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Torah Sparks

Parashat Beshalah - Shabbat Shirah
January 11, 2014 – 10 Shevat 5774

Annual (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16): Etz Hayim p. 399; Hertz p. 265
Triennial (Exodus 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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Following a roundabout path, the Israelites reach the Red Sea, only to realize that Pharaoh and the Egyptian army are in hot pursuit. God encourages Moses to continue forward even though they are surrounded by the Red Sea on one side and the Egyptians on the other. Moses raises his staff and the sea splits, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land, and then the sea collapses, drowning the Egyptian army. Celebrating their escape, Moses and the Israelites sing a majestic song celebrating God’s might; Miriam leads the women in song and dance.

The Israelites are quick to forget their good fortune, complaining to Moses about a lack of water, food, and meat. At times, they claim that slavery in Egypt is preferable to their current plight. God feeds the people, causing water to come from a rock, and food called manna to fall from heaven (the people are instructed to take a double portion prior to Shabbat).

The Amalekites attack the Israelites from behind, yet the Israelites defeat them. God says that Amalek will always be Israel’s enemy.

Theme #1: Walkin’ Around With Dem Bones

Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you. (Exodus 13:18-19)

Moses keeps his promise to ensure Joseph’s burial will take place in the Promised Land. That requires the Israelites to carry Joseph’s bones with them on their journey out of Egypt. The Children of Israel went forth armed. What were their weapons? The remains of Joseph, which they took with them, for the merit of a righteous man serves a shield for his people and"the righteous are even greater in death than they were in life." -- Torat Moshe

Also, he -- I swear to The Lord our God, King of the Universe -- looks into the bag with Joseph's bones, which I keep telling him to throw away because, well, THEY'RE JOSEPH'S BONES. I can’t tell you how many places we’ve lived in where we lugged those gross bones. It’s like a game: I hide Joseph’s bones; he finds Joseph’s bones. The man is like a Joseph’s bones dog. -- Joel Stein, quoted in Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, ed.

Rabbi Levi said: Moses pleaded with the Holy One: Master of the Universe, Joseph’s bones are being allowed to enter the Land -- should I not be allowed to enter? The Holy One replied: He who acknowledged it as his Land is rightfully buried in the Land. But he who did not acknowledge it as his Land cannot claim the right to burial in it. -- Deuteronomy Rabbah

Questions for Discussion:

Torat Moshe implies that the bones of Joseph are carried toward the Promised Land not only because of the fulfillment of a promise, but also because they provided defense against any possible attacks. While it’s difficult to think of bones as powerful weaponry, it’s conceivable that the memory of a great person can help to empower those who must face a harrowing challenge. Why is this possible? When have people or groups been buoyed by the legacies and lessons of those who are no longer living?

Joel Stein’s parody of this detail in our Torah text imagines (presumably) Moses’ wife Tziporah complaining about Moses’ preoccupation with the responsibility of transporting Joseph’s bones. Can satire be a useful way to understand the Torah text? How does it humanize the characters in the Torah and help us relate to them better? Or, is this particular spoof unhelpful, perhaps because carrying Joseph’s bones may not have been a laughing matter in the Ancient Near East?

Deuteronomy Rabbah imagines a scene in which Moses argues that he should be allowed to enter the Promised Land if Joseph’s bones are allowed, but God responds that Joseph’s connection to the land is much stronger. Is this because Joseph was born in Canaan? Or is God simply finding another reason to keep Moses out of the land? Is it odd that burial of one ancestor would trump the living wishes of another ancestor? Do we sometimes offer more honor to those who have passed away than to those who are living? Why does this happen?

Theme #2: All I Need is a Miracle

And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. … (Exodus 14:31-15:1)

The parting of the Red Sea and the vanquishing of the Egyptian army is described as a seminal moment in the Israelites’ understanding of God and Moses.

At the very moment that the children of Israel went into the Red Sea, Mount Moriah began to move from its place, along with the altar for Isaac that had been built upon it. The whole scene had been arranged before the creation of the world. Isaac was bound and placed upon the altar; Abraham’s knife was raised. ... [When] the waters of the Red Sea parted, on Mount Moriah the voice of the angel went forth, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him” (Genesis 22:12). -- Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael

To succeed in the great task which he had set for himself, Moses had to perform miracles. [Freidrich] Schiller, the deist of the Century of the Enlightenment, makes the comment: “There is no doubt that he really performed these miracles, but I leave it to each person to figure out how he performed them and how they are to be understood.” At any rate, Schiller feels that the miracles achieved their purpose. Moses did succeed in overcoming all difficulties and in leading his kinsmen out of Egypt. -- Sol Liptzin, Biblical Themes in World Literature

Only in the Middle Ages did [the Song of the Sea] become a standard part of the daily prayer service. The question is, ‘Why was this song expanded to a daily occurrence? What was its appeal?’ The answer may lie in its origins: it was first sung at the precise moment that the fleeing Israelites first felt saved and safe, when they reached the far shore of the waters that they thought would drown them, with the Egyptian army miraculously gone before their very eyes. Not only were they no longer slaves -- reason enough to break forth in song -- but, in addition, there was the means by which salvation had occurred: God had just parted the sea on their behalf, a magnificent reversal of the laws of nature. -- Judith Hauptman in My People’s Prayer Book, Volume 3: P’sukei D’Zimrah

Questions for Discussion:

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael claims that the parting of the Red Sea and the binding of Isaac took place simultaneously. We find this far-fetched, yet it reflects the rabbinic understanding that the Torah is not necessarily told in chronological order. Would this claim change the way we look at the crossing of the Red Sea? How are these two events linked? Is it possible that, before they cross the Red Sea, the Israelites require the kind of absolute faith in God displayed by Abraham? Or, is the crossing of the Red Sea the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham [after he is told that he does not have to kill Isaac] after all?

According to Freidrich Schiller, it was essential for Moses’ leadership that he be seen as, at least, the vessel of God’s miracles, if not the cause of the miracles themselves. How has the Israelites’ opinion of Moses changed since Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh? Why is it not enough for the people to simply see God performing the miracles? Why is it important for the people to recognize both Divine and human leadership in their initial journeys as a nation?

As Hauptman explains, the Song of the Sea is the first occasion when the Israelites acknowledge God’s role in their freedom. Many kehillot include this passage in their liturgy (at the conclusion of P’sukei D’zimrah), while other kehlliot who abbreviate P’sukei D’zimrah often skip it. Should the song have a higher priority in our liturgy? Or is the imagery -- especially of the Egyptians drowning -- too stark for daily recitation? What passages from the Torah best suit our daily prayers?

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