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Torah Sparks

Parashat Beshalah - Shabbat Shirah
January 31, 2015 – 11 Shevat 5775

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Despite 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 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.

But 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 satiates 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: Why Should I Cry For You?

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

The Israelites’ constant complaints in the wilderness are foreshadowed just before they enter it.

Evidently, Moses’ invocation of the Lord displeased Him. … If faith falters, try miracles; the Sea of Reeds is divided and the Egyptians perish. Whenever there is trouble, Moses stands back and waits for the Lord to move in. Evidence of Moses’ passivity -- he carries out orders but does not initiate them -- abounds. Moses displays only enough initiative to tell Pharaoh to choose the time for a plague to end, thus timing the display of the Lord’s power. When Pharaoh begins to pursue the fleeing Hebrews, evidence of lack of initiative is plain. The first of a long litany of complaints comes chorusing from the people: Why did Moses lead them to the wilderness to die? Do not be afraid, Moses tells the people ... -- Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

What is the meaning of “And he cried out to the Lord all night”? “To cry out” is an expression of prayer, as, for example, in “Why are you crying out to me? Command the Children of Israel and let them travel”. -- Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy

Rabbi said: [God] said to Moses: Only the other day, you were complaining, “For since I came to Pharaoh, he has dealt ill with this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all,” and now you stand pouring our prayers? … Yesterday, [the Israelites] were complaining, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, etc.” and now you are piling up prayers? Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward -- that is, let them remove the complaint from their heart. -- Exodus Rabbah

Questions for Discussion:

To Wildavsky, the moment just before the splitting of the sea is a useful opportunity for God to teach Moses how to show initiative; Moses had only shown a minimal amount of initiative as Israel’s leader up to this point. Is it necessary to have perilous situations to create teaching moments? How can real-life challenges teach us in ways that hypothetical circumstances cannot?

Muffs points out that crying out is a form of prayer. Prayer is under-emphasized in biblical times, especially when action can be taken instead. How does this contrast with our attitude toward prayer today? Does God expect prayer? To what extent do we expect God to listen to prayer?

Exodus Rabbah describes how God explains to Moses the hypocrisy of the Israelites’ complaints. Does this foreshadow the litany of whining that will characterize the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness? Does this conversation indicate that Moses learns the lesson while the Israelites do not? Why does Moses understand the downside of complaints but the Israelites do not?

Theme #2: Oh God, You Beauty!

The Lord is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine [or beautify] Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him. (Exodus 15:2)

Israel’s affection for God reaches a peak after the deliverance at the Sea.

An alternative rendering is “This is my God, and I will make Him a habitation” (the Hebrew verb “anvehu” -- “And I will glorify 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

Read this ["V'anvehu" as] “Ani V’Hu,” “myself and Him,” I must make myself similar to God. -- Talmud Shabbat 133b

Traditional Judaism has always contained a vital dialectic between “This is my God and I will adore Him” and “The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.” Loyalty to the God about Whom our fathers told us does not exclude the discovery of new insights and experiences that lead one to say, “This is my God.” The past does not exhaust all that is possible within one’s covenantal relationship with God. -- David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that one way to honor God is to treat our bodies well. This idea also is described in the Talmud; Hillel famously describes bathing in the bath-house as a sacred duty. How do we make our bodies into holy places? How do we avoid the trap of worshipping our bodies too much?

The Talmud sees imitating God as a virtue, and it reads this passage in the same spirit. If this is a virtue, is there room for our own individuality irrespective of living like God? Alternatively, do we imitate God by honoring our individuality?

Hartman finds value in each individual taking pride in the idea that the Almighty is his or her God. Many people want to feel a personal connection to God, not just the knowledge that God is the ruler of our community, and not just an intellectual connection with God. When do we feel our strongest individual connection with God? What does it say about our ancestors when they recognize their individual connection with God immediately after a moment of deliverance (crossing of the Sea) but not after more ordinary moments (such as in the wilderness)?

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