Let their feet step forward from the dry land to the sea, and you will see the miracles that I will perform for them. (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)
  3. Rabbi Meir said: When the Israelites stood at the Reed Sea, the tribes were vying with one another, one saying “I will be first to go down into the sea,” and the other saying “I will be first to go down into the sea.”... Rabbi Judah said to Rabbi Meir: That is not quite the way it happened. In fact, one tribe said, “I will not be the first to go into the sea,” and another tribe also said, “I will not be the first to go into the sea.” While they were standing there deliberating, Nachshon ben Amminadav sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea. (Talmud Sotah 36b)
  4. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was accustomed to say that a Jew has to be a heretic to a certain extent, and if someone in need comes to him, he should not trust to God to help the person. Instead, he must do whatever he can to help a person in need.
  5. Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on man. (Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, 1889-1967)

Sparks for Discussion

According to tradition, it was only after Nachshon leapt into the sea that the waters divided. What do you think would have happened if Nachshon (or someone else) hadn’t jumped? What do you suppose was in Nachshon’s mind as he leapt -- I have faith that God will save me? I’d rather die than go back to Egypt as a slave? Doing something – anything – is better than this endless debating? What moved Nachshon to act?

Cardinal Spellman makes the point nicely. How can we know whether the “miracles” we see are due to divine or human efforts? Do you believe it makes sense to keep trying in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles?

God of War, God of Peace

The Lord, the Warrior – Lord is His name! (Exodus 15:3)

  1. Why is this said? For this reason. At the sea God appeared to them as a mighty hero doing battle... At Sinai God appeared to them as an old man full of mercy... Scripture, therefore, would not let the nations of the world have an excuse for saying that there are two Powers, but declares: The Lord, the Warrior – Lord is His name! It is God who was in Egypt and God who was at the sea. It is God who was in the past and God who will be in the future. It is God who is in this world and God who will be in the world to come. (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Shirata 4)
  2. When they ask me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh [I am what I may be].” (Exodus 3:13-14) According to Rabbi Abba bar Mammel, the Holy One said to Moses: You wish to know My name. I am variously called, in keeping with My diverse deeds, El Shaddai, Tzeva’ot, Elohim, Adonai. When I judge created beings, I am called Elohim, God. When I wage war against the wicked, I am called Tzeva’ot, Hosts. When I suspend [judgment] of a person’s sins, I am called El Shaddai. And when I have mercy on My world I am called Adonai. (Shemot Rabbah 3:6)

Sparks for Discussion

In the Torah, the rest of the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the siddur, God is called by many names and described as performing many roles. Just in our parashah, God appears as protector, Lord, miracle worker, warrior, ruler, law-giver, and healer.

Do you have a single image of God or does it change depending on circumstances? What images or names of God do you find particularly appealing or meaningful? Are there some that you find off-putting or distasteful? How would you describe the God to whom you pray? What do you mean when you say “God”? When you say “Adonai”?


 
 
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