PARASHAT BESHALAH - SHABBAT SHIRAH
January 15, 2011 – 10 Shevat 5771
Annual: Ex. 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial: 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 Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York
Torah Portion Summary
The former slaves triumphantly leave Egypt, following a circuitous route to the
Sea of Reeds. They carry with them the remains of Joseph, fulfilling his
express wishes and linking the generation of the Exodus to its forbears of the
patriarchal period. God's providential and protective care is manifested by
pillars of cloud and fire that accompany the Israelite refugees by day and by
night. In a final (if characteristic) act of arrogant defiance and self-destructive
intractability, Pharaoh and an elite armed force pursue the Israelites, trapping
them at the sea. The terrified Israelites lament their plight to Moses, who
reassures his followers. At God's instruction, Moses splits the sea. The
Israelites cross to safety on a miraculously dry seabed, the sea forming walls
"to their right and to their left." The Egyptian army pursues the freed slaves,
but with their chariots malfunctioning and their soldiers thrown into a panic,
they are drowned when the sea closes back on them. The text specifies that
"not one remained" – an expression of the absolute nature of their defeat, as
well as of its divine origins. The same expression is used at the conclusion of
the plagues of both wild beasts and locusts – "not one remained." From the
safety and freedom of the opposite shore, Moses and Miriam – she with timbrel
in hand – lead the Israelites in a celebratory "Song at the Sea" (which has been
incorporated into our daily liturgy). Scribal tradition prescribes that this poetic
victory song be written in the Torah scroll in a pattern resembling brickwork: a
block of print over a blank space over a block of print. This may be a graphic
representation of the maritime walls that the sea formed to aid the Israelites'
miraculous passage. The special melody used in reading the Song recalls the
Israelites' musical celebration. The poetic section of the Biblical narrative
gives the day its special designation: Shabbat Shirah.
It is not long before the Israelites' newfound freedom degenerates into a
faithless longing for the simplicity and familiarity of Egyptian slavery. Only
three days after their salvation at the sea, the Israelites complain of the lack of
water. Moses is guided by God in miraculously rendering sweet the formerly
bitter waters of Marah. A central biblical motif is introduced: the survival and well-being of the Israelites will depend upon their fealty to God's commandments.
The Israelites find repast and repose at the oasis of Elim and subsequently are
provided with quail for meat, and with manna, which provides both for their
physical needs and for their spiritual education. The manna must not be
collected on the Sabbath, and so the Israelites must trust that the life-sustaining
substance will be provided in double portions on Friday. The practice of
lechem mishneh – of reciting Ha-Motzi over two whole loaves on Shabbat and
Yom Tov – recalls this weekly pattern. The people's faith in confronting
adversity and privation wavers again at Massah and Meribah, and is at least
temporarily restored when Moses produces water from a rock.
The Israelites are attacked by Amalek, whom they defeat in battle. Moses
makes a written record of the victory and erects an altar in celebration. This
nine-verse passage provides the Torah reading for Purim.
Theme #1: "You Talkin' to ME?"
"Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go
forward." (Exodus 14:15)
"What could explain Moses' seeming impatience with God? After all, the Holy One had
promised him, 'I will harden Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue them, that I may gain
glory through Pharaoh and all his host.' Certainly Moses had no doubts, God forbid,
about the truth of God's promise or His intent to fulfill it! Didn't he have confident faith
that God would fulfill His promise? Rather, when the survival of Israel hangs in the
balance, one ought not rely merely on confident faith in God." Rabbi Israel Salanter
"The Kotzker rebbe greeted his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Leib, adding: 'I love you deeply,
but why is it that you cry out to the Holy One each day to send the messiah... Why don't
you cry out to our brethren, the people Israel, to repent their evil ways – then the messiah
will actually come! This is the meaning of 'Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the
Israelites.'" (Chasidic, cited in Itturei Torah)
"The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labor for." (Saint Thomas More)
"Just as Moses knew that God would surely rescue the Jews from the Egyptian armies
pressing them against the sea, so also a teacher of Torah must know that since God has
promised that Torah will not be forgotten by the Jewish people (see Deuteronomy 31:21),
his efforts surely will not fail. Therefore, even though the expenses and efforts involved
in maintaining Jewish educational institutions may at times seem overwhelming to those
responsible for them, we are still entitled, and indeed required, to rely on God's promise
that Torah will not be forgotten, and to believe that our efforts will surely succeed." (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)
"Prayer indeed is good, but while calling on the gods a man should himself lend a hand." (Hippocrates)
"Prayer, among sane people, has never superseded practical efforts to secure the desired end." (George Santayana)
Questions for Discussion:
Which is a more prevalent problem in the Jewish community, relying on prayer to the
exclusion of meaningful action or failing to take prayer seriously as a concomitant to our
own efforts in personal matters and communal affairs?
Rabbi Feinstein (popularly known as Reb Moshe) asserts that Moses' faith in God's
saving power is analogous to the challenges facing Jewish educators, congregations, and
institutional boards today – Hebrew school deficits, for example, notwithstanding. On
whom does the obligation to provide Jewish children a religious education devolve?
Parents alone? Grandparents? Educational professionals? The rank and file of a
congregational membership? How does responsibility for Jewish education shift if a
child's parents are unwilling or apathetic?
According to the midrash, Nachshon ben Aminadav, princely leader of the tribe of Judah,
leapt into the sea before it split; God's miracle was at least in part inspired by his faithful
action. Who are trailblazers in Jewish life today? In our broader national communities?
How are we to distinguish between enlightened, courageous, visionary leadership and
foolhardy, precipitous, unthinking impulsivity?!
How can we enhance our religious experience (and, perhaps, further our goals) by
incorporating unscripted, nonliturgical, spontaneous prayer into our personal, family, and
Theme #2: "Martial Monotheism"
"The Lord is a man of war" (alternative translation: "The Lord, the Warrior") – (Exodus 15:3)
"In the biblical view, the enemies of Israel are the enemies of God, so that Israel's wars
for survival are portrayed as ‘the battles of the Lord'…A corollary of this concept is the
humbling recognition that the decisive factor in war is ultimately not human prowess of
the force of arms, but the free exercise of God's will... The poetic notion of God as a
warrior has nothing in common with the idea of 'holy war' as it found expression in the
crusades of medieval Christendom and in the Christian ‘wars of religion,' or in the
Islamic jihad, which regards the propagation of Islam by waging war against unbelievers
as a religious duty." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
"'A man of war' – 'a master of war,' says Rashi – which is to say, God exercises control
over war and transcends the cruelties war produces. Even in war God is a master of
mercy – 'The Lord is His name.'" (Rabbi Rafael Gold)
"We did not rejoice in battle. We wanted nothing to do with war. It was forced upon us
by countries and by organizations that wanted – and some of which still want – to destroy
us. We ended every war as victors. We came out of every war wounded. The scars of
wars stay with us." (Yitzchak Rabin)
"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality,
its futility, its stupidity." (President Dwight D. Eisenhower)
"It doesn't require any particular bravery to stand on the floor of the Senate and urge our
boys in Vietnam to fight harder, and if this war mushrooms into a major conflict and a
hundred thousand young Americans are killed, it won't be U.S. senators who die. It will
be American soldiers who are too young to qualify for the Senate." George McGovern
"I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have never
fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of those who are wounded who cry aloud for
blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell." (William Tecumseh Sherman)
Questions for Discussion
Doth Professor Sarna protest too much? Is the Biblical view of God as warrior entirely
different from its expression in the history of Christianity and Islam? Consider the
closing words of parashat Beshalach: "The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout
the ages" – and our own obligation to wage war against Amalek.
"God is a man of war." Does our verse necessarily imply a positive view of war? Rabin,
Eisenhower, and Sherman all express disdain for war "as only a soldier who has lived it
can." Could our verse be understood in a similar light? Does the God of Israel, as a
seasoned veteran of many wars, actually hate war because of His unique and intimate
insight into its cost in human lives and misery? Yet "God is a man of war" who also
realizes that war is at times sadly, tragically necessary, indeed, a moral mandate? Senator
George McGovern's speech on the U.S. Senate floor suggests a similar perspective on
our verse: a "man of war" is the soldier whose life is actually put at risk each day, and
who therefore does not rush to initiate or to enter armed conflict until such action is
absolutely demanded by duty.
What are the "scars of war" mentioned by Prime Minister Rabin? What lasting burdens
and consequences are borne by those who return from war? By their families? By the
societies they defend? What are our obligations to members of the armed forces? How
might we raise awareness of these obligations in our congregations? What meaningful
actions are we able to undertake on behalf of those who serve their country in uniform?
How has the Israel Defense Force reflected the traditional view of God as warrior
advanced by Rabbi Gold? What obligations do diaspora Jews have toward the men and
women of the IDF?
How is a soldier defending a free democracy to conduct her- or himself when convinced
that the mission at hand is morally questionable?
We read in Parashat Beshalach of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of
Reeds on January 15, 2010. On January 15, 1919, 51 people drowned and 150
were injured in Boston's "Great Molasses Flood." A massive vat at the Purity
Distilling Company, containing 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, burst, and it sent
a tidal wave 15 feet high that moved at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour through
the surrounding neighborhood. Local legend claims that on hot summer daysthe
area still smells of molasses.
Quail, miraculously provided the to Israelites in such ample quantity, is indeed a
kosher species. It is very difficult to slaughter properly and therefore hard to
find, however, as it is so small that a particularly small knife (and delicate
procedure) is necessary. Quail eggs, though, are unambiguously kosher.