Readers Digest of Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
- The name of the Parasha, Beshalach, ‘means upon sending out’. True to its name, the Parasha describes the Journeys of the People of Israel. Going from XXX to YYY and camping there, and continuing to ZZZ. Their navigation aids are the Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night.
- Pharaoh has yet another change of heart, that is encouraged by the Egyptian People. He sets out to pursue the People of Israel. They find themselves between the Rock (Pharaoh and his army of chariots) and the Hard Place (the Sea of Reeds).
- Following a blind leap of faith (led by Naḥshon ben Aminadav) they start crossing the sea, in a waterless path. The Egyptians that follow them find the waters closing on them and they drown. The closing sea also eliminates the option of going back to Egypt for the People of Israel. All they can do from now on is to move forward.
- In praise and gratitude, led by Miriam and Moshe, the People sing and dance.
- The People complain about the conditions, so God provides them sustenance: fresh water, quails and Manna for dinner and breakfast. Together with that come the provisions of Shabbat. No food collection on Shabbat; on Friday, unlike other weekdays, they collected double portions that lasted for Shabbat as well.
- The supply of water is a major issue. God instructs Moshe to hit a rock and that will open up a spring of fresh water. However, when Moshe repeats the very same action much later, God punishes him with not letting him enter K’na‑an (Canaan). Why are there two so different outcomes to the same act on the part of Moshe? I talk about it in my essay on Parashat Ḥukat, when the other case of hitting the rock is told.
- The People fight and win their first, of many more to come, battle as independent People against the Amalekites.
Each and every element in Parashat Beshalach deserves its own time for learning, reflection, and gleaning lessons learned. For now, most of this article will be on some aspects of Shirat HaYam – the Song of the Sea.
The Song of the Sea – Shirat HaYam (Exodus 15:1-21).
The format of the poem in the Torah Scroll itself is a unique artwork. The font itself is the same as in all the Torah. Seven of the twenty-two Hebrew Alphabet letters have ornaments that crown them, as it is all across the Torah. In contrast to the continuous spill-over of sentences and verses without any punctuation marks, it looks different here. The lines alternate between three blocks and two blocks of words in each. The three-blocks lines have a single word on the outside and a few words in the center. And yet, one cannot count on the structure to tell where one verse ends and the other starts. Indeed, it is a beautiful structure.
A unique, One Time, Personal Experience I Had While Chanting Shirat HaYam.
Before coming to the States, we lived in a relatively small neighborhood, on top of a mountain in northern Israel. We had many friends there and were involved in the life of the community. We also got to know the families of some of our closer friends and became friends with them as well. One of them was Rabbi Haim Asa. Rabbi Haim officiated the traditional exchange of vows between Connie and I that sanctified our relationship. Sadly, Rabbi Haim passed away in 2014. His family donated a Torah in his memory to the synagogue in the same neighborhood that we lived in.
A few years later, I came and visited my friends in our neighborhood. I asked Rabbi Haim’s daughter that still lived there to have the honor and read from his Torah. The Parasha of that Shabbat in which I visited the congregation was Beshalach. Obviously, I chose to chant Shirat HaYam. I told the community that gathered in the synagogue about Rabbi Haim, our friendship and the special relationship we had.
All gathered around the podium as I shared with them the unique beauty of the text. We made the blessing for the Aliya, and then I started chanting the Poem. There is no explanation that I can provide to the way I saw the words and letters that I read.
The letters around the location that I read seemed to rise off the parchment and dance in front of me. Only the word or two that I was chanting laid flat on the parchment. As I moved forward with the chanting, the next words laid flat and those before rose to dance. Never in my life had I had such an experience, not before, nor to date. My conclusion to this phenomenon is that Rabbi Haim’s soul showed its pleasure of the event in that way.
Despite the Delivery, We Do Not Fully Rejoice.
The Fast of the Firstborn that I discussed in the essay on Parashat Bo. The loss of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reed is also commemorated in a different way during Pesaḥ. We do not recite the full Hallel, Psalms of Praise, during Pesaḥ despite the redemption the People of Israel experienced. That it is because of the Egyptians that drowned in the Sea of Reeds (Beit Yosef Oraḥ Ḥayim 490:4). The biblical prooftext is Proverbs 24:17: “If your enemy falls, do not exult”.
Another manifestation of the same is in Tractate Megillah (10b:25-26). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What’s the meaning of: “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, as it states: “And one called out to the other: “Holy, holy, holy!” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs? God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked: “If your enemy falls, do not exult”.
Midrash continues and adds to this story another facet to understand a nuanced difference. ‘Then, all of the sudden, “Moshe and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD chanting: I will sing to the LORD…”. The angels turned to the Holy One Blessed be He, and said: “Master of the Universe, You told us not to sing, and the People of Israel are singing? Why aren’t You stopping them?”
He told them: “Oh, dear Angels, Israel are smarter than you. When the Egyptians were drowning, they were silent: ‘Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea (Exodus 14:30)’. Only after that, they sang, celebrating their deliverance. While you wanted to Sing and rejoice while they were actually drowning. That was something that I could not allow!”.
The Link Between the Song of the Sea and a Famous Pirkei Avot Teaching.
We all know very well this verse, from Pirkei Avot 1:2 and even can sing it:
The world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple Service, and the acts of compassion and lovingkindness.
עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה, וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה, וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Before diving into the further explanations, I need to elaborate a little about the deeper meaning of G’milut Ḥasadim. The abovementioned text translates it as “acts of compassion and lovingkindness”, other translation can be “acts of piety”. They are all correct and yet, do not provide the deepest meaning of the term. Here are a few more definitions from the Babylon Dictionary: charity, philanthropy, benevolence, disinterested assistance. As a verb, it means also to pay back, to recompense, to return (something back to its owner).
In Jewish Thought, G’milut Ḥasadim is not a voluntary act, but rather an obligation. The recipient of our G’milut Ḥasadim acted in one’s past in ways that made him worthy of repayment and recompensating. We do not need to know what were and to whom those acts were done. The mere belief in that is adequate to make us obligated to show and act towards that person with Ḥesed.
You probably wonder how I am going to connect this verse, to Shirat HaYam. Well, Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 12:12 does it for me. The prooftext this Midrash uses is verse Exodus 15:13, from the heart of the Song of the Sea:
In Your Ḥesed )compassion, loving-kindness, love) You lead this People, the one You redeemed. In Your strength You guide them to Your Holy Abode.
נָחִ֥יתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ֖ עַם ז֣וּ גָּאָ֑לְתָּ נֵהַ֥לְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ֖ אֶל נְוֵ֥ה קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃
According to the Midrash, in this very verse, Moshe mentions all three pillars that the world stands on.
The pillar of Acts of Compassion and Lovingkindness is found in the very first part of the verse: In Your Ḥesed )compassion, loving-kindness, love).
The second pillar is Torah. The Midrash connects the words – נֵהַ֥לְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ֖ – In Your strength You guide them – as the clue. The prooftext for it is (Psalm 29:11): יְֽהוָ֗ה עֹ֭ז לְעַמּ֣וֹ יִתֵּ֑ן – The LORD Will grant strength to His people. The strength of the Jewish People is Torah, and their adherence to its precepts.
The Temple Service part, Avodah, is found in the words – אֶל נְוֵ֥ה קָדְשֶֽׁךָ – to Your Holy Abode.
The Midrash adds some flesh and substance to the above claims. “You guided with your compassion” – this refers to all the generations from Creation until Israel accepted upon themselves the Torah. Until Israel accepted Torah, they did not have good deeds to be sustained by. Yet, God, with His Love, His Ḥesed, showered them with sustenance in abundance, without any conditions nor boundaries.
Once the People of Israel received the Torah, the world was like a chair with two legs: very unstable. The act of the Golden Calf is a testimonial to the instability of the world with only two pillars. Right after that incident, the People of Israel were occupied in building the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – that stabilized the world. Even that act finds a hint in Shirat HaYam, verse 17:
The place You made to dwell in, O LORD, the sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands established.
מָכ֧וֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֛ פָּעַ֖לְתָּ יְהוָ֑ה מִקְּדָ֕שׁ אֲדֹנָ֖י כּוֹנְנ֥וּ יָדֶֽיךָ
And where does God Dwell? Exodus 25:8:
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among-within them.
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
Exiting Egypt and Parting the Sea are Relevant Even Today
How it Was Then
The Exodus – Exiting from Mitzrayim (Egypt) has also a metaphoric aspect, coming from the Hebrew meanings of the name Egypt. The word Metzar means a narrow passage, a narrow strait. Mitzrayim actually means Two Straits. The verb Tzar means to enforce a siege. Tzorer is a vicious enemy. Tzara is trouble. And it also can mean bundle. In fact, for the People of Israel, all these meanings were bundled together. The Egyptians were their vicious enemy that brought only troubles unto them. The people of Israel lived within two narrow straits: a physical one and a spiritual-emotional one. Leaving these narrow straits into the expanse of the wilderness was the ultimate redemption and delivery for them.
This redemption requires a massive transformation in the mindset of the People – and the individuals that make up the People. The oppression denied them the option to think, consider options and decide, they had no influence on their fate. This is the mentality of a slave: master of none, has no free will, only does what commanded to do.
Until now, the Israelites did nothing but watched the miracles and the plagues that were the acts of God. Here, at the bank of the Sea with the Egyptian chariots closing on them, they only know to yell “Gevalt”! This is the moment of the beginning of the real transformation (Exodus 14:15):
HaShem said to Moshe: “Why do you cry out to Me? Talk to the People of Israel so they go forward.”
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
God is saying that now it is YOU, the other party in The Covenant, that need to act. It is YOU that need to have the faith and take the action. Only after Naḥshon ben Aminadav started marching into the sea that the sea split (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 42:6).
Verse Exodus 14:22 is a visual description of the scenery:
The waters formed a Citadel’s wall for them on their right and on their left.
וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חֹמָ֔ה מִֽימִינָ֖ם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָֽם׃
The sages parallel the water to Torah (Peninei Halakhah Sukkot 7:4:9):
The Torah is likened to water: “Just as water gives life to the world, so the words of Torah give life to the world” (Sifrei on Deuteronomy, Ekev, 48). Water animates the body and Torah animates the soul.
נִמְשֶׁלָה הַתוֹרָה לְמַיִם, “מַה מַיִם – חַיִים לַעוֹלָם, כָּך דִבְרֵי תּוֹרָה – חַיִים לַעוֹלָם” (סִפְרֵי עֵקֶב). שֶׁהַמַיִם נוֹתְנִים חַיִים לַגוּף, וְהַתוֹרָה נוֹתֶנֶת חַיִים לַנְשָׁמָה.
The Ḥasidic view of the Parted Sea scenery talks about a bi-directional relationship between the People of Israel and Torah. The waters guarded Israel as Citadel’s walls, thus enabling them to reach the revelation of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai. Similarly, the People of Israel guard Torah as a Citadel’s wall, by acting according to its precepts.
Some sages say that the two walls, from the right and the left, symbolize two Mitzvot. The right wall is the Mezuzah on the door’s right post and the left parallels the Tefillin on the left hand. Others connect the two sides, two walls, to two types of Mitzvot. The right wall is connected to commandments of Ḥesed – lovingkindness. The left wall manifests the commandments that require G’vurah – courage, strength, discipline – to perform. The People of Israel are keeping both types, and that is what merits them to experience the miracle of revelation.
The Insight We Can Take from It Today
Each and every one of us finds him/herself in Mitzrayim during some point (or points) in our lives. We feel trapped, intimidated, as if the world is our enemy and against us. We feel paralyzed and unable to move or even to think. This is when we are enslaved, in bondage. That is the time for us to have some faith. To know that we did some deeds that merited us with the privilege of receiving acts of lovingkindness. The Divine Providence – הַשְׁגָחָה פְּרָטִית – the watchful God is manifested to us through the actions and help of human beings. This will be the first phase, the first step, of getting out from the narrow straits, from Mitzrayim.
Then we arrive to our own Sea of Reeds. Two options are laying in front of us. Do nothing, stay put, and it may get us back to Mitzrayim. The other option is to forge forward into the sea. Our Divine Providence encourages us to move forward into the waters, to almost drawn in it. Our action is required for the sea to spilt so we can cross safely to the other side.
That is not an easy task and it also takes faith, that HaShem is telling us to move forward. HaShem calling us in a very thin sound of silence – קוֹל דְמָמָה דַקָה – that we need to listen to. After all, each one of us has within her/him hidden strengths and powers that are unknown to us. Having unconditional love to HaShem, to the other, will reveal these energies. That is how we can create a similar parting of the Sea within us, exposing these qualities that we own. All that process will enable us to witness the revelation, and fulfill our destiny in a more perfect way.