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Beshalach

Rather than taking the direct route to the land of Israel, God leads the Israelites towards the sea, where the Egyptians catch up with them. God causes the sea to split, and while the Israelites walk safely across, the Egyptians following after them are all drowned. The Israelites sing a song of thanksgiving to God, but soon have new challenges to face of life in the desert, and complain for food and water, which God provides. The parasha ends with Amalek’s attack on the Israelites, and the instruction to blot out the memory of Amalek.


Beshalach by Charles Middleburgh :: 5774

Charles Middleburgh is Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College and rabbi to the Progressive Jews of Wales. Together with Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein he edited High and Holy Days: A Book of Jewish Wisdom.

The sidra entitled Beshallach is large, covering Exodus chapter 13.7 to chapter 17.16. It describes the tumultuous events which ended our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt and brought them miraculously and safely through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, only to turn round and see the pursuing Egyptian chariots and charioteers smashed to pieces by the returning waters. In the aftermath of this great escape, the Israelites were filled with hope for the future and faith in God, and in their exultation they sing Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, set out in an antiphonal structure and using archaic language that mirrors aspects of ancient Canaanite poetry.

At the end of the poem there is a reprise in prose and poetry when Miriam leads the women of Israel in a song and dance with timbrels, and where she is called Ha-Neviah, the prophetess, one of only four women in the Tanakh who carry this title. [The others are Deborah, Huldah and No-adiah.]

So far so good but unfortunately with the Israelites the heights of inspiration and faith were always followed by despair and perfidy, and a pattern that was to repeat itself many times starts here, a matter of hours after the Torah tells us the people ‘had faith in the Eternal, and in Moses, God’s servant’. Unfortunately, for the Israelites, faith in God was a passing phenomenon, indeed they were the ultimate fair weather believers: as soon as the going got rough the Israelites got going, rounding on their leaders Moses and Aaron, forgetting all the good things that had happened to them in the journey from slavery to freedom, and specifically the miracles enacted by God on their behalf.

Indeed Beshallach is unique for it contains arguably God’s most spectacular miracle to date, the parting of the waters, followed by no fewer than four serious crises. They reveal the challenge that existed for the Israelites, and continues for us in an even more serious form: the fact that for all the times when God actually does seem to engage with the human predicament there are plenty of others when God seems absent and the only response to heartfelt prayer is an empty echo.

Yet we can make some excuses for the Israelites at least, if not for ourselves: the Israelites were new to the idea of a Supreme Being who cared about them and would look after them. They clearly expected a very high standard of service from their God, and when they didn’t get it they found God wanting and began to panic. As they wandered in the desert the Israelites seem to have rocketed like a pinball between the buffers of positivity and negativity, so it is hardly surprising that leading them was such a bruising experience for Moses and Aaron.

We too have a capacious recollection of the thundering silences of God’s absence in our history, but unlike the Israelites we have a massive legacy of extraordinary individuals and extraordinary moments where the hand of God could be felt that have sustained us throughout our history. We too, like our ancestors on the sea shore, have much cause to take up our timbrels and dance.

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  • 5770 (Avram Mandell)
  • 5771 (Zoe Jacobs)
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  • 5775 (Daniel Anderson)