Parashat Beshalah, 5771, Tina Rothenberg

Parashat Beshalach

January 15, 2011 / 10 Sh'vat, 5771

Tina Rothenberg

Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

This week’s parasha, “Beshalach,” initiates the “conversation” between the Israelite people and God that continues for the rest of the Torah and throughout history.   You might think that this conversation, which is so fraught with fear, doubt, and complaint, would change after the redemption of the people at the Reed Sea.  But no, even though it does bring forth a powerful song of praise to God, the very next challenges, of bitter water and hunger, thrust them back to the desire to return to Egypt and be slaves. 

The Israelites are like children who can’t fend for themselves, can’t sustain their faith in the Lord even though they keep receiving assurances that He is watching out for them.   

If we look closely at this parasha, we can see that this oscillation of the people between doubt and faith is suggested by repeated words for vision and fear. We first encounter this repetition of key words when the people are at the edge of the Reed Sea with only a cloud to separate them from Pharaoh and his formidable army:

Ch. 14, v 10: 

And the children of Israel lifted up their eyes
And were terrified and cried to God.

And then, in v. 13, Moses rallies them:

“Have no fear! Stand by and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.”

When the “crossing over” the Red Sea occurs, the people “[see]” the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians”:

And the people saw the great hand…And they feared Him and believed in God and in his servant, Moses. 

So terror comes with vision.  Typical of Hebrew poetry, these words sound similar and have internal rhymes, ra’ah/yirah, and a fundamental spiritual connection reinforces the link between witnessing/seeing the wonders of God and fear, trembling, and terror. Parallel to their fear of seeing the Egyptians coming up behind them is their witnessing their own extraordinary deliverance.

So the experience of the Israelites before the parting of the sea and their passage through it is dominated by fear – of the Egyptians, of the sea, and of this momentous passage, this “crossing over,” from slavery to freedom.

The people have passed through a harrowing experience – fleeing from Egypt with very little notice, arriving at the Reed Sea and, the Rabbis say, being told to enter the water even before it’s parted.  The repetition of the vision/terror duality seems to imply that the antidote to fear is seeing the reality around them, which is infused with the presence of God.

So the praise and acknowledgement of God’s power is riddled with fear of a God who acts in history and appears in their time. This is their first encounter with Him, and appropriately, they tremble.   Perhaps it is not merely hunger and thirst that drive them to disbelief and complaint immediately after God spectacularly rescues them, but the fact of the rescue itself.  Do they really want to be liberated?  Do they prefer their familiar Egyptian taskmasters to a God that leads them into an unknown wilderness?

Aren’t we all passing through a wilderness?  Franz Kafka wrote at a time of overwhelming personal breakdown, “I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, AWAY from Canaan.” And aren’t we challenged by the fear of a dying earth? and autocratic leaders who prefer war to peaceful co-existence and dialogue?

Where can we look for miracles to bolster our faith? because we too forget God, particularly when we fail to see Him acting in history.  It seems to me that there are miracles of creation all around us, and if we stop being fearful of the past and the future, we’ll stand still long enough to be witnesses and to tremble in the face of a merciful Creator.  

In the Song of the Sea, the Israelites glorify God, and their song is particularly intense because the situation of their slavery was so abysmal.  This reversal is mimed in the syntax of the poem:

“Horse and rider      He threw in the sea”

and then the mention of God is postponed again:  

“Might and strength      God is”

These reversals, or postponements, build to a climactic statement:

“He has become my redemption.”

The relationship between God and the people starts here.  Time stops when Moses and the children of Israel spontaneously burst into song.  An interior passage occurs here  --  from doubt and complaint to faith and praise.  The song transcends time, goes back and forth between different kinds of events – the drowning of the Egyptians and the crossing of the Reed Sea, as well as adoration for the God who lifted them out of danger.  They express amazement at the power of this God.  The people are completely taken with Him – this “eyeh asher eyeh” – this powerful divinity who becomes who he is for Moses and the people in their singing of this song.

Our tradition offers a way to ensure that this relationship is not broken.  And yet, we argue every day with ourselves to keep our spiritual balance.  So the Song of the Sea should be our daily prayer to awaken to the wonders of the earth.  And indeed, a climactic moment in the Song is in our prayer book:

Who is like you, majestic in holiness
Awesome in splendor, working wonders.

There is a promise in the song, a looking forward to God leading them to His “holy abode.”  So the Song of the Sea creates two marking points  -- the redemption at sea and the arrival at God’s sanctuary.  The last two verses are no longer about God acting in history, but His dwelling in “the place you made us to dwell in.”

* * * *

Many of us have experienced life-threatening illnesses.  And we have become well.  This seems miraculous. But every day marks another challenge – the challenge to be loving to ourselves and others.  We know what it feels like to be mired in intense fear and sadness, and to come out of it.  There is no greater peace than this passage.

The Israelites were enslaved for 400 years.  Generations upon generations knew slavery and only slavery.  It was what parents passed on to their children.  No wonder God made a production out of Moses’ encounter with a hard-hearted Pharaoh! And once He got them moving, and moving quickly, He had to come up with a spectacular rescue at the Reed Sea when Pharaoh was in hot pursuit of their absconding slaves.  It’s as though we are enslaved in our minds and the breakthrough of our God has to occur repeatedly, inspiring amazement.  And when the Israelites were on the other side of the Sea on dry land, they were still enslaved to habits of thought they learned in Egypt.

Freeing ourselves from our past history and emerging into a new reality is far from easy.  But it seems that the people would not have moved had they not been slaves.  We are tested before we arrive at faith.  We must tremble both before and after we are freed.  Then we’ll know what form of passage, of crossing over in our minds from enslavement to freedom, is required of us.