Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Parshat Beshalach, Shabbat Shira


Every human being following Adam and Eve has had this experience, yet none of us can ever recall what it felt like. I refer to the first event in our lives—our birth.

Think of it. Here we were in a perfectly protected environment. The temperature of our surroundings was regulated so that we were absolutely comfortable. All of our needs were met, with no effort required on our part. A soothing silence prevailed, and there was nothing in our environment to frighten us.

Then, suddenly, against our will, we were expelled from our ideal cocoon and thrust into the world. People began to handle us, and not always gently. Bright lights shone in our eyes, for which we were totally unprepared. A cacophony of sounds disturbed us. For the first time, we felt hunger and thirst. Unless we learned to cry, we could not expect our needs to be met.

Regular readers of this column will recall the name of the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, whose concept of will I wrote about several weeks ago. Rank wrote a book entitled The Trauma of Birth in which he argued that birth was an interruption of blissful uterine life, from which we all spend the rest of our lives trying to recover.

I have always been skeptical of Rank’s theory, but I have also long thought that the theme of change and transition from better circumstances to worse ones was a central theme in mankind’s history. How we adjust to this time of change, and indeed whether we experience it as mere change or as shocking trauma, is one the central issues of human development.

The Bible is replete with narratives of such transitions. The banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise is but the first such narrative. The exile of the Jewish people from their land and holy Temple is surely another good example, and a tragically traumatic one.

Is this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), we find another such narrative. It is more subtle than birth trauma, paradise lost, and exile. It is, however, more relevant to our contemporary experience.

In this parsha, we read of the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The people of Israel find themselves in the proverbial “between a rock and a hard place.” From behind them, Pharoah’s cavalry is fast approaching. Before them is the sea. From whence will their rescue come?

A miracle occurs. God Himself intervenes and tears the sea asunder so that the people of Israel pass through safely on dry land. As Pharoah’s chariots pursue them, God returns the sea to its normal condition, drowning “horse and rider” in the sea.

That story is the one that impresses all who read this week’s parsha. But the rest of the story, the aftermath of that once-in-history miracle, does not grab the attention of the average reader. Let’s contemplate the rest of the story now.

They cross the sea. The enemy is utterly defeated. Moses leads the people in song. Miriam “took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her in dance.” The lowly maidservant sees celestial visions that surpass those of the Prophet Ezekiel. What next?

“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds.” The people cannot move forward on their own accord. Moses has to prompt them and prod them. According to Rashi, Moses has to coerce the people to advance on the journey. They are not ready to depart the world of miracles. They resist returning to the normal and routine. They want to remain in this paradise of divine wonders.

As we continue to read the Torah portion we discover that, from their perspective, the people were absolutely correct. They traveled for three days and thirsted for water. They finally found water but it was not potable. They feared disease and had to be reassured by Moses of God’s protection. They felt the deprivation of life in the wilderness, and yearned to return to the fleshpots of Egypt.

Eventually, they regain a semblance of the miraculous providence they knew at the sea. They are fed manna, “the Lord’s bread.” But instead of singing God’s praises as they had at the sea, they grumble and complain and disobey the rules that Moses has laid down for them.

We’re not done. They experience thirst yet again. They bemoan the Exodus from Egypt and protest so vociferously to Moses that he fears for his life.

Finally we reach the climax of our parsha. “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim”. A new enemy threatens extermination. But this time, there is no supernatural miracle. Moses does not proclaim, as he does at the Sea of Reeds: “The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” Now Moses appoints a general, Joshua, and instructs him to “select some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek.” Now the people come to know real war, and must wage it themselves. They will have God’s encouragement and support, but not His miraculous intervention.

No wonder that Moses had to coerce the people to take leave of the banks of the Sea of Reeds. He knew that they knew that leaving those banks meant returning to a different reality, one in which supernatural interventions would not be forthcoming, and the challenges of hunger and thirst and strife and war would be commonplace.

Most of us have known periods of sanctuary in our lives, times when we were shielded by parents or community from the trials and tribulations that are inevitable in life. Eventually, situations change and we have to cope with life, with its trials and triumphs, with its opportunities for achievement as well as with its disappointing failures.

The person of faith is especially challenged by these two sets of human experience. In times of peace and plenty, he must be grateful to God and not take His blessings for granted. Even then, he must anticipate that moment, sooner or later, when such golden circumstances can vanish. He must prepare himself in the years of plenty for the famine that the future may hold in store.

The person of faith is also challenged to keep his faith even in those times of famine. The lesson of this week’s parsha is that episodes of miraculous providence are, to say the least, rare and ephemeral. Furthermore, they are not the ultimate test of religious faith. It is when we set forth into the wilderness of everyday life that our spiritual mettle is tested.

We learn in this week’s parsha that those who have reached the heights of religious experience often cannot contend with challenge when they are forced to descend from those heights.

We can take encouragement from the lesson that others occasionally fail. But we must also be inspired to strive with all our might to succeed, and, like Joshua, “overwhelm the people of Amalek with the sword.”

Our parsha ends with the ageless enemy of the Jews, Amalek. But it also introduces us to a new hero, Joshua. Joshua remains the model for all eternity of one who crossed the Sea of Reeds and saw the heavens open, but who remained faithful and hopeful in the face of adversity.

It was Joshua who ultimately led us into the Promised Land.