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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT B’SHALAH - SHABBAT SHIRAH
February 4, 2012 – 11 Shevat 5772

Annual: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial: Exodus 14:15 – 16:10 (Etz Hayim p. 403; Hertz p. 268)
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

The former slaves leave Egypt, following a circuitous route to the Sea of Reeds. They carry the remains of Joseph, fulfilling his wishes and linking the generation of the Exodus to its forbears. God’s providential and protective care is manifested by the pillars of cloud and fire that accompany the Israelite refugees by day and by night. In a final act of defiance, Pharaoh and an armed force pursue the Israelites, trapping them at the sea. Moses reassures his panicked followers. Moses splits the sea and the Israelites cross to safety on a dry seabed. The Egyptian army pursues, but their chariots malfunction and the soldiers are drowned when the sea closes back on them. From the safety and freedom of the opposite shore, Moses and Miriam – she with timbrel in hand – lead the Israelites in the celebratory “Song at the Sea.” 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.

Quickly 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. God guides Moses 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 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: “Poetry, Piety, and Patrimony”

“This is my God, and I will praise Him; My father’s God, and I will extol Him.” (Exodus 15:2 – New American Standard Bible translation)

Derash: Study

“An alternative rendering is ‘This is my God, and I will make Him a habitation’ (the Hebrew verb anvehu – ‘and I will praise Him’ is related to the noun naveh – ‘habitation’). This means: ‘I will make a habitation for Him within my own being; I will sanctify and purify myself so that my body may become a dwelling place for the Holy Presence.’” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

“For it was taught: ‘This is my God, and I will adorn God (anvehu)’: Adorn yourself before God in the mitzvot: make a beautiful sukkah in God’s honor, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit, and a beautiful Torah scroll – and write it for God with fine ink, a fine reed, and a skilled penman, and wrap it with beautiful silks.” (Talmud Shabbat 133b)

“We want our children to look upon religion not as something to be inherited, but rather as something to be discovered.” (Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman)

“God is to be praised with the voice, and the heart should go therewith in holy exultation.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)

“It is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to men.” (C.S. Lewis)

Questions for Discussion

At least three different translations of our verse (specifically of the word anvehu) are provided: to praise, to adorn, and to provide a habitation. Which do you find the most compelling interpretation? How might our synagogues (or our homes, or we) reflect all three translations simultaneously?

Arguably, we fulfill the message of this verse through public or private worship, but perhaps most explicitly through the experience of shared family worship. What formative religious experiences did you share with your parents? What potentially formative worship (in the broadest sense) experiences do you (or might you) provide for your children and their children?

The effort to beautify religious observance relies on individual tastes, personal creativity, and subjective judgment. How might we bring added beauty to our Jewish living? Physically, through the visual arts and ritual objects and accoutrements? Musically, through prayer and song? Through special attention to the quality of Sabbath and holiday meals? Through personal refinement in our interactions with others? Our conversations with them? Our treatment of them? Where else?

In the spirit of Rev. Spurgeon’s comment, what steps can we take to add “heart” (meaning, sincerity, intellectual honesty, strength of conviction) to the divine praises we recite, and to the values to which we pay lip service? Is this, too, a path to beauty?

Theme #2: “Manna Fest Destiny”

“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take a jar, put one omer of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout the ages.” (Exodus 16:33)

Derash: Study

“‘Throughout the ages’ – When Jeremiah would admonish the people: ‘Why are you not involved in the study of Torah?’ they would respond: ‘Shall we abandon our work and study the Torah?! From where will we support ourselves?’ He would take out the jar of manna and say to them: ‘See this thing of God! …With this your forefathers were supported. God has many methods and agents through which to provide sustenance for those who revere Him.’

‘Before the Lord’ – Before the Ark.” (Rashi)

“For safekeeping and for an educational purpose.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“The earthenware jar and the manna is symbolic of the relationship of the human being created from earth to the Torah. Every human being serves as a receptacle to spirituality. Just as the manna expanded to fill the entire jar, likewise the larger a receptacle of spirituality one makes himself through faith and spiritual refinement the more God will expand his capacity to receive spirituality.” (Rabbi Aaron Levine, Ha-Derash V’ha-Iyun)

“Happiness is like manna; it is to be gathered in grains, and enjoyed every day. It will not keep; it cannot be accumulated; nor have we got to go out of ourselves or into remote places to gather it, since it has rained down from a Heaven, at our very door.” (Tryon Edwards, 19th century American theologian; great-greatgrandson of Jonathan Edwards)

Questions for Discussion

What was the jar of manna’s most important educational function? Our own function as receptacles of God’s will and presence? Did it dramatize God’s providence? The nature of human happiness and contentment (a la Rev. Edwards)? Perhaps the jar of manna next to the Ark of the Covenant was a reminder of our covenantal duty to care and provide for the hungry, a sign that our worship is incomplete (or, perhaps, a hollow gesture) without social consciousness and empathy for the needy. How might we effectively convey this message in today’s Jewish communities, and in the context of congregational worship?

The account of Jeremiah’s exhortation of Israel is morally complicated… especially in the context of the modern state of Israel. How are we to balance the demands of Torah study and spiritual pursuits on the one hand with the demands of the market and making a livelihood on the other? How do we balance faith and personal responsibility?

Ha-Derash V’ha-Iyun discusses the need to refine ourselves in preparation for spiritual growth. How might we best go about this process of refinement and preparation? How might we best initiate our children into this practice? How can our congregations enhance and encourage this effort? What forces and experiences impede our spiritual progress?

Historic Note

Parashat Beshallach, read on February 4, 2012, describes the Israelite departure from Egyptian slavery, as well as Pharaoh’s final attempt to subdue or destroy the Israelites by force of arms. On February 4, 1794, the French National Assembly proclaimed the abolition of slavery. On February 4, 1969, Yasser Arafat assumed leadership as chairman of the PLO. He would later also be named commander in chief of Palestinian Revolutionary Forces.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Chapter 16 of Exodus describes the daily divine gift of manna to the Israelites, as well as the double portion (lechem mishneh – 16:22) provided on Friday, so that no work had to be done on the Sabbath to collect the miraculous food. To commemorate this miracle – and the early origins of Shabbat observance – we recite Ha-Motzi over two uncut and unsliced loaves of bread (or challah) at our Shabbat dinner on Friday night as well as at Shabbat lunch. This requirement often is fulfilled by using of one full-size loaf together with a smaller roll. An unbroken piece of matzah also counts as a “loaf.” After the biblical idiom, this practice is called lechem mishneh. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 274. Many authorities recommend using lechem mishneh at all three Shabbat meals, as well as at any other meals eaten on Shabbat. See Daat Zekeinim to Exodus 16:22. The mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria used 12 uncut loaves at each of his three Shabbat meals, to commemorate the showbreads presented in the Temple each Shabbat. See Shaarei Teshuva 174:1. In practical terms, the practice of lechem mishneh for two Shabbat meals requires preparation of three whole loves for Shabbat; since one is eaten Friday night, two must be left for Shabbat lunch.


 
 
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