You can find the rest of the parsha text on at Beshalach.

38 thoughts on “Beshalach

  1. Wendy Berk

    From AJR/CA


    Shevat 5784

    By Cantor Heather Hoopes Seid

    (Note: This commentary on Parshat Beshalach is written to give an impression of
    what is seen in Torah and help us reflect on the use of poetic structure in our tradition.)

    And when Pharaoh said “Let them go,” they left.

    What does it feel like to leave everything you know?

    How does it feel to carry with you your past on your back?.

    Do you cry? Do you yell? Do you fear? Do you tell?

    They cried. They yelled. They feared.

    And they SANG! They sang!

    Sing! Sing a song. Make it loud. Make it Long. Sing to the Lord a New Song!

    Facing a sea on this side and that

    they opened their mouths and sang.

    Leaving certainty and facing an unknown future

    they opened their hearts and created.

    I don’t know that I could have used my voice in that way at a time like that.

    For many years I was paralyzed by my own fear.

    Unable to move. Unable to act. Unable to vocalize.

    What lies ahead? What have I left?

    What if I mess up my future in an irreparable way?

    What if I’m not worthy of this kindness bestowed?

    What if… what if… what if…

    My whole life has been riddled with “what ifs”

    that have kept me from untold, unknown futures.

    עׇזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃

    “Hashem is my strength and my song.

    And G-d has become my salvation. This is my G-d

    I will enshrine. God of my ancestors

    I will exalt.”

    If only this phrase could penetrate my deep- seated anxiety.

    Push me out of my fears.

    G-d has strength. G-d has song. But is it my strength?

    Can I sing that song? I doubt…regularly.

    Can someone with doubt tap into G-d’s strength? Are we allowed?

    Does it take only faith to cross a sea of doubt?

    Perhaps I’m the only one who feels this, but I would not be able

    to pass through ocean on either side while being chased

    down on my faith in G-d alone.

    I’ve tried that. I freeze up. And then feel less than

    for not believing hard enough for not trusting implicitly enough.

    Said Rabbi Harold M Schulweiss ztz’’l, “In our faith, you are not born with

    original iniquity that damns the earth—you are created with original

    potentiality to sanctify the world…

    You are G-d’s relevance and therein your relevance.”

    Ozi v’zimrat yah עׇזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ

    My relevance. G-d’s relevance. My relevance.

    My strength. G-d’s strength.

    My strength.

    Ozi. .עׇזִּ֤י

    Place a period where you must to remind yourself that your strength is

    G-d’s strength is your strength.

    The strength must come from you. It lives there

    in the deep waters of your soul

    Waiting for you to remember to take a step forward toward change.

    And v’zimrat yah? the Song of G-D? There to help

    remind you of this feedback loop.

    What does it feel like to leave everything you know?

    If you have found your strength within, is that even the right question?

    And when you open your mouth to ask which song will come out?

    עׇזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃

  2. Wendy Berk

    From the Hebrew College

    Leading with Love
    By Heather Renetzky

    Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

    When I first learned the meaning of the words to the popular children’s song “Ring Around the Rosie,” I was horrified. I knew it as a fun little song, sung by happy kids skipping in a circle. Then, I read that the words—“Ring-around-the-rosie/A pocket-full of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down”—are about the bubonic plague. The happy tune belied its deeper and darker meaning.

    Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, is similarly complex. In our Shacharit (morning) service, I often sing the words with enthusiasm, focusing on the awe of seeing the sea split and the joy of being set free. But like “Ring Around the Rosie,” Shirat HaYam isn’t all joy and delight.

    In Parashat Beshalach, the Israelites stand on the shore, look out at the drowning Egyptians, and sing of destruction: “The deeps covered them; They went down into the depths like a stone…The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them; All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.”

    I look at the lyrics of Shirat HaYam, recorded in Parashat Beshalach, and I think: Why?! Why did the Israelites sing these words, at this moment? The Israelites saw the Egyptians subjected to plagues in Egypt, but they didn’t burst into song then.

    Dr. Aviva Zornberg suggests that Shirat HaYam was a song motivated by sheer terror. As Zornberg puts it, “Terror, anguish, the knowledge that their lives tremble on the verge—these are the modes in which the Sages convey the experience of those ominous corridors.” Zornberg writes that at the crossing of the sea, “Rather than rejoice at their enemies’ pain, [the Israelites] see themselves mirrored in it” (Zornberg, 214). Zornberg refers to their physical vulnerability, but I wonder if the Israelites saw themselves mirrored in the Egyptians’ mental vulnerability as well.

    They see Pharaoh and his people and their chariots. They see not just this single oppressor but this nation of oppressors who, when faced over and over again with the opportunity to let the Israelites go, did not change their minds. They see this and they think:

    We are mirrored in them.

    We are not separate from them.

    We too could become the oppressors.

    The Israelites witness the Egyptians’ struggle, and they sing to convey their fear of becoming the very people that oppressed them. They do not sing solely of the Egyptians’ demise, but invoke images of God’s love and mercy:

    נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ עַם־זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל־נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ׃

    In Your love You lead the people You redeemed; in Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode (Exodus 15:13).

    When they sing this line, the Israelites are no longer in Egypt; they are now endowed with the ability to make their own choices and to lead. The 13th century commentator Chizkuni points out that נָחִיתָ (you guide) נֵהַלְתָּ (you lead) are both written in the future tense. I wonder if perhaps this is reflective of the Israelites’ vision for the future. With their newfound freedom, the Israelites commit to a future of embracing and emulating a God of love. They sing of the drowning of the Egyptians in the past tense (e.g. Exodus 15:4), putting this in the rearview mirror and hoping that they can be better than their enemies.

    If the continual legacy of Shmot is that we, “shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 22:21), then Shirat HaYam is the deep, musical cry that expresses this. Shirat HaYam is the moment when the Israelites say, “We have been oppressed, and now we are free, and we will use that freedom for good.”

    The gorier words of Shirat HaYam belie its fear-filled and loving undertones. It is not a song that conveys one thing, but a song of awe, hope, and vision. With its words now embedded in our daily liturgy, we can carry on the Israelites’ commitment and promise: May we not become the oppressors that we fight. May we not let power get the best of us. And may we always, always lead with love.

  3. Wendy Berk

    Parshat Beshalach – 12 Shevat 5783

    By Rabbi Robin Hoffman Foonberg

    The Daily Practice of Collecting Manna

    The children of Israel, unsuited in many ways for their new experience of freedom, found themselves still dependent upon the aid of those more powerful than themselves. Therefore, they pleaded with Moses and G-d for food and drink while they sojourned in the wilderness. While G-d was displeased over their complaining and grumblings, He nevertheless granted them their wishes and sustained them with water and manna. Manna was a mysterious white substance that fell from the heavens and became food for the Israelites. But, the manna came with rules and restrictions which the infantile Israelites had to learn and obey each and every day.

    According to Ibn Ezra, the miracle of the manna was the greatest miracle of all as it lasted 40 years and was not just a one-time event. But furthermore, Ibn Ezra explains, the miracle of the manna was really ten miracles wrapped into one: 1) the manna fell; 2) it fell only around the Israelite camp; 3) the fall of manna traveled along with the Israelites; 4) the manna they did not gather melted in the sun, but the manna they gathered did not; 5) no matter how much they gathered, everyone had the same amount; 6) a double amount fell on Fridays; 7) what fell on Friday did not spoil for an extra night and day; 8 ) and 9) the two miraculous tastes, like wafers with honey before it was cooked and like rich cream afterward; and 10) the jar of it kept throughout the ages did not spoil.

    The rabbis wondered about this daily miracle of manna. Why did G-d rain down the manna each and every day instead of giving it to the Israelites one day to last for a week? The Midrash explains:

    There were good reasons for not exceeding a day’s ration in the daily downpour of manna. First, that they might be spared the need of carrying it on their wanderings; secondly, that they might daily receive it hot; and, lastly, that they might day by day depend upon G-d’s aid, and in this way exercise themselves in faith.
    (Legend of the Jews, p. 365)

    Perhaps then, the greatest miracle and lesson of the manna was that it was a daily experience. Each and every day, the Israelites had to make it their ritual, their practice, to go out and collect for themselves and for their families. Surely this was a matter of survival and it may have felt to the newly freed Israelite slaves as if they were being enslaved by G-d by having to collect the manna each day. But this was also the beginning of G-d’s teaching the Israelites that their faith was to be a daily practice. They weren’t just being told what to do for the benefit of the one in charge, but rather it was for them – a practice that helped their own lives become better lives. The manna was a gift for which they could feel grateful. It is here, with the daily collection of manna, that we understand that our Judaism is a gift and for it to be truly meaningful, our practice of prayer and mitzvot must happen each and every day. Manna is still falling from heaven every day and every day is an opportunity to express our gratitude for the miraculous blessings of our own lives.

  4. Wendy Berk

    From reform

    “A Jar in a Museum”
    B’shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16


    The English word for museum stems from the Greek mouseion, which was a temple for the Muses, those ageless sprites of arts and science. Every year, millions of people flock to museums to gawk and (sometimes) learn. While personal collections have been around for millennia, curated collections like the ones found in modern museums began cropping up only in the last few hundred years. That said, the oldest known public museum was established by priestess/curator Enniggaldi-Nanna, in the ancient city of Ur, around 530 BCE. She arranged artifacts from various centuries and carefully labeled them in multiple languages to explain her civilization’s heritage.

    The impulse to preserve things for others to see is perhaps even older than that. It is also more profound than one might think.

    While the Israelites continued their meandering through the Sinai wilderness, they grumbled to Moses and Aaron about the lack of tasty and nutritious food. God promised to provide them with heavenly fare-pheasant and manna-that they could consume until sated. The manna was miraculous: it appeared each morning, dissipated by evening, rotted if kept overnight except on Shabbat, and tasted wonderful (see Exodus 16:1-31).

    As the people became accustomed to gathering and eating this unusual food, Moses relayed this command from Adonai:

    “Let one omer of it be kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness when I brought you out from the land of Egypt.” And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar (tsintsenet), put one omer of manna in it, and place it before Adonai, to be kept throughout the ages.” As Adonai had commanded Moses, Aaron placed it before the Ark, to be kept. (Exodus 16:32-34)

    What was that jar? When was it made? What was its purpose? What happened to it?

    That word for jar (tsintsenet) appears just once in the Bible. This mysterious word allows commentators to imagine what it might mean. Some, like Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an early translation of the Bible into Aramaic, and Rashi, think the jar is made of clay. The Septuagint, the earliest translation of the Bible into Greek, insists that it is made of gold. The medieval midrash Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (at Exodus 16:33), humbly admits: “I would not know what it is – whether of silver, or iron, or lead, or copper, or tin.” Ibn Ezra wavers between clay and copper. The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbeinu Bahya argues that Moses figured out that the tsintsenet should keep things cool (tsonen) to preserve its contents; thus, it must be a clay vessel. The proof of this is that Jeremiah 32:14 also places important documents into a clay vessel “so that they may last a long time.” Curiously, Bahya immediately notes that we preserve wine in a similar fashion.

    We can solve this mystery by recalling the jar’s purpose. It is to be “kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread…” Since the people are to see the contents of the tsintsenet, it must be translucent. The Mekhilta uses this logic to conclude that the jar is made from a material that is also used to make glass.

    When was this jar for manna made? Some rabbis assert that the manna itself was created at twilight before the first Sabbath of the world (Pirkei Avot 5.6); others think it emerged on the second day of creation (Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer 3.6). If that’s the case for manna, what about the jar itself? According to Rabbeinu Bahya and Midrash Lekach Tov, it was also created at twilight before the first sabbath.

    What happened to this preternatural vessel containing one omer (an ancient Hebrew measure of grain that amounts to about 3.6 liters) of manna? Maimonides argues that the jar was placed next to Aaron’s staff before the Ark in the First Temple. Yet Solomon foresaw that his Temple would be destroyed, so he created a hidden cache below ground for the Ark and its accompanying sacred items, including the jar of manna ( Beit HaBechirah 4.1). The Talmud teaches that King Josiah interred them in that secret place lest they be sent into exile (Yoma 52b).

    Some rabbis think it was dug up and sent to Babylon, though this is disputed (Yoma 53b). Others contend that it was sealed under the Chamber of the Woodshed in the Temple compound. Either way, the location of the Ark and the jar of manna remains a secret (Shekalim 61.4). In sum, the purpose of this unique, earthy, divinely crafted, vessel is to serve both as a preserving container for divinely created stuff, and as a display visible for all time (though sometimes hidden from view) of God’s incredible hospitality and presence while liberating an enslaved people.

    In a profound way, the tsintsenet is like our lives. Each of us has been given a unique vessel or body that is simultaneously stiff and malleable, opaque and translucent. We display God’s wonders “throughout the generations.” The life we live is our chance to exhibit solidarity with the vulnerable, much as God did. We get to place this lifelong effort before God alongside the Ark and its broken tablets. We each are a tsintsenet for our generations.

    When Moses says, “Take a jar, put one omer of manna in it, and place it before Adonai, to be kept throughout the ages”-he speaks not of some dusty item in a museum that you may or may not visit; Moses speaks of you.

  5. Vaughn P Harrison

    Songs of Hope (Parshat Beshalach)
    Rabbi Josh Breindel
    Torah from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

    Commentary on Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16)

    As the crowd surged in front of me, I felt completely out of my depth.

    I had joined with members of my interfaith clergy group at a rally in the aftermath of a mass shooting. We were supposed to open the gathering with a blessing, but none of the hundreds of people there were paying us any attention.

    “I have no idea what to do,” I admitted to my friend, Pastor Sheila. She winked at me as she stepped to the mic. “That’s easy,” she said. “They just need us to sing them together!”

    As Sheila launched into “This Little Light of Mine,” I saw faces turning toward us. By the time she reached the end of the first verse, we were all singing together. The crowd wasn’t a random swelling – we were a wave, rocking and swaying in harmony.

    In later years, I’ve always thought of this moment of unifying song when I read Parshat Beshalach, the Torah portion containing the Song of the Sea. When Miriam and Moses led the people in song, the Israelites became whole. In many ways, their first act of freedom was to sing together.

    This story is beloved to many Jewish communities. I’ve seen otherwise-quiet congregations rise to their feet and dance as they sing “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie Friedman’s account of how “the women, dancing with their timbrels, followed Miriam as she sang her song.” This year, an ancient question about this story strikes me with new relevance.

    “But from where,” the rabbis asked, “could the Israelites have gotten timbrels and pipes with which to dance in the wilderness?” The answer is swiftly given:

    Rather, these righteous ones were faithful and knew that God would perform miracles and do great things for them as they went forth from Egypt. So they prepared timbrels and pipes for themselves. (Mekhilta de-Rebbe Yishmael – Masechet Shirata 10 on Exodus 15:20)

    The rabbis paint a picture of these women as being so hopeful in their future that they packed their musical instruments. They felt that their people would need to rejoice together. Even more, I imagine that our biblical ancestors knew that it would take a certain amount of time to get to where they were going. Perhaps they sensed a need not only to celebrate their deliverance from Egypt but also to keep their people unified and uplifted along the uncertain road to follow.

    In a similar vein, most every social justice initiative in which I’ve been engaged has required planning, forethought and patience. Regretfully, I’ve also seen promising initiatives fail as those working on the projects were unable to offer the ongoing commitment, energy and focus that were required. With the American Psychological Association pointing to rising levels of stress and isolation, it’s a challenge for many to remain engaged in the work of tikkun olam.

    In a polarized and increasingly divided age, it can be easy to become discouraged and lose sight of our long-term goals. The wisdom of the women in this midrash reminds me that a sense of hope is an essential element in the great task of pursuing justice.

    This portion offers us a story of hopeful song and unity that can guide our work in the modern day. We all need a sense of uplift to persevere. This is a gift that anyone can offer; it’s a form of leadership that transcends speaking from a podium. However one is engaged in the work of tikkun olam, from working with an established group to ringing strangers’ doorbells, each of us can offer this gift to those whom we encounter.

    Our songs can take many forms. Many people (like Pastor Sheila) love the songs of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Others are most inspired by the words from Jewish tradition. But I believe that song is not incidental to the work of social justice. Understood more broadly, we need to share moments of joy so that we can find hope and strength to continue our shared journey to a holy destination. Share your song freely – from any source that reaches you most fully.

    As we sing this ancient song of deliverance together, let us inspire our communities in their work for social justice. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

    Rabbi Josh Breindel became the rabbi of Congregation Beth El (Sudbury, MA) in July of 2018. He previously served for nine years as the rabbi of Temple Anshe Amunim (Pittsfield, MA). He was the president of the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations for two terms where he worked to promote a vision of interfaith inclusivity and social justice for the Berkshires.

  6. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Simon Jacobson

    …How do souls travel? Bodies move about on legs or in vehicles. But what moves a soul? A soul doesn’t have legs and cannot be contained in an automobile or other vehicle. What carries our souls from one place to another?
    The Kabbalah offers a fascinating answer: The only way a soul can move about is through a song. Without song the soul remains stuck in one place…

  7. Wendy Berk

    From Reconstructing Judaism

    Jewish Continuity and the origins of “Ben Hur”

    By Eric Mendelsohn

    This week’s parasha — Beshalakh — is overloaded with material: the pursuit, the crossing of the Sea, the Song of the Sea , the Song of Miriam, the travels in the desert, and the battle with Amelek. It has two sets of bad role models at each end — in the beginning, Pharaoh and his advisors advise who him to pursue. At the end, confronted by Amalek (whom midrash has made into a model for those who prey on the weak), a group of Israelites grumble and form small groups to undermine Moses (making Moses feel that that the People of Israel are about to stone him.) It is they who make it possible to for Amalek to temporarily get the upper hand.

    Between these bad role models are sandwiched a collection of wonderful role models: Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, and in midrash, Nakhshon ben Aminadav. In addition there is one positive but quite obscure positive role model – Hur (חוּר). Hur is so obscure that a Christian noticed an obscure Biblical name, and named his hero “Ben Hur”— and as they say, the rest is Hollywood.

    Who is Hur ? What does he do? How is he rewarded? There are only twenty references to Hur in Tanakh. Many are in the form of patronymics (Ben Hur = “son of Hur”); some are not names but a noun; one is a reference to an Edomite Chieftain, and one to a Midianite king.

    The references to Hur in today’s parsha are Exodus 17:10 and Exodus 17:12. Amelek is attacking Israel from the rear. When Moses lifts his arms, Israel, led by Joshua, wins; but when he lowers his arms from exhaustion, Amelek wins. Aaron and Hur assist Moses by holding up his failing arms until the battle is won. Hur is not a priest or a Levite . Later genealogies in Kings, Nekhemiah, and Chronicles indicate he was of the tribe of Judah. He simply sees the need, does the job and like Cinncinatus of Rome, fades into the background.

    But there is more to the story—it is in the meaning of the name Hur. By the time of Esther and Daniel, “Hur” becomes the name of the white linen that is the mark of kings and priests. Later in Mishnaic and Talmudic times, the root ח-ו-ר means “leper.” (A similar shift in meaning occurs in the white linen garments of the Christian priest, which are called Diaporos in Greek. Now in the US and Canada, “diaper” has a different meaning.) Both meanings are important for the understanding of Hur.

    I would argue that, metaphorically, Hur is clothed in priestly linen by his name — and acts out that name. He does what is needed to support Moses and Aaron, andthen claims no reward for himself or his descendants as Aaron and Pinchas do.

    Many midrashim support my view of his role. For example, Midrash Abba Gorion recounts that “All of them gathered against Aaron and said, ‘Moses will not come down again.’ Aaron and Xur responded, ‘Any moment he will be coming down from the mount.’ But the mixed multitude paid no attention to them.”

    The midrash goes on to say that Xur was killed for his efforts defending Moses. It seems as if his reward is the white linen of the shroud or being shunned like a leper.

    But the text gives this white linen hero a reward— the architect and artist who designs the mishkan and repairs the damaged first temple has a name in which both father and grandfather and named: Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur. Uri is the one who rises up when necessary (as in chapter 4 of Judges, where we read “Uri, uri D’vorah” — “arise, arise, Deborah!”).

    This is Hur’s reward, coming two generations after him: he is recognized as the one whose influence made the third generation’s work possible. He makes it possible for there to be a mishkan — a central place for the Jewish community, a dwelling place for their spirituality — simply by helping Moses when Moses needed help. As a midrash states concerning the First Temple:

    “From one side of the lamp stand there extended seven golden branches, upon which were wrought the likenesses of the seven patriarchs of the world: Adam, Noah, his eldest [son] Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, together with Job. From the other side of the lamp stand there also extended seven golden branches, upon which were wrought the likenesses of the seven pious men of the world: Levi[‘s son] Kohath, Amram, Moses and Aaron, Eldad and Medad, and Hur was between them.”

    The figure of Hur may be obscure, but he is an important role model. When people admired the mishkan , the spiritual center of a Jewish community, and one said “What a beautiful job Bezalel did!” the response was “Yes, but his grandfather made it possible.” That is what Jewish continuity is all about.

  8. Wendy Berk

    From My Jewish Learning

    Parshat Beshalach: Sustaining Creation Through Song
    Why the creation of the Jewish nation in Parashat Beshalach was marked by singing praises to God.


    The miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea in Parashat Beshalach is replete with creation imagery, mimicking the creation story from the Book of Genesis.

    In the first chapters of Genesis we learn that the world was chaotic, covered in darkness, and God hovered above the surface of the waters. Then God gathered the waters and dry land appeared: “And God said: ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1:9)

    In Parashat Beshalach, the verse also describes chaos and darkness with God’s presence hovering above. Then the waters are split, and dry land is revealed:

    Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. And the waters were split.” Exodus 14:20-21

    The gathering of the waters in Genesis culminated in God creating living beings, allowing life to flourish on Earth. On the shores of the Red Sea, the splitting of the waters culminated with the creation of a nation, the children of Israel. God reenacts creation in the Exodus story with the Jewish people as the central characters. From this point on, the Jews are called Ivrim, a unified people, a nation to which God has given birth.

    The Midrash connects these two creation stories, explaining that the splitting of the sea was a stipulation of the original creation story. In Exodus 14:27, the verse reads: “Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its original strength [l’aytano], and the Egyptians fled at its approach.” The Midrash explains that l’aytano should not be read as “to its original strength,” but rather as tanai (“stipulation”). In other words, the waters returned to the original stipulation that was made at creation. That is to say, during the creation of the world God stipulated that the very waters that God drew together would split once again so that God’s nation could be born.

    But there is a distinct difference between the creation in Genesis and the re-creation at the Red Sea. It can be argued that there was something lacking in the original creation story. Shortly after the world was created, God destroyed almost all living creatures in the flood and began the creative process again with Noah and his family. The creation at the sea, however, is a creation that endured, a final act of divine creation. What was different about the creation of the Jewish people?

    The creation of the world was marked by the words vayomer elokim, “and God said.” God said “let there be light.” God said “let the waters separate.” And so on. However, in the Exodus story, at the moment the Jewish people reached the other side, there was no prose, there was song.

    Exodus 15:1 tells us: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to God … I shall sing to God for God is exalted.”

    It is through the medium of song that we are bidden to recognize and celebrate God as the ultimate creator of the world. The Hadic master known as the Sefat Emet explains that the word “then” comes to teach us that Israel had always longed to sing God’s praises, for Israel’s essence is to give testimony to God’s power. But this song could not be sung while the Jewish people were enslaved. It was only after the people were freed that they were able to recognize God as the God of creation at the sea. Then, they could sing.

    Creation is sustained through song. Each morning as part of our daily prayer we sing these same verses of song that the Israelites sang at the sea. We are bidden each morning to bring song into our lives. In this way, on each day anew, we must sing out and praise the God of creation.

  9. Wendy

    From the Schechter Institute

    Why is Shabbat Shirah “for the Birds”?

    Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin

    Question: The weekly portion of Beshalah, which was read last Shabbat, is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, because it includes Az Yashir, The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15). There is an Ashkenazic custom to feed the birds on Shabbat Shirah. What are the sources and reasons for this custom?

    Responsum: We have learned in a Mishnah in the Tractate of Shabbat (24:3 = fol. 155b):

    Water may not be placed [on Shabbat] before bees and before doves in a dovecote, but it may be placed before geese and chickens and Herodian doves.

    The Talmud explains (ibid.) that you are responsible on Shabbat for the food of your own geese and chickens, but not for other animals, who know how to fend for themselves.

    This law was codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Shabbat 21:36) and by the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 324:11). In his commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, R. Avraham Gombiner (1637-1683) says:

    Some are accustomed to give wheat to the birds on Shabbat Shirah, but this is incorrect, because you are not responsible for their sustenance.

    This strict approach was adopted by some important authorities, (R. Ya’akov Emden according R. Zinger, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, R. Yehudah Ashkenazy, R. Yisrael Meir Hacohen, R. Yehoshua Neuwirth) while other rabbis defended the custom. (R. Refael Meizlish, R. Yehiel Michal Epstein, and the rabbis cited by R. Neuwirth). But most of those who discussed the halakhic issue did not try to explain the reason for the custom.

    I have found five explanations for feeding the birds on Shabbat Shirah. The first three connect the custom to Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea, while the other two connect the custom to the story of the manna, which is also found in the portion of Beshalah.

    1) R. Rafael Meizlish (18th century) and R. Yehiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908), in their defense of the custom, say that there is a popular saying among the masses that the birds sang at the Sea and we are therefore grateful to them. Thus, the purpose of feeding them is to remember the joy of Shirat Hayam and therefore we have no halakhic objection to feeding the birds. In other words, we feed the birds in order to thank them for singing at the Sea.

    2) Another explanation says that we feed the birds kashe (buckwheat) on Shabbat Shirah because they are called ba’ale hashir (the singers). No creature can sing like a bird because they rule the air, and music is created by the flow of air (Bet Aharon quoted by Sefer Hamatamim).

    3) Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov says that the birds receive their reward on Shabbat Shirah for the songs which they utter to God every day, and when we recite our Song, we remember their songs.

    4) Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer (Pressburg, 1762-1839) says that this custom is based on the verse in our parashah (Exodus 16:32) “In order that they may see the bread which I fed you” i.e. that future generations should see that when you trust in God with your whole heart, he provides food as he did for the children of Israel in the desert. We feed the birds on Shabbat Shirah in order to say that if the Jewish people, who are compared to a bird, will devote themselves to Torah and mitzvot, then God will provide them food without toil.

    5) The most well-known explanation is that given by Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz (quoting Ma’aseh Alfass). He reports that it says “in the Yalkut” on Exodus 16:27 “And behold on the seventh day some of the people went out to gather [manna] and did not find any”. Why does it say “and did not find any”? Because Datan and Aviram went out on Friday night outside the camp and spread some manna, in order to make Moshe a liar, since he said there would be no manna on Shabbat. They then said to the people: go out and see that there is manna in the fields! Therefore, some people went out to gather, but found nothing because the birds had eaten the manna which Datan and Aviram had strewn about. We give them their reward on Shabbat Shirah since we also read the story of the manna on that day.

    So says “the Yalkut”, but as Rabbi Menahem Mendel Kasher points out, this midrash is not found in Yalkut Shimoni or any other collection of midrash. Indeed, in Sefer Matamim it is quoted in the name of Rabbi Bunim of Parsischa, while in Sefer Ta’amey Haminhagim it is quoted in the name of the Holy Seer of Lublin. Therefore, this midrash is really a hassidic explanation from the nineteenth century.

    As I have pointed out elsewhere, a large number of explanations for a custom usually indicates that the original reason is unknown.(Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah, Vol. 3 (5748-5749), pp. 40-44. That responsum deals with the custom of avoiding kitniyot (legumes) on Pesah). Both sets of explanations above have a certain logic: Feeding song birds on the Shabbat of Song makes good sense. On the other hand, feeding bread/wheat/buckwheat to birds when we read about the manna also makes good sense. In any case, this is a beautiful Ashkenazic custom worth reviving.

    Finally, if people are worried about the halakhic objection voiced by the Magen Avraham and his followers, they can follow the compromise suggested by Rabbi Neuwirth. He says that you can shake out your tablecloth, provided there is an eruv, and thereby allow the birds to share your Shabbat feast!


    R. Yehudah Ashkenazi, Ba’er Hetev to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 8.

    R. Yehudah David Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, pp. 402-403.

    R. Yehiel Michal Epstein, Arukh Hashulhan, Orah Hayyim 324:3.

    R. Avraham Gombiner, Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 7.

    R. Yisrael Meir Hacohen, Mishnah Berurah to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 31.

    R. Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz, Otzar Kol Minhagey Yeshurun, Lvov, 1930, p. 288, par. 37.

    R. Menahem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shleimah, Vol. 14, pp. 226-227, note 143.

    R. Eliyahu Ki Tov, Sefer Hatoda’ah, Jerusalem, 1966, p. 211.

    R. Refael Meizlish, Tosefet Shabbat, Frankfurt d’Oder, 1767, to Orah Hayyim 324, subpar. 17.

    R. Yehoshua Neuwirth, Shmirat Shabba Kehilkhatah, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1979, pp. 340-341.

    R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Shulhan Arukh Harav, Orah Hayyim 324:8.

    R. Moshe Sofer, Or Pnay Moshe L’hamishah Humshey Torah, Shmot, fol. 16b.

    R. Avraham Yitzhak Sperling, Ta’amey Haminhagim, Jerusalem, 1957, p. 531.

    R. Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz, Sefer Hamatamim, Warsaw, 1889, p. 108.

    R. Yehudah Dov Zinger, Ziv Haminhagim, 1977, pp. 267-268.

  10. Wendy

    From JTS

    Destiny in the Details


    In life’s biggest moments, it is sometimes easy to lose track of the smallest details. I have been to more than one wedding where everything is beautifully set up, from the flowers to the catering to the band, but then when the couple being married reach the huppah, they realize that they had forgotten the kiddush cup for the Sheva Berakhot, or the pen for signing the ketubah.

    However, when looking back on those big events, sometimes it is the tiny moments that resonate most. I remember the sickly-sweet taste of the Manischewitz wine that I drank after making kiddush at my bat mitzvah more than I remember reading from the Torah. I can tell you every feeling I had when I saw my husband for the first time on our wedding day, but the details of the ceremony are already blurry after only a few years.

    Why are those small moments so poignant? It seems to be a strange question to ask at this climactic point of the Torah. This week’s parashah, Beshallah, contains one of the Torah’s biggest moments. The Israelites finally break free of the Egyptians, crossing the Red Sea on dry land while the Egyptians drown in the closing sea behind them. Jubilant in their triumph, they sing to God, led by Moses and Miriam. For a brief moment, they are united in their faith and in the glory of the moment.

    However, earlier in the story, the people are less certain that they want to cross the Sea. Understandably, they are fearful, with the Egyptians behind them and a vast expanse of water in front of them. Moses, uncertain about what to do, cries out to God, and God reprimands him, saying, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell B’nai Yisrael to go forward!” In that moment, Moses jumps into action, as the Torah tells us:

    Then Moshe held out his arm over the sea and Hashem drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exod. 14: 21-22)
    Certainly, this seems like that crossing the sea safely, while the Egyptians are trapped behind them, should be the most that the Israelites could ask for from God. The people are escaping the Egyptians, God is fulfilling the promise of redemption, Moses is powerful enough that the people trust him, if only for a moment. This is the grand moment, the one that we recall every day, multiple times, in our liturgy when we recite Mi Kamokha. Surely this should be enough. However, there is a beautiful midrash in Shemot Rabbah that imagines God paying attention to the smaller details as well:

    “Rabbi Nehurai taught: a daughter of Israel passed in the sea with her son in her arms, and he cried. So she would reach out her hands and grab an apple or a pomegranate from the sea and give it to him, as it says, ‘And He led them through the depths, as through a wilderness.’ (Psalms 106:9) Just as they lacked for nothing in the wilderness, in the depths of the sea they lacked for nothing.” (Parashat Beshallah 21:10)
    Like those moments from my bat mitzvah and wedding, this scene is incredibly poignant. At this momentous occasion, the Israelites would seem unreasonable for expecting more from God than simply getting them across the sea safely. It’s natural for children to be scared, just as it’s natural for their parents to soothe them, but even though we sometimes describe God as a parent, it is striking that God attends to the passing distress of the young in the midst of these dramatic events. After all, they will soon be back on dry land, safe from the Egyptians, truly free for the first time. However, the Rabbis imagine that God put fruits in the sea to comfort the children. It is the tiny detail that makes all the difference for the youngest of B’nai Yisrael.

    Why does this small act of comfort matter? Because, as it turns out, those children are the ones who will grow up and then enter the Land to conquer it as part of the next generation. That transitional moment, which occurs in the book of Joshua, has the potential to be as terrifying as this one, but there, the people do not turn away from the challenge. Instead, they are eager to enter the Land, no matter how difficult it might be. Perhaps their faith is stronger because they do not remember slavery, but perhaps it is stronger because they remember that God took care of even the smallest details when they were tiny and vulnerable.

    This midrash in Shemot Rabbah doesn’t solve a problem in the text, or explain an ambiguity, as we tend to expect from this genre. Instead, it simply highlights God’s compassion, which is so great that it extends even to something so small. It is okay to focus on a detail in even the grandest of moments, it tells us. In fact, that detail might be the most formative part of the whole experience.

    Human memory is fallible, and we often lose the memories that we had most wanted to keep. However, the tiny glimmers that remain have the potential to shape not only our views of the past, but also the way we look towards the future.

  11. Wendy

    From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    Crossing the Sea

    When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the land of the Philistines, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt prepared for battle. (Ex. 13:17-18)

    God did not lead the people to the Promised Land by the coastal route, which would have been more direct[1]. The reason given is that it was such an important highway, it constituted the main path from which Egypt might be attacked by forces from the north-west such as the Hittite army. The Egyptians established a series of forts along the way, which the Israelites would have found impregnable.

    However, if we delve deeper, this decision raises a number of questions. First: we see that the alternative route they took was potentially even more traumatic. God led them around by the desert road towards the Red Sea. The result, as we soon discover, is that the Israelites, when they saw the Egyptian chariots pursuing them in the distance, had nowhere to go. They were terrified. They were not spared the fear of war. Hence the first question: why the Red Sea? On the face of it, it was the worst of all possible routes.

    Secondly, if God did not want the Israelites to face war, and if He believed it would lead the people to want to return to Egypt, why did the Israelites leave chamushim, “armed” or “ready for battle”?

    Third: if God did not want the Israelites to face war, why did He provoke Pharaoh into pursuing them? The text says so explicitly. “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for Myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 14:4). Three times in this one chapter we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 14:4, 8, 17).

    The Torah explains this motivation of “I will gain glory for Myself.” The defeat of the Egyptian army at the Sea would become an eternal reminder of God’s power. “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” Egypt may come to realise that there is a force more powerful than chariots, armies and military might. But the opening of our parsha suggested that God was primarily concerned with the Israelites’ feelings – not with His glory or the Egyptians’ belief. If God wanted the Israelites not to see war, as the opening verse states, why did He orchestrate that they witnessed this attack at the Sea?

    Fourth: God did not want the Israelites to have reason to say, “Let us return to Egypt.” However, at the Red Sea, they did tell Moses something very close to this:

    “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex. 14:11-12)

    Fifth: God clearly wanted the Israelites to develop the self-confidence that would give them the strength to fight the battles they would have to fight in order to conquer the Holy Land. Why then did He bring about a state of affairs at the Sea where they had to do exactly the opposite, leaving everything to God:

    Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Ex.14:13-14)

    The miracle that followed has so engraved itself on Jewish minds that we recite the Song at the Sea in our daily Morning Service. The division of the Sea was, in its way, the greatest of all the miracles. But it did not contribute to Jewish self-confidence and self-reliance. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. The Egyptians were defeated not by the Israelites but by God, and not by conventional warfare but by a miracle. How then did the encounter teach the Israelites courage?

    Sixth: The parsha ends with another battle, against the Amalekites. But this time, there is no complaint on the part of the people, no fear, no trauma, no despair. Joshua leads the people in battle. Moses, supported by Aaron and Hur, stands on a hilltop, his arms upraised, and as the people look up to Heaven, they are inspired, strengthened, and they prevail.

    Where then was the fear spoken of in the opening verse of the parsha? Faced by the Amalekites, in some ways more fearsome than the Egyptians, the Israelites did not say they wanted to return to Egypt. The sheer silence on the part of the people stands in the strongest possible contrast to their previous complaints about water and food. The Israelites turn out to be good warriors.

    So why the sudden change between the opening of our parsha and its close? In the opening, God is protective and miracle-working. At the close, God is more concealed. He does not fight the battle against the Amalekites; He gives the Israelites the strength to do so themselves. In the opening, the Israelites, faced by the Egyptians, panic and say that they should never have left Egypt. By the close, faced by the Amalekites, they fight and win.

    What had changed?

    The answer, it seems to me, is that we have perhaps the first recorded instance of what later became a key military strategy. In one of the more famous examples, Julius Caesar ordered his army to cross the Rubicon in the course of his attempt to seize power. Such an act was strictly forbidden in Roman law. He and the army had to win, or they would be executed. Hence the phrase, “to cross the Rubicon.”

    In 1519, Cortes (the Spanish commander engaged in the conquest of Mexico) burned the ships that had carried his men. His soldiers now had no possibility of escape. They had to win or die. Hence the phrase, “burning your boats.”

    What these tactics have in common is the idea that sometimes you have to arrange that there is no way back, no line of retreat, no possibility of fear-induced escape. It is a radical strategy, undertaken when the stakes are high and when exceptional reserves of courage are necessary. That is the logic of the events in this week’s parsha that are otherwise hard to understand.

    Before they crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites were fearful. But once they had crossed the Sea, there was no way back.[2] To be sure, they still complained about water and food. But their ability to fight and defeat the Amalekites showed how profoundly they had changed. They had crossed the Rubicon. Their boats and bridges were burned. They looked only forwards, for there was no return.

    Rashbam makes a remarkable comment, connecting Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel to the episode in which Moses, returning to Egypt, is attacked by God (Ex. 4:24) and also linking this to Jonah on the stormy ship.[3] All three, he says, were overcome by fear at the danger or difficulty that confronted them, and each wanted to escape. Jacob’s angel, Moses’ encounter and the tempest that threatened to sink Jonah’s ship, were all ways in which Heaven cut off the line of retreat.

    Any great undertaking comes with fear. Often we fear failure. Sometimes we even fear success. Are we worthy of it? Can we sustain it? We long for the security of the familiar, the life we have known. We are afraid of the unknown, the uncharted territory. And the journey itself exposes our vulnerability. We have left home; we have not yet reached our destination. Rashbam was telling us that if we have these feelings we should not feel ashamed. Even the greatest people have felt fear. Courage is not fearlessness. It is, in the words of a well-known book title, feeling the fear but doing it anyway.

    Sometimes the only way to do this is to know that there is no way back. Franz Kafka in one of his aphorisms wrote, “Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.”[4] That is what crossing the Red Sea was for the Israelites, and why it was essential that they experienced it at an early stage in their journey. It marked the point of no return; the line of no retreat; the critical point at which they could only move forward.

    I believe that some of the greatest positive changes in our lives come when, having undertaken a challenge, we cross our own Red Sea and know that there is no way back. There is only a way forward.

    Then God gives us the strength to fight our battles and win.

    Shabbat Shalom

    [1] See the newly published volume, Exodus: The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel which includes maps, beautiful illustrations, detailed explanations, and my new translation of the Hebrew text.

    [2] This explanation does not work for the Midrashic view that the Israelites emerged from the sea on the same bank as they had entered. But this is, as far as I can tell, a minority view.

    [3] Rashbam, Commentary to Gen. 32:21-29.

    [4] Kafka, Notebooks, 16.

  12. Wendy

    From My Jewish Learning

    Song(s) of the Sea
    Miriam’s instinctive song of praise tells us something important about calling out to God.


    In Parashat Beshalach, we find two songs.

    The more well-known and elaborate of the two is known as Shirat Hayam (“The Song of the Sea”). Spanning 18 verses of the Torah (Exodus 15:1-15:18), this song has come to be identified with the Israelites expression of faith and their recognition of God’s role as protector and warrior.

    Shirat Hayam has become a focal point of our tradition and liturgy, included in our prayer books and recited each morning . The rabbis included the song in our prayer books to recited during the Pesukei D’Zimra (“Verses of Song”) section of our morning prayers. When we arrive at Shirat Hayam during the weekly reading of the Torah portion, we pay homage to it by standing and singing it with a special melody.

    The second song, shorter and less gallant, appears right after Shirat Hayam. In Exodus 15:20-21, we find these verses:

    Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
    The song of Miriam, recorded in one lone verse, speaks volumes. Some scholars claim that these two songs are one and the same. The 13th-century French scholar Hezekiah ben Manoah, better known as the Chizkuni, argues that since the Torah uses words sparingly, it did not repeat the entire song again, but merely alluded to the first line suggesting the rest to follow.

    But the two songs in fact serve different functions. Shirat Hayam is a record of events when the Israelites had full faith in God and trust in Moses their leader. Miriam’s song functions more like prayer, its words more akin to liturgy.

    First, consider the length: just one verse. In Eastern religions, one word or phrase can serve as a focal point of prayer. Reciting the word again and again, the worshipper can get lost in the experience of the sound. In the Hasidic tradition, this is how the niggun functions — the repetitive melody becomes a meditation, stirring the soul and captivating the heart. One can imagine the women as swirling colors, dancing on the shores of the sea, timbrels in hand, singing to God.

    Second, consider the structure. Miriam’s song has an urgency to it. Shirat Hayam begins Az yashir Moshe — then Moses will sing. But Miriam’s song is written in the present tense, in the plural imperative: Shiru ladonai, sing to God now. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:8) recognizes this, stating that when Israel emerged from the sea, the angels came to sing to God first. But God said, let my children sing first because they are of flesh and blood. They must sing now before they die. But you, as long as you desire, you remain alive and can sing. Miriam grabbed the moment.

    In Western culture, we don’t often experience this communal instinct to sing, but the opportunities are there — in exceptional worship experiences, or even at concerts when throngs of fans sing their favorite song together along with the artist. And at Jewish festivities, particular songs often spring to our lips. No one has to be asked to sing at a wedding or bar mitzvah. We do it instinctively in celebration.

    Finally, consider the instruments. The biblical commentator Rashi wonders where the women found these drums. Could it be that the Israelite women, rushing from their Egyptian homes in the middle of the night with only a few precious belongings and some matzah to eat, brought drums with them? Rashi quotes a Midrash to explain:

    With drums and dancing: “The righteous women of that generation were confident that God would do miracles for them; so they brought drums with them from Egypt.”
    We can surmise from this commitment to shlep the instruments from Egypt that music must have played a central role in ancient worship. And glancing through the Book of Psalms, it becomes clear that music was in fact a focal point of Israelite prayer. Psalm 92 reads: “A song for Shabbat: Sing to God with a ten stringed harp with a voice and lyre together.” Or Psalm 150: “Praise God with the blast of the horn/ with the violin and harp/ with timbrel and dance/ with lute and pipe/ with resounding cymbals/ with loud clashing cymbals.” In the ancient temple, the Levites would accompany the sacrificial offerings with singing and musical instruments.

    In our day, we don’t need a playbook to tell us to sing when we pray. It comes naturally. Melodies tether us to one another and to God. There is a mystical power in unbridled human song. It lifts the spirit and brings us to our feet, evoking the passion and celebration at the shores of the sea.

    May we take a page from Miriam’s song book by creating our own unique songs of praise to God. They don’t have to be long, just love notes from the heart. On whatever shores we find ourselves, may these songs bring us together in freedom, community and lasting peace.

  13. Wendy

    From Rabbi David Kasher

    THE THINGS WE CARRIED – Parshat Beshalach
    This is it. Time to go.

    The Exodus is actually happening. The plagues are over, the Pharaoh has relented. The Israelites are packed and ready, carrying everything they own on their backs.They have even stuffed Egyptian gold and silver into their bags, whatever they could grab.

    And now they are beginning to stream out, bursting open blood-stained doors, heading for the sea. Everyone running – old men, mothers with little children, tribal leaders…

    But in the midst of this torrent of bodies, all rushing out of Egypt, one man seems to be scrambling in the wrong direction. A closer look reveals this is not just any man, but their leader, Moses. Yet he is not, as we might expect, out leading the charge of the Exodus. Instead, he is busy, looking for something… looking… and then he finds it:

    Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had them swear, saying, “God will surely redeem you, and then you should carry my bones up from here with you.” (Exod. 13:18-19)

    וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. יט וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת-עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף, עִמּוֹ: כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹקים אֶתְכֶם, וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת-עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם.

    Joseph’s bones.

    It’s true – this is the last thing Joseph said before he died, at the very end of the Book of Genesis: Take my bones with you. (Gen. 50:25)

    But why make special mention of the bones now? And why is it Moses, of all people, who goes and gets them? Doesn’t he have better things to do at this particular moment? Shouldn’t he be leading the people out of Egypt? Surely they can find someone else to do the bone-carrying.

    Rashi, over in his commentary on the book of Proverbs (10:8), mentions this detail and sees it as a testament to Moses’ character:

    Our Teacher Moses, while the rest of Israel was busy looting Egypt, was attending to sacred obligations – as it says, “and Moses took the bones of Joseph…” (Exod. 13)

    משה רבינו שכל ישראל היו עוסקין בביזת מצרים והוא היה עוסק במצות שנאמר ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף וגו’ (שמות יג)

    Rashi is quoting from one of the most amazing rabbinic stories ever written, and we’re going to spend our time this week tracing through it. It appears in at least six collections of Midrash, with slight variations, but the version we’re going to quote appears in the Talmud (Sotah 13a). It starts off with these same praises of Moses, but the story is really more about how Moses found the bones to begin with. And the first part of that answer involves a mysterious old woman:

    How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? They say that Serah bat Asher was the only one who remained from that generation, and Moses went to ask her, “Do you have any idea where Joseph is buried?”

    ומנין היה יודע משה רבינו היכן יוסף קבור אמרו סרח בת אשר נשתיירה מאותו הדור הלך משה אצלה אמר לה כלום את יודעת היכן יוסף קבור

    Serah bat Asher is surely one of the most fascinating figures in rabbinic literature. She first appears back in the book of Genesis, in the list of Jacob’s family members who went down to Egypt – the only granddaughter mentioned. But then, in the book of Numbers, there is a census taken of all those who escaped Egypt, and Serah appears again, in the midst of a long list of names, with a separate verse all to herself:

    The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah. (Num. 26:46)

    וְשֵׁם בַּת-אָשֵׁר, שָׂרַח.

    That’s over two-hundred years later! So the rabbis do the math, and figure something supernatural is going on with this woman. Serah begins to take on the legend of an immortal. She never dies, and appears again and again in their stories at critical moments to deliver important messages. She was the one who first told Jacob that Joseph was still alive, singing the message to him gently, so that he wouldn’t have a heart-attack. She was the one who first confirmed that Moses’ prophecy was legitimate. She is even reported to have appeared to the rabbis themselves, over a thousand years later.

    So the first thing we learn about the search for Joseph’s bones that Moses had to consult a wise elder. Now what did she tell him?

    She said, “The Egyptians made a metal casket for him, and sunk it into the Nile, so that its waters would be blessed by him.”

    אמרה לו ארון של מתכת עשו לו מצרים וקבעוהו בנילוס הנהר כדי שיתברכו מימיו

    That sounds like bad news for Moses! The bones are encased in iron, at the bottom of the Nile. And there’s no time to spare. Moses will never get them out! So what did he do?

    Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and shouted out, “Joseph! Joseph! The time has come about which God swore, “I will redeem you.” And so it is time to fulfill the oath you imposed on Israel. If you will show yourself, well and good! If not, we are hereby released from your oath.

    הלך משה ועמד על שפת נילוס אמר לו יוסף יוסף הגיע העת שנשבע הקב”ה שאני גואל אתכם והגיעה השבועה שהשבעת את ישראל אם אתה מראה עצמך מוטב אם לאו הרי אנו מנוקין משבועתך

    Imagine the silence of the water, flowing along, the absurdity of Moses’ declaration, echoing through the air. Far away, in the background, is the rumbling of a slave revolution underway. And here stands the leader of that revolution, all alone, speaking his desperate demands into thin air.

    Moses, just go already! It’s hopeless! It’s okay, there’s no way to fulfill this dying wish, and it’s not that important anyway. There’s an entire nation that needs you now. Get out of here!

    Still, he stands there. And then… a great rumbling…

    And suddenly, Joseph’s casket shot up and floated to the top!

    מיד צף ארונו של יוסף

    And Moses grabbed it and ran. The oath would be fulfilled. Joseph was finally going to leave Egypt.

    It’s an incredible tale, full of magic and suspense. High drama, worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

    But still, we might ask: Why? What’s the big deal? Why does the Torah, and then the Talmud, go through all of this trouble to highlight the story of Joseph’s bones? What is so significant about them in the larger context of the Exodus story?

    The Talmud has a kind of answer, just a bit further on:

    All those years that Israel was in the desert, there were two arks – one with the dead body and one with the [tablets inscribed by the] Divine. They proceeded side by side. And passersby would ask, ‘What is in these things?’ And they would be told, ‘One has a dead body in it, and one has the Divine Presence hovering over it.’ And they would ask, ‘But is it right for the dead to proceed alongside the Divine Presence?!’ And they would be told, ‘This one, [Joseph], fulfilled everything written by this One – [God].”

    וכל אותן שנים שהיו ישראל במדבר היו שני ארונות הללו אחד של מת ואחד של שכינה מהלכין זה עם זה והיו עוברין ושבין אומרים מה טיבן של שני ארונות הללו אמרו אחד של מת ואחד של שכינה וכי מה דרכו של מת להלך עם שכינה אמרו קיים זה כל מה שכתוב בזה

    These aren’t just bones, the Talmud is saying. And Joseph isn’t just a dead body. Joseph led a life of righteousness which was the very embodiment of the Divine Will. So his bones are as sacred to us as the very Tablets of the Covenant.

    But more than that, this second ark is a reminder that death is as much a part of this story as is life. The purpose of the Exodus is to release the forces of life – the liberation that will allow former slaves to live fully in the world as free people. But this freedom has not been achieved without death along the way. The death of our ancestors. The death of those slaves who never made it out. The death of the children drowned in the Nile.

    So while we celebrate life, we honor death, and we never forget those who have come before us. They are as much a part of our story as we are.

    This is what Moses was modeling for the Children of Israel. While they were preparing to leave, looking forward into the future, Moses was looking backward, into their past. It’s not that Moses was so busy with his own personal obsession that he was too distracted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. This was his way of leading them. He showed the people not only where to go, but where they had been.

    For there is no future that does not emerge out of the past. There are no children without parents, and no parents without grandparents. There is no life without death.

    For all of Moses’ efforts, however, when Joseph’s bones finally make it into the ground, at the end of the Book of Joshua, Moses himself goes unmentioned:

    The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground that Jacob had purchased. (24:32)

    וְאֶת-עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר-הֶעֱלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם, קָבְרוּ בִשְׁכֶם, בְּחֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה יַעֲקֹב

    The Israelites brought them up?! What about Moses? He’s the one that brought them up. He’s the one that went to all the trouble to get them!

    But then, Moses never made it into the Land of Israel. He died before he could bury the bones. So it was the Israelites who actually completed the fulfillment of Joseph’s oath. And the Talmud reflects on this transfer as follows:

    When one person does something, but does not finish it, and another comes along and finishes it, that second person is described as having done it themselves.

    כל העושה דבר ולא גמרו ובא אחר וגמרו מעלה עליו הכתוב על שגמרו כאילו עשאו

    When Moses met his own death, the Children of Israel took the bones from him, and kept moving forward. And they buried those bones in land purchased by Jacob, Joseph’s father. Everyone played a part. Everyone carried their share of the journey.

    It is worth noting here that the word for “bones” in Hebrew, atzamot (עצמות), is spelled the same as the word for “essence,” atzmut. And the words are related – getting to the “essence” of something is like getting “down to the bone.” So was it really bones Moses took out of Egypt? Or was it Joseph’s essence he passed along?

    We took from Moses the essence of Joseph – which itself was infused with the essence of Jacob and Rachel, and the essence of Isaac and Rebecca, and the essence of Abraham and Sarah. And we took with us the essence of Moses as well. We carried all of them with us when we left. Inside of us. In our blood, in our bones.

    We are all walking around with the bones of Joseph. One day, we, too, will hand them over.

  14. Wendy

    From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    The Power of Ruach (Beshalach 5777)

    In September 2010, BBC, Reuters and other news agencies reported on a sensational scientific discovery. Researchers at US National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado have shown through computer simulation how the division of the red sea may have taken place.

    Using sophisticated modelling, they demonstrated how a strong east wind, blowing overnight, could have pushed water back at a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon. The water would have been guided into the two waterways, and a land bridge would have opened at the bend, allowing people to walk across the exposed mud flats. As soon as the wind died down, the waters would have rushed back in. As the leader of the project said when the report was published: “The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus.”

    So we now have scientific evidence to support the biblical account, though to be fair, a very similar case was made some years ago by Colin Humphreys, Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge University, and Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal Institution in London, in his book The Miracles of Exodus.

    To me, though, the real issue is what the biblical account actually is. Because it is just here that we have one of the most fascinating features of the way the Torah tells its stories. Here is the key passage:

    Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. (Ex. 14:21-22)

    The passage can be read two ways. The first is that what happened was a suspension of the laws of nature. It was a supernatural event. The waters stood, literally, like a wall.

    The second is that what happened was miraculous not because the laws of nature were suspended. To the contrary, as the computer simulation shows, the exposure of dry land at a particular point in the Red Sea was a natural outcome of the strong east wind. What made it miraculous is that it happened just there, just then, when the Israelites seemed trapped, unable to go forward because of the sea, unable to turn back because of the Egyptian army pursuing them.

    There is a significant difference between these two interpretations. The first appeals to our sense of wonder. How extraordinary that the laws of nature should be suspended to allow an escaping people to go free. It is a story to appeal to the imagination of a child.

    But the naturalistic explanation is wondrous at another level entirely. Here the Torah is using the device of irony. What made the Egyptians of the time of Ramses so formidable was the fact that they possessed the latest and most powerful form of military technology, the horse drawn chariot. It made them unbeatable in battle, and fearsome.

    What happens at the sea is poetic justice of the most exquisite kind. There is only one circumstance in which a group of people travelling by foot can escape a highly trained army of charioteers, namely when the route passes through a muddy sea bed. The people can walk across, but the chariot wheels get stuck in the mud. The Egyptian army can neither advance nor retreat. The wind drops. The water returns. The powerful are now powerless, while the powerless have made their way to freedom.

    This second narrative has a moral depth that the first does not; and it resonates with the message of the book of Psalms:

    His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,

    nor His delight in the legs of the warrior;

    the Lord delights in those who fear Him,

    who put their hope in His unfailing love. (Psalm 147:10-11)

    The elegantly simple way in which the division of the Red Sea is described in the Torah so that it can be read at two quite different levels, one as a supernatural miracle, the other as a moral tale about the limits of technology when it comes to the real strength of nations: that to me is what is most striking. It is a text quite deliberately written so that our understanding of it can deepen as we mature, and we are no longer so interested in the mechanics of miracles, and more interested in how freedom is won or lost.

    So it’s good to know how the division of the sea happened, but there remains a depth to the biblical story that can never be exhausted by computer simulations and other historical or scientific evidence, and depends instead on being sensitive to its deliberate and delicate ambiguity. Just as ruach, a physical wind, can part waters and expose land beneath, so ruach, the human spirit, can expose, beneath the surface of a story, a deeper meaning beneath.

  15. Wendy

    From AJR/CA

    “Planning for the Future with Confidence”
    By Dr. Joel Gereboff, AJRCA Professor of Bible and Rabbinics

    “Hear what the Lord is saying, ‘My people, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.’” (Micah 6:1-4)

    R, Yose b. R. Judah says, “Three good leaders had arisen for Israel—Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and for their sake three good things were given: the well, the clouds of glory and the manna. The first was given for the merits of Miriam, the second for those of Aaron, and the third for those of Moses.” (b. Ta. 9a)

    Although we generally think of Moses as the leader who brought the children of Israel out from Egypt, the above biblical and rabbinic statements appear to assign equal importance to the actions of all three siblings, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Here I would like to focus on the actions and character of Miriam for they reveal traits that we all should emulate.

    The story of the Exodus is framed by Miriam standing by the water. The Exodus commences with Moses’ sister standing near the reeds (suf) by the edge of the river to see what would become of her brother Moses who had been placed in the river in a basket, and the Exodus culminates with Miriam inviting the women of Israel to join her in a song of gratitude for the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds (yam suf).

    According to the narrative (Ex. 2:4-10), it would appear that Miriam in the scene by the river took the initiative to see what would become of her brother. The Torah does not state that she had been asked by her parents to undertake this task. Moreover, when she hears Pharaoh’s daughter who had opened the basket proclaim, “This must be a Hebrew child,” she leaps forward and suggests that she would go and fetch a Hebrew nursemaid to suckle the baby. And who does she bring? Her own and Moses’ mother. Miriam here displays leadership qualities of initiative and resourcefulness.

    When we next meet Miriam (Ex. 15:20), she has picked up a hand-drum and with all the women goes forth to dance and to sing a song of praise for their having been delivered at the sea. But let us compare how the Torah describes the actions of Moses and Miriam upon their having safely crossed through the sea.

    Moses is described as follows: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said, ‘I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously…’” (Ex. 15:1). The report about Miriam differs somewhat. It reads: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them, ’Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously…’” (Ex. 15:20-21). What strikes me is that while Moses and the men only use their voices to sing, thereby expressing their spirits, Miriam and the women offer a full- bodied celebration, singing and dancing. She and the women praise the Lord with their voices, their hands and their feet. As we would say, at the direction of Miriam, they put themselves fully into their actions.

    A final lesson can be gleaned from a question and a comment of the early rabbis, on the above text, that appears in the Midrash on Exodus, Mekhilta. The rabbis ask, “Where did the Israelite women get hand-drums in the wilderness?” They answer this question by claiming, “These righteous women were confident and knew that G-d would perform miracles and mighty deeds when they left Egypt, so they prepared hand-drums.” (Mekhilta Shira 10). Unlike the men who doubt Moses and G-d even before they cross through the Sea (Ex. 13:11-14) and continue to do so throughout the journey through the wilderness even after having been delivered from Egypt and from the Sea, Miriam and the women while already in Egypt were confident of G-d’s protection throughout their upcoming travels, and on their own took the initiative to plan ahead. They left Egypt with their hand-drums, and when Miriam leads them, they join with her in full bodied celebration.

    May we in the coming years have trust in G-d, confidence in ourselves, and take the initiative to be prepared and plan ahead as we journey forward in our lives.

  16. Wendy

    From Rabbi David Kasher

    THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY – Parshat Beshalach
    They all died that day. And, to be honest, we were happy about it.

    At first, it looked as if we were doomed. We had just fled from Egypt, after getting the word that Pharaoh had finally agreed to let us go. So we all raced out, in a hurried panic, with our packs on our backs, leading our animals into the desert, and dragging our children along behind us. And then someone turned around and saw, and shouted…

    The Egyptian army was coming after us. Pharaoh, that mercurial dictator, had changed his mind again. And now he and all his chariots were blazing towards us, swords in the air, ready to slaughter us all. And there ahead of us was the Red Sea. We could go no further. This was the end.

    And then our God did the impossible. The greatest miracle anyone has ever seen. He split the waters before us. They parted and formed two walls, and a pathway of dry land between them. And we walked right across.

    But of course, they followed after. And miracle or no, they would still overpower us. What did it matter if they killed us on this shore or on the other side? The splitting of the Red Sea, all that wonder and amazement, would be for nothing.

    But God had another surprise in store for them:

    The Lord said to Moses, “Hold your arm over the sea, so that the waters come back upon the Egyptians, their chariots, and their horsemen.” Moses held his arm over the sea, and at the break of day, the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled as it approached. But the Lord hurled the Egyptians into the sea. The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen – and of Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. (Exodus 14:26-29)

    Yes, they all died there, out in middle of the sea, just as we were walking out the other side. Legions of men and beasts, sunk down together in one mass, watery grave.

    And you know what we did? We sang. We sang a song of joy. That is the very next thing you read in the Torah, the famous Song of the Sea:

    Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed magnificently. Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (15:1)

    You hear that? We didn’t just sing of our own salvation. No, the very first thing we sung about was their death. Oh, and we celebrated it. The bastards – our slaveowners and torturers. They deserved to die. And good riddance! So we sang to our God, and thanked Him for killing them all.

    But then, you know, it turned out, He didn’t actually kill them all. He left one Egyptian alive. And you’ll never guess who.

    You remember we said that that the waters covered, “Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.” Well that phrase at the end there, “Not one of them remained,” in Hebrew, is ad echad (עד אחד), and could also mean until one of them remained – meaning, they were all drowned until He got to the very last person, who wasn’t killed. And who was that? The Da’at Zekinim, a medieval French commentary, has an answer:

    But one of them did remain. And that was Pharaoh!

    Pharoah? Of all the Egyptians, it was Pharaoh who made it out?! But he was the very worst of them! He was the one responsible for the whole mess in the first place. He was the one who enslaved us, and decreed our sons be drowned in the Nile. The one who mocked God, and refused to let us go. And he was the one leading the charge into the ocean, to kill us once and for all. And now he – he is the one who is saved?!

    The Da’at Zekenim are taking their cue here from an amazing midrash, in one of the classic works of the genre, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. The midrash tells us not only that Pharaoh was saved, but why:

    Rabbi Nehunia ben HaKana says: Know the power of repentance! Come and see it from Pharaoh, King of Egypt, who rebelled against the Highest Rock [our God] greatly … And then the Holy One saved him from amongst the dead. And from where do we know that he did not die? Because it said “I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. But I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and so that My fame shall resound throughout the world.” (Exod 9:16)

    The midrash is playing off that last verse, earlier in Exodus, where God says that He has spared Pharaoh from a plague of pestilence, and seems to suggest He is saving Pharaoh for some later purpose – something that will promote God’s fame throughout the world. So the Rabbis take the “sparing” here as an allusion to a later salvation, the saving of Pharaoh at the sea. So how will he then go on to spread God’s fame throughout the world? The midrash continues with an astounding suggestion:

    [Pharaoh] went and ruled in Nineveh. And the people of Nineveh would write works of profanity, steal from one another, engage in all kinds of perversity, and other such wicked things. And when the Holy One sent Jonah to deliver a prophecy to [Nineveh] about its destruction, Pharaoh heard and stood up from his throne and tore his clothes, and put on sackcloth and ashes, and announced to all his people that they should fast for three days – and that anyone who did not do it, would be burned in fire. (PdRE 43)

    This is is a remarkable proposition! The idea is that our Pharaoh here in Exodus is also the king in the Jonah story. He was plucked out of the Red Sea by divine fingers, just as he was about to drown, and teleported to Nineveh, to play a pivotal role in that drama.

    The Book of Jonah is probably best known for its protagonist being swallowed by a whale; but it is, more importantly, the tale of a reluctant prophet, sent to announce that God intends to destroy the city of Nineveh for their wickedness, and then that city’s mass repentance. And they turn themselves around so immediately, and so completely, that God is thoroughly impressed, and calls off the destruction. The example of that kind of unreserved atonement, and its capacity to save us from punishment, is the reason we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur.

    And in the story, as the midrash notes, it is indeed the king who leads the charge to repent:

    When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he had the word cried throughout Nineveh… “Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows? Maybe God will turn and relent! He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish!” (Jonah 3:6-9)

    Now if we imagine, with the midrash, that this king is actually the Pharaoh from Egypt, then these words take on a particular note of urgency. Because isn’t just speculating on the possibilities of repentance. He is remembering how he once refused to acknowledge his wrongs, and how, as a result, his own people died before his eyes, in the sea that day.

    Oh no, he thinks. It is happening again. I know this God and I know His power. We are in terrible trouble, and if I don’t do something quickly, the blood of these people will be on my hands as well. I have to warn them, to tell them what they’re up against.

    So he does, and it works. And in doing so, he has repented not just for the sins of Nineveh, but for his own sins back in Egypt.

    Now all this may sound rather far-fetched, but the brilliance of the midrash is that it fulfills the promise of the verse it quotes from Exodus: “I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and so that My fame shall resound throughout the world.” Who but Pharaoh knows the extent of God’s power? And now it is Pharaoh bringing the message of that power to far-flung lands throughout the world. Now we know why this is the one person God saved from the sea.

    But there is another question that this fantastic narrative merger helps us answer in the Book of Jonah. One of the great difficulties of the story is that Jonah doesn’t want to deliver the message to Nineveh. Not only does he try desperately to flee from his mission, but when he is finally forced to carry it out, and the people of Nineveh do repent and are saved, Jonah is furious!

    This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was angry. He prayed to the Lord, saying, “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled before to Tarshish. For I know that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please God, take my life, for I would rather die than live!” (Jonah 4:1-3)

    This reaction has baffled commentators throughout the ages. What kind of prophet is this? He doesn’t want people to repent?! He is angry at God for being compassionate? He wanted the people of Nineveh to die, and now that they will live, he’d rather die. The whole thing is appalling – but appalling in a way that makes no sense.

    Unless you imagine that Jonah knows that the King of Nineveh is Pharaoh. This is the man who enslaved Jonah’s people for hundreds of years. This is the mass murderer of Hebrew children. This is a man who was supposed to have died hundreds of years ago at the hands of a just and vengeful God.

    And now he is alive and well in Nineveh? He is ruling over a wicked kingdom once again. And yet God is giving him a chance to repent – a chance, even, to be the hero of the story.

    No. No, this is unacceptable. There is no repentance for Pharaoh. This monster had his chance to repent back in Egypt. And instead he spat in the face of God, again and again, because all he ever wanted was to kill more Israelites.

    What is God thinking? How could he have let Pharaoh live – and now repent, and be forgiven?! If this is a world where evil men are spared, Jonah thinks, then I don’t want to live in it.

    Now God does have an answer for Jonah, in last line of the book:

    Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand [children], who do not yet know right from left, and many animals as well! (4:11)

    God is asking Jonah to see the big picture. Yes, Pharaoh is alive, but he’s just a tool. He is one person, but he is being used to save hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are completely innocent. Of course Jonah is angry that Pharaoh, of all people, was spared at the Red Sea. Of course Jonah wants this perpetrator of genocide to finally get the death he deserves. But God cannot let personal vendettas – no matter how well-deserved – get in the way of the salvation of an entire city.

    That’s one explanation. But there is probably even more to it than that. For remember the first line of the midrash: Know the power of repentance! Pharaoh wasn’t just spared for his usefulness in some future catastrophe. Pharaoh was spared so that he could repent for his sins, and be forgiven. Because the truth is, God accepts repentance from everyone, and for any crime. God, as Jonah well knows, is all-merciful, a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.”

    And that is a spiritual truth that we, human beings, cannot always accept. There are sins we cannot forgive. Crimes so monstrous that we feel their debt can never be paid. Some people, we think, are just evil. Some people have lost their chance to atone.

    Jewish tradition holds otherwise – that repentance is always possible, for any sin and for any person – even for a Pharaoh. We, like Jonah, may never be able to fully embrace the magnitude of this principle. We’re only human, after all. But then, that was the point of casting Pharaoh into the Red Sea to begin with: to show the world that, in the end, human beings are not in charge – God is.

  17. Wendy

    From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

    Shabbat Parashat Beshallah

    By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,

    When Does Your Slavery End?

    Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
    Haftarah Reading: Judges 4:4 – 5:31

    Growing up in Israel meant that in my junior and senior years of high school “interfaith dialogue” translated into spending a few shabbats and holidays a year with a blended group of Israeli high – schoolers, who stood at every possible point on the “Jewish belief and observance spectrum.” These seminars were organized by Gesher, who saw (and continues to see) this form of dialogue as their mission. We believed that if we could learn together, and live together for these intense periods of time at Gesher’s dwelling in Tzfat, we would transform our country. While the Jewish identity of Israel continues to define and redefine itself, some of us, over thirty years later, are still walking together with deep love and conviction. It was there, in the midst of our intense ten day summer Midrasha / learning; introvert sixteen year – old Mimi, heard Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, (1905 – 1997) ROAR at us: “Do you think that the Ten Commandments came down at Sinai with Rashi’s commentary on the bottom of the Tablets??? (Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century French commentator on the Bible and Talmud) Keep your eyes on the top of the page and read the verses! Ask questions before you read the answers!” I confess, not only was “Nechama,” as she insisted everyone call her, a role model as a Torah scholar, divine teacher and modest woman of faith, she was also the most intimidating teacher of Torah that I ever had!

    It is for this reason that I always feel guilty reading Rashi’s commentary when I haven’t earned the depth of his perspective with the quality of work Nechama would’ve demanded of me prior to seeing “what does Rashi say…” Again, I confess, this is the case when looking at verse 15 of chapter 14: “God said to Moshe, “What [MAH] are you crying out to me – Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey!”

    To my defense I could claim that once you learn that the Chassidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810), teaches that what God is saying is “All you have to do is call out to me… even if you don’t know how to pray or what to say, it is enough if you call out “what / MAH” and I will answer you, you will not stay stuck where you are” I find it hard to silence that specific teaching and look at the verse as if I’m seeing it for the first time. So yes, shamefully I admit, I read the verse and without thinking looked to see what Rashi had to say on the words “let them journey”:

    “There is nothing for them to do but to travel, for the sea does not stand as a barrier before them.”

    You must agree with me that Rashi does not seem too reasonable at that moment… How can he say that the ocean is not a barrier – Looking at it, was it anything but where they would all drown, considering the Egyptians on their heels – How could Rashi not see the ocean as a barrier??? When all the Children of Israel saw with their eyes was the ocean, what option did they really have at that moment –

    Rashi then continues and quotes the Midrash: “The merit of their forefathers, and of themselves, and the faith they had in Me when they went out of Egypt are sufficient to split the sea for them.”

    Now I have something to work with. Rashi is teaching me that there are levels and stages in exiting Egypt and claiming freedom. Physical redemption is only the first step in this journey that God is calling us to embark on. Physically leaving Egypt will only take us to the shore of the sea, but will not split it! To transcend the physical quality of freedom we need so much more. We need to be open to see beyond what our physical eyes see! We need to be able to believe in what was impossible for us to hold on to for the centuries we were enslaved in Egypt.

    We need to be able to believe in the legacy that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs created for us, dreaming about us and our future. We need to believe in ourselves. We need to believe in our relationship with God. We need to believe that God loves us and is committed to us in a manner that transcends the one time act of physically setting us free from Egypt!

    The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic tradition (1700 – 1760) in a very famous teaching sees Mitzrayim / Egypt and Yisrael / Israel as manifestations of states of consciousness. Mitzrayim being a state of contracted consciousness (meitzar translates as a “strait”, a narrow place) and Yisrael (in Hebrew the word Yisrael in configured by two words “li rosh” that translates as “my head”) signifies expanded consciousness. Not geographic locations, but rather states of being; states that we find ourselves falling back into, and breaking free into them again and again.

    Often when my students ask me a question regarding my future I ask them what they are really asking. I challenge them by asking in return: “Why would you want to limit my future based on the limitations of my past, and the constraints of my current knowledge of myself and the information available to me?” I believe this is true for each and every one of us, when thinking about our futures, and where our lives can lead us.

    I believe that Rashi is challenging us to claim our lives in ways that we could not imagine it to be as long as we were enslaved – whether physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually or intellectually. Rashi is challenging us to acknowledge the multi-faceted manifestations of our life that enslave us and to claim our legacy, our sense of self and our belief and trust in God. It is only when we can do so are we free.

    I have heard it being said in the name of both (distinguishing between the living and the ‘living’) Natan Sheransky and Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) that only their bodies were incarcerated; their spirit was always free.

    God is telling Moshe: “…What [MAH] are you crying out to me – Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey!” God is telling Moshe to tell us that the physical exodus was only the beginning of the journey. There is a redemptive journey that each and every one needs to claim for themselves. I believe that this is what God was praying on our behalf when we reached the Sea of Reeds. I believe that God was praying: “Don’t stop here… journey on… claim all that is yours… don’t limit your eyes to what you see in front of you… only with your physical eyes is there an ocean that holds you back, but if you have faith in your heritage, in yourself and in our relationship then even this sea can split open on your behalf!”

    I truly believe that God holds us in this prayer every day of our lives, every time we feel stuck and enslaved to our thoughts, to our circumstances, to our vices.

    May we merit to walk through the forty nine gates of freedom with faith and trust. May we be strong enough not embrace freedom ourselves, but help those we find stumbling on the way as well.

    Shabbat shalom and may this Shabbat liberate us on all levels.

  18. Wendy

    From Rabbi Gershon Winkler

    The Challenging Power of Similitude
    A Teaching from Gershon…

    I want to share with you a very important, yet much-overlooked, layer of Jewish Life Wisdom. It’s about the overwhelming and all-pervading power of the inclination to define what we see or experience in accordance with how it seems or how it appears, rather than with what it actually is and is not. In the Hebraic vernacular we know this tendency as the Ko’ach Ha’Me’da’meh, literally: “The Force of Similitude.”

    What seems to be is not what is, and what is, is not necessarily what seems to be. A leaf, for example, appears to be just that, a leaf. But in essence it is a leaf only insofar as that is how you and I have come to know it, how you and I have come to define it, been acculturated, accustomed to recognizing it. The Ko’ach Ha’Me’da’meh tells us it is a leaf. But in fact, it is in essence not anything we are capable of fathoming, let alone defining. It is but a finite, physical embodiment of unfathomable mystery originating out of Nothing.

    The appearance of a thing is but a temporal, limited garment of what it actually is, and thus what it actually is cannot be truly fathomed by way of its appearance alone. This explains why some people ate the mysterious undefineable indescribable manna daily without a complaint while others grew tired of it after a while (Numbers 11:6). The former engaged the manna without attempting to define it, to label it, to get caught up in the Power of Similitude, and so it became for them infinite possibility and its flavor became whatever they happened to imagine in the moment, and thus filled with variety. But for those who asked man hu? – What is it? (Exodus 16:15) – for those who became preoccupied with trying to attribute definition to that which had none, to focus on the finite appearance of that which was in essence infinite, it just tasted and looked the same every time, and so they grew tired of it.

    This is the mystery of the Tree of Knowledge from which Adam and Eve ate. It wasn’t so much about them consuming the Forbidden Fruit as it was about the Forbidden Fruit consuming them. This explains the nature of the question God later asked them: “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11) – or, said differently: “Who or what informed you that there was even such a notion as ‘Naked,’ to begin with? Did you get caught up in the web of deceit of the Power of Similitude? Did you become entangled in the snare of what seems and lose sight of what is? Have you now become more conscious of temporal, finite appearances than of the infinite mysteries enrobed therein? Have you become so preoccupied with the appearance of the Tree that you’ve all but forgotten the mystery of its roots? And of its seed? And of the Earth in which its seed is enwombed? And of the Divine Intent that conjured the existence of the Earth out the incomprehensible No-Thing?

    So they walked for three days, our ancestors did, after crossing the Sea of Reeds, “and they did not find water” (Exodus 15:22). In other words, they were obviously looking for water, which is why they did not find water. I would have expected a narrative more like this: “And the people walked into the desert and they grew thirsty and water appeared for them.” After all, they had just emerged from a series of numerous miraculous events that had not only freed them from centuries of oppression and enslavement but had also flattened the once vast and almighty empire of Egypt and its god-like Pharaohs! They had just witnessed the miracle of receding waters and the emergence of dry land! They had seen things, the ancient rabbis tell us, which not even Ezekiel the Prophet got to see in his celestial vision of the Holy chariot, or Merkava! So, again, the ensuing narrative would then have been as follows: “And the people walked into the desert and they grew thirsty and water appeared for them.” Instead, we are told that they walked not one, not two, but three days into the desert, “and did not find water.” In other words, after witnessing firsthand all these miraculous happenings, they spent every one of those first three days in the desert looking for water, thrown right back into the clutches of the Force of Similitude. They fell right smack dab back from their encounter with the Infinite Mystery to the overwhelming power of the Temporal Finite – from what Is back to what Seems. This is why it took three days. Could God not have revealed to them a lake or a waterfall the first day? Why did it take three days? Because, their faith in the God of Miracles notwithstanding, they weren’t getting it yet. In other words, if their faith was solid and pure, they would not be looking for water, but would simply have the faith that it would be provided. This is why the water they finally got to on the third day was bitter and un-drinkable. Because their faith was flawed. It was a bitter faith of fear rather than a sweet one of love, as is written: “And the people feared God and they believed in God and in Moses his servant” (Exodus 14:31).

    Fearing God belongs to the proverbial Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, whose fruit introduced fear: “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid…” (Genesis 3:10). The Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge had overtaken Adam and Eve’s consciousness with the Ko’ach Ha’Me’da’meh, throwing them into a quandary of assumptions about things, a blind obeisance to the appearances of things. And so it appeared to them that they were now “naked” – something that never before existed (“And God said: “Who informed you that you were naked?”) – which in turn led them to assume that God was now upset with them since the voice that had warned them earlier not to eat of that tree now echoed loudly in their conscience – so loud, in fact, that they could not hear clearly the voice of God which now asked simply “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and instead, in their confusion, heard it as “Why are you hiding?”

    Thus, the beginning of Assumption and the consequence of Confusion that it brings. The story of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden is then not about the advent of Original Sin but of Original Guilt!

    It is no wonder, then, that when the Israelites arrived at the lake, at that refreshing sight of abundant water, it turned out to be bitter. They were searching for water, which is why they were unable to find any. Their faith in God had the appearance of magnanimous faith (as dramatized in their having gone three days without water absent any complaining or whining!), but in essence was inspired by their fear of God. Seeing that they were still thinking in Tree of Knowledge mode –and through the filters of assumptions and “fear of God” that it inspired — God gifted them with a branch of the Tree of Life, by which they might transform the bitterness to sweetness (Exodus 15:25), by which they might shift their sense of fear to one of love, their sense of assumption to one of mystery.

    Again, whatever a thing seems to be is not really all that it is. Even the greatest advances in Science cannot duplicate anything of Creation, not even so much as the single wing of a mosquito. They can graft, transplant, clone, synthesize, but they cannot create. They can only make things out of things that already exist, but cannot duplicate any being of Creation, because Creation was and is yesh mey’ayyin, “Something from out of Nothing.”

    Therefore, all that we see, all that we encounter does not in essence exist. Only the finite physical embodiment of it exists, but its essence is non-extant for it originates in and emanates from the Nothing. And it is only by way of the Power of Similitude that we are capable of accessing the experience of it. However, at the same time that the Power of Similitude enables us to access – however limited — the experience of that which is, it also renders us vulnerable to the deceit of appearance to the point where what seems overrides what is. And it is then that we, in turn, forget that even what is, in essence is not.

    This explains King Solomon’s baffling declaration of his bafflements: “Three are the things that baffle me, and four I know not – the way of an eagle in the skies, the way of a boat in the heart of the sea, and the way of snake slithering over rock. And the way of a man with a maiden.”

    None of these happenings puzzle me. It simply is what it is. But for Solomon the Wise, they are all baffling mysteries, unfathomable even by the wisest man on Earth. Because Solomon in his wisdom understood that nothing is what it appears to be. It is much more, and it is none of it. It is but a fleeting drama of the finite embodiment of infinite mystery, a momentary glimpse of Divine Thought revealing itself from behind the Veil of Illusion, a transitory burp of the Nothing in the impermanent form of the Something. It is God responding to Its own question of “Where are you?” with Hee’nay’nee – “I Am Here!”

    And not.

  19. Wendy

    From Melissa Carpenter

    Beshellach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire

    And God went before them; by day, a pillar of cloud to lead them down the road, and by night, a pillar of fire to give light for them, for walking by day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night will not withdraw from before the people. (Exodus/Shemot 13:21-22)

    And the messenger of God pulled out, the one going before the camp of Israel, and it went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud pulled out from before them, and it stood behind them. Thus it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and it was the cloud and the darkness, and it lit up the night, so that this did not come near to this, all the night. (Exodus/Shemot 14:19-20)

    And it was in the last night watch when God looked down on the camp of Egypt in a pillar of fire and cloud, and it put the camp of Egypt into an uproar. (Exodus/Shemot 14:24)

    amud = pillar, column, upright support; from the verb “to stand, to take a stand”

    Humans often hear God’s voice in the Torah, but there are only two verses where humans might be seeing God: when the elders climb Mount Sinai and behold God’s feet in Exodus 24:10, and when God lets Moses see his back in Exodus 33:23. The rest of the time, God becomes manifest through messengers (also called angels) who look like human beings; and through unnatural fires. Fires of God appear in a covenant with Abraham; in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later Korach; in Moses’ burning bush; on Mount Sinai; in the portable sanctuary or Tent of Meeting; and in the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites from the border of Egypt to the border of the promised land at the Jordan River.

    This pillar first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he sent out”). Pharaoh finally sends the Israelites out of Egypt, after the tenth plague. When they reach the edge of the wilderness, the Torah says God “went before them”, and it describes the pillar.

    The commentary is divided on whether there is one pillar or two. But if the pillar of cloud is replaced by a separate pillar of fire for the night, what does the changing of the guard look like? The Torah never describes it. And in the third quote translated above, the Torah says that at dawn God was in “a pillar of fire and cloud”, which sounds like one pillar containing both elements. So I picture one pillar that looks like a column of fog in the daylight, but as it gets dark, people see sparks of fire in the cloud, and at night only the fire is visible.

    The pillar of cloud and fire has several purposes. When the Israelites are traveling, rather than camping, the pillar is a guide showing them which way to go. It is also a reminder that God is with them—that God is “taking a stand” for them, and they must “take a stand” for their god.

    The pillar can only be divine. A whirlwind can form a temporary pillar of cloud, a bonfire can make a pillar of flame and sparks, and an erupting volcano can do both, but a continuously moving pillar of cloud and fire is a miracle.

    Furthermore, fire is already associated with the god of the Israelites, and it naturally inspires awe and fear. A cloud, on the other hand, is usually made of fog. In the desert, moisture is a welcome caress on the skin, a gentle gift, a reminder of God’s kindness. God’s kindness is confirmed later in the story by the fact that even after the Israelites do things that enrage both Moses and God, even after they make the Golden Calf, the pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead them.

    In this week’s Torah portion, the pillar of cloud and fire is not only a guide and a reminder of God’s presence, but also a protection from the Egyptian army when it pursues the Israelites and catches up with them at the Reed Sea. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, a 16th-century Italian commentator, wrote that the angel, the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire were three separate things, and the angel came down to direct the two pillars, which both circled around to stand behind the Israelites, between their camp and the camp of the Egyptian army.

    But since the word malach means both angel and messenger, I think the pillar of cloud and fire is God’s messenger. The message for both camps is that God stands up for the Israelites, protecting them from the Egyptians.

    Nevertheless, in the morning, when the Sea of Reeds splits and the pillar presumably moves along with the Israelites across the dry seabed, the Egyptians foolishly follow them. And once the Israelites are safe on the shore, God looks down from the pillar of cloud and fire, and puts the Egyptian army in an uproar by making their chariot wheels get stuck or fall off. Only then, when it is too late, do the Egyptians recognize that God is waging war on them, and decide to flee.

    It’s a replay of Pharaoh’s refusal to take the miraculous plagues seriously. No matter how visible the reminder of God’s presence in our world, people will ignore it if they are fixated on destroying something. When we are determined to solve a problem by eliminating it, we override any inner qualms, whether they appear as cloud, the heart-softening temptation of kindness, or as fire, the nagging fear that we are playing god or doing something wrong.

    But if we try to be holy people, metaphorically taking a stand with God, we can recognize both kindness and awe as manifestations of the divine, inspiring us to take the right path. We have a better chance of noticing when we are fixated on killing a problem. We can look around for other solutions, other ways of dealing with the problem, even other ways of working with problematic people.

    Instead of getting stuck in the muck and drowning, we can continue on our journey, guided by the pillar of cloud and fire within.

  20. Wendy

    From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
    On the Essence of Leadership

    Moses is Israel and Israel is Moses.… For the leader of the generation is as the entire generation, for the leader embodies them all

    Rashi, Numbers 21:21

    What is leadership?

    We expect our leaders to be wise: to be able to discern right from wrong and make the proper decisions on issues that affect our lives. To provide us with a vision of where we stand and where we are headed, and guide us toward the realization of our goals.

    We expect our leaders to be caring and committed: to empathize with our needs and aspirations and devote themselves to their fulfillment.

    We expect our leaders to be strong: calm and decisive in times of crisis, capable warriors and diplomats in the furtherance of our aims.

    We expect our leaders to be individuals of high moral character and integrity, bearers of an ethical standard for young and old to emulate.

    But the most important (and probably the most overlooked) function of the leader is to unite us: to knit diverse individuals into a single people and to inspire diverse–and often conflicting–wills to coalesce into a common destiny.

    A Chorus in Three Versions
    One of the first things we did together as a people was sing.

    The nation of Israel was born on the 15th of Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce)–the day that G-d “extracted a nation from the bowels of a nation,”[1] freeing the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Seven days later, the Israelites witnessed the destruction of their former enslavers when the Red Sea split, to allow them passage and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. The Torah relates how, upon beholding the great miracle,

    Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to G-d, saying:

    I shall sing to G-d for He is most exalted;
    Horse and rider He cast in the sea.
    G-d is my strength and song; He is my salvation
    This is my G-d, and I shall glorify[2] Him
    The G-d of my fathers, and I shall exalt Him…[3]

    This song, known as Shirat HaYam–“Song at the Sea,”–goes on to describe the great miracles that G-d performed for His people, G-d’s promise to bring them to the Holy Land and reveal His presence among them in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, and Israel’s goal to implement G-d’s eternal sovereignty in the world. Its forty-four verses express the gist of our relationship with G-d and our mission in life, and thus occupy a most important place in the Torah and in Jewish life.[4]

    Our sages also focus on the prefatory line to the Song at the Sea, in which the Torah introduces it as a song sung by “Moses and the children of Israel.” Moses was obviously one of the “children of Israel,” so the fact that the Torah singles him out implies that Moses took a leading role in the composition and delivery of this song. Indeed, the nature of Moses’ role is a point of much discussion by our sages: the Talmud[5] relates no fewer than three different opinions on exactly how Moses led his people in their song of praise and thanksgiving to G-d.

    According to Rabbi Akiva, it was Moses who composed and sang the Shirat HaYam, while the people of Israel merely responded to each verse with the refrain “I shall sing to G-d.” Moses sang, “For He is most exalted,” and they answered, “I shall sing to G-d”; Moses sang, “Horse and rider He cast in the sea,” and they answered, “I shall sing to G-d”; and so on with all forty-four verses of the song. Rabbi Eliezer, however, is of the opinion that the people repeated each verse after Moses: Moses sang, “I shall sing to G-d for He is most exalted,” and they repeated, “I shall sing to G-d for He is most exalted”; Moses sang “Horse and rider He cast in the sea,” and they repeated, “Horse and rider He cast in the sea,” and so on. A third opinion is that of Rabbi Nechemiah: according to him, Moses simply pronounced the opening words of the song, following which the people of Israel all sang the entire song together. In other words, each of them, on their own, composed the entire–and very same–forty-four verses![6]

    Submission, Identification…
    These three versions of how Moses led Israel in song express three different perspectives on unity, particularly the unity achieved when a people rally under the leadership of their leader. [7]

    Rabbi Akiva describes an ideal in which a people completely abnegate their individuality to the collective identity embodied by the leader. Moses alone sang the nation’s gratitude to G-d, their experience of redemption, and their vision of their future as G-d’s people. The people had nothing further to say as individuals, except to affirm their unanimous assent to what Moses was expressing.

    At first glance, this seems the ultimate in unity: more than two million[8] hearts and minds yielding to a single program and vision. Rabbi Eliezer, however, argues that this is but a superficial unity–an externally imposed unity of the moment, rather than an inner, enduring unity. When people set aside their own thoughts and feelings to accept what is dictated to them by a higher authority, they are united only in word and deed; their inner selves remain different and distinct. Such a unity is inevitably short-lived: sooner or later their intrinsic differences and counter-aims will assert themselves, and fissures will appear also in their unanimous exterior.

    Thus, says Rabbi Eliezer, if the people of Israel achieved true unity under the leadership of Moses at the Red Sea, then it must have happened this way: that the people of Israel repeated each verse that issued from Moses’ lips. Yes, they all submitted to the leadership of Moses and saw in him the embodiment of their collective will and goals, but they did not suffice with a “blind” affirmation of his articulation of Israel’s song. Rather, they repeated it after him, running it through the sieve of their own understanding and feelings, finding the roots for an identical declaration in their own personality and experience. Thus, the very same words assumed two million nuances of meaning, as they were absorbed by two million minds and articulated by two million mouths.

    This, maintains Rabbi Eliezer, is the ultimate unity. When each repeats the verses uttered by Moses on his own, relating to them in his individual way, the singular vision of Moses has penetrated each individual’s being, uniting them both in word and in essence.

    … and Unity
    Rabbi Nechemiah, however, is still not satisfied. If Israel repeated these verses after Moses, argues Rabbi Nechemiah, this would imply that their song did not stem from the very deepest part of themselves. For if the people were truly one with Moses and his articulation of the quintessence of Israel, why would they need to hear their song from his lips before they could sing it themselves?

    No, says Rabbi Nechemiah, the way it happened was that Moses pronounced the opening words of the song, following which each and every Jew, including “the infant at his mother’s breast and the fetus in the womb,”[9] sang the entire song themselves. Indeed, it was Moses who achieved the unity of Israel, as evidenced by the fact that their song could not begin until he sang its opening words. Were it not for his leadership, they could not have risen above the selfishness that mars the surface of every character. Had not the people of Israel abnegated their will to his, they could not have uncovered the singular core of their souls. But once they made that commitment, once they unequivocally responded to Moses’ opening words, each independently conceived and articulated the very same experience of the historic moment in which they stood.

    Each and every individual Jew, from the octogenarian sage to the unborn infant, expressed his deepest feelings and aspirations with the very same 187 words. For in Moses they had a leader in whom the soul of Israel was one.

    Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Beshalach, Shevat 11,[10] 5748 (January 30, 1988)[11]

  21. Wendy

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
    When Sent: Part One

    January 10th, 2011
    After the Sea of Reeds
    for the first time in a long time
    the Egyptians are no longer a threat.
    Ahead of us, the Wilderness,
    many hurdles to cross
    and on the way to the mountain –
    four more crises.


    Three days into the wilderness of Shur
    no water. [15:22 ff.]
    We came to Marah, cannot drink the water, bitter.
    Ma Nishteh — what do we drink?
    Moses turned around and cried out
    God showed him a piece of wood
    it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.
    Moses threw the piece of wood into the water
    and the water turned sweet.
    God reminded us
    I am Hashem, your healer –
    drink me.

    January 11th, 2011 For DF

    In the Shirah [song at the sea Ex.15:1ff.]
    There is more white fire than black fire
    More space than words
    In the black –

    In the white –

    More can be expressed that way.

    Words [on the other hand]
    Grow legs and
    Sprout wings,

    Launching off rooftops
    Carrying messages,

    Their little legs
    Running and returning.

    Set against this –
    Above our heads
    In the great emptiness


    Mourning into the spaces now –

    A song a
    Every poem a

    Launched by Birds and mice.

    And melodies –
    Making sense.

    jsg, usa

    When Sent part 4
    January 14th, 2011
    Last problem: Amalek.
    Ah, an enemy.
    Our problems are both inner and outer.
    The first, the Egyptians and the last, Amalek.
    We will come to wish all our problems were so outer.

    In the interior — ourselves, the water, the food, the attitude,
    we have met the inner enemy, it is us.
    Our problems are lucky to have us.
    Our devotion to them is endless.

    jsg, usa

  22. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
    ENOUGH 2011

    “And Moses said to them, ‘That is the bread which God has given you to eat. This is what God has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat.'” —Exodus 16:13

    It’s hard to trust that there will be enough.
    What if we run out of food
    and when it’s gone we go hungry
    unloved and unsatisfied?

    What if we haven’t learned everything
    and someone in the hospital asks for a prayer
    we don’t know by heart? What if
    we forget something that matters?

    But this is the promise: the manna
    never runs out, the wellspring of Torah
    never runs dry. Tomorrow
    our hills will again be graced with dew.

    Taste the sweetness of our teachers’ words
    like coriander seed, like wafers in honey.
    And the more we share this Torah
    the more there is to eat.

    Take what you need.
    Eat, and bless, and be satisfied.
    Trust that we can handle whatever’s coming.
    Manna lies all around. Open your eyes and see.

  23. Wendy

    From Rav DovBer Pinson

    Week’s Energy for Parshas Beshalach
    Rav DovBer Pinson

    Stepping Into Your Dream
    This week Torah reading opens with the people of Israel leaving Egypt,
    “It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go” (13:17)

    The Israelites leave Egypt in great haste, and then, unexpectantly, and anticlimactically come upon the raging waters of the sea. Being chased this final time by their oppressors and facing the waters of the raging sea, a spirit of hopelessness enters them and they cry out to the Creator of the universe.

    The message they receive is; “Why do you cry out to Me?…journey forward.” (14:15)

    The message is- the time for crying out is over. You have done your work, take a real step now towards your dream. When they do indeed take that first step forward into the raging sea, the sea miraculously parts and they begin their journey to the promised land.

    This is the fourth and final stage in obtaining freedom and redemption. Initially there is the need to reject your negative story, whatever it may be.
    Secondly, there is the need to believe in the possibility of change and accept the possibility of the miraculous.
    The third step is to actually visualize this new reality and creatively imagine ourselves already in that new state of being.
    Now comes the fourth, and crucial stage, taking initiative, making that first move. This is the actual leaving of “Egypt,” our own personal place of constriction. Even if faced with an obstacle that seems insurmountable, take the first step towards your destination and the ‘waters will part’, doors will open and the path towards your freedom will be paved for you.

    The Energy of the Week:
    Stepping into Your Dream
    This week’s energy is Action. This week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy to take the first step forward into our dream. We need to begin living our dream in actuality, as if it is already a reality and that creates the vessel for it to actualize.

    This forward movement mentality allows us to transcend seemingly insurmountable issues. Rather than looking for ways around the situation – take a step forward and go right through it.

    For example, if your dream is to be wealthy, take a first step towards that reality. If your dream is to have a child, take a forward step towards making it real. Part of this step is actually living as though the dream has already been actualized. Rather than thinking, “when i will be wealthy . . .,” think, “i am already wealthy . ..” Not, “if, or when i will get pregnant,” rather, “i need to take steps to be prepared for pregnancy, and having a child in my life.”

    Take that first step forward and watch your dreams become your reality.

  24. Wendy

    From Reb Zalman

    Moshe Rabbeinu: Regal Compassion, ObligationDancing and Sorting

    The following text by Reb Zalman is from this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Beshalach. (Click here for Hebrew/English version). [Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor]:

    “And Miriam answered them.” (Exodus 15:21).

    [NOTE: The traditional interpretation of this text is that Miriam and the women respond with another song. Here, Reb Zalman reads the Hebrew literally as a mamash answer to a question.]

    What question did she answer? It was the question: “How are they reaching for that inspired song and giving of thanks, for thanking Hashem regarding the miracle of the splitting of the waters?”

    Ah! The answer is spoken through the feet, in dance. (And working it through the dances, they can sort out much (Jeremiah 15:19) to bring forth “worthy, not worthless” words, for regarding the laws of Shabbos, ham’raked / one sifts through them.)

    [NOTE: A secondary meaning of reish-kuf-daled, רקד, to dance, is “to sift”. So we can sometimes dance out our prayers. And we can also dance with the laws of Shabbos as we sort things out.

    This emphasizes praying on all the levels, not just the intellectual one. The prayer will be raised to a higher place if the body is engaged. (Oy, there was some great praying at the last Aleph Kallah with Rabbis and dancers Diane Elliot, Shefa Gold, Julie Leavitt and Nadya Gross!)]

    Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
    from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
    “Parashat Shemot,” p. 32

  25. Wendy


    …Because they tested G-d, saying: “Is G-d among us, or not?” Then came Amalek, and waged war with Israel in Rephidim (17:7-8)

    After all that they had seen G-d do on their behalf — the Ten Plagues brought upon Egypt to free them, the splitting of the sea, the “bread from heaven” that descended each morning to nourish them — how could the people of Israel possibly question, “Is G-d amongst us or not”?

    But such is the nature of doubt. There is doubt that is based on a rational query. There is doubt that rises from the doubter’s subjective motives and desires. But then there is doubt pure and simple: doubt that neutralizes the most compelling evidence and the most inspiring experience with nothing more than a cynical shrug.

    Amalek is the essence of doubt, of irrational challenge to truth. (Thus the Hebrew word Amalek has a numerical value of 240 — the same as the word safek, “doubt”). Because the people of Israel had succumbed to the Amalek within their own souls, they became vulnerable to attack by Amalek the nation.

    (The Chassidic Masters)

  26. Wendy

    From Rabbi Jonathan Case

    Leaving Egypt was no simple task. They were leaving the home they had known their entire life. It was also the place where their families had existed for hundreds of years. Now they were being cast out. Everything familiar was to be left behind. Understandably, the people were frightened. Time and again they queried their leader, How will we survive?

    To those who said, “Let us cast ourselves into the sea,” Moses responded, “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of God.” To those people who said, “Let us return to Egypt,” Moses answered, “You have seen Egypt this day; you shall not see them again forever.” To those who said, “Let us wage war against them,” Moses said, “God shall fight for you.” And to those who said, “Let us cry out to God,” he said: “And you shall be silent.” Mechilta

    To those who said, “Let us cast ourselves into the sea,” Moses responded, “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of God.”
    It is easy to give up. Saying that life is too painful is simple. Losing one’s employment, becoming addicted, losing a love, death and rejection are all components of a lifetime that repeat. We experience these events many times over. It would be too easy to surrender to those opposing forces and give up.
    Moses tells us: You are not alone. There is an Ultimate Master of All that cares intensely about you. Do not give up. God will not turn His Face from you.

    To those people who said, “Let us return to Egypt,” Moses answered, “You have seen Egypt this day; you shall not see them again forever.”
    Even pain has a purpose. Hidden deep in the folds of our anguish are seeds of opportunity. There is no pain that does not open up a possibility that would otherwise remain closed. That is not to say that we should welcome pain. Yet, when it comes to our door do not move backward toward the restrictive Egypt that once held us in its vise-like grip. Since we cannot change what has already happened use the experience as a tool for growth.

    To those who said, “Let us wage war against them,” Moses said, “God shall fight for you.”
    Do not lose sight of your morals. At all costs, do not lose your integrity. It is what makes you a holy vessel. Remain true to yourself; remain true to your God. Perhaps the greatest victory of evil would be to claim their victim as their own.

    And to those who said, “Let us cry out to God,” he said: “And you shall be silent.”
    As Psalms indicates, Leckha dumyah tehilla “to You silence is praise.” 1 Sometimes a wellspring of strength emerges from the darkness in the form of quiet. In the maelstrom of pain, when the tears have subsided, it is time to sit silently with God. From that place may issue the strongest prayer ever uttered.

  27. Wendy


    Kehot Chumash
    Chassidic Insights for Parshah Beshalach

    From the Lubavitcher Rebbe

    [15] Speak to the Israelites and let them journey forth: According to the Midrash,29 the sea had not yet split when God told the Jews to enter it. The people hesitated, until the prince of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav (Aaron’s brother-in-law) jumped in. Only then did God tell Moses to raise his hand and split the sea.

    Nachshon knew that God had instructed the people to travel to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He was therefore singularly unimpressed with the obstacles that stood in the way. The fact that a sea stood between the people and their final goal did not faze him. If he had to jump into the sea and keep going until he would reach Mount Sinai, so be it.

    Nachshon did not enter into any of the discussions mentioned above, nor was he impressed with any of the four factions’ plans, since none of them led to Mount Sinai. He did what was to him the only logical thing: to jump into the sea and move one step closer to Mount Sinai. In his merit, the sea split.30

    [15-16] Let them journey forth…take up your staff and raise your arm over the sea: The splitting of the Sea of Reeds is generally viewed as the archetype of a miraculous and supernatural event. Yet even in this case, there had to be a natural action to catalyze the miracle: God instructed the people to journey forward and Moses to lift his staff over the water. God always demands some human act first and only then does He perform miracles.

    Simply stated, this is because events that occur without our involvement do not truly affect us; we may adjust to the changes, but we are not internally affected. Only when we expend some effort do we truly appreciate and assimilate the miracle.

    The same applies in all areas of life. Asking for God’s blessings is not sufficient; we must do something that can serve as a conduit for the blessing. Whether it is a visit to the doctor or performing an extra good deed, the blessing requires an expenditure of effort on our part.31

    [20] There was cloud and darkness, but [the pillar of fire] lit up the night: The literal translation of the verse is: “there was cloud and darkness and it [i.e., the cloud and darkness] lit up the night,” implying that the darkness itself became a source of illumination.32 This revelation was a precursor to the Splitting of the Sea, where the concealment of the sea would also be “peeled back” to disclose the great treasures hidden within.

    Darkness—the apparent absence of Divine revelation and clarity—is only such from our limited perspective. From God’s perspective, “Darkness does not obscure anything for You; night is as bright as day, and darkness as light.”33 Darkness is a challenge we are meant to overcome and thereby reap the benefits that are to be had by overcoming it.

    We can approach this challenge in two ways. One is to repel the darkness by taking whatever light we do have and forging ahead with it. Ignoring the darkness and focusing on the light will dispel the darkness, even if the darkness is seemingly much greater than the little light we possess. This strategy is certainly better than succumbing to the depression and despair of darkness, and will even suffice, in most cases, to carry us through the dark periods of life.

    But the ultimate objective is not merely to dispel the darkness but to transform it into light by turning its negativity into a positive force in our lives. When we succeed in this, the resultant light is infinitely brighter than the light that was shining as such all along.34

    [21] And God drove back the sea with a powerful east wind throughout the night: In other words, God had to keep the wind constantly blowing in order to keep the walls of water erect. Had God let the wind stop, these walls would have collapsed and the sea would have reverted to its natural level.

    When God created the world, He also acted against the “natural” state of things: He created existence out of non-existence. Analogous to the Splitting of the Sea, God has to keep His creative force constantly “blowing” into reality in order to keep it from reverting back to its original, default state of non-existence. Reality is therefore not something that exists on its own, nor is it even something that exists by virtue of the property of existence with which God imbued it when He first created it. It exists solely because God is actively and continuously infusing it with His creative force.

    The implications of this truth are both profound and far-reaching. If God is constantly recreating the world, then the world right now is, in a very real sense, an entirely different one than the world that existed a moment ago. It is a fresh, new world, and we are brand new people, not necessarily straitjacketed by any cause-and-effect relationship with the past. We have complete freedom to choose between good and evil at any given moment, unencumbered by precedent or habit.35

    [22] On dry land: It is related in the Midrash that God caused fruit trees to instantaneously grow in the middle of the sea and bear fruit; the children plucked the fruit of these trees and fed them to the birds, which then joined the Jews in their song of praise to God. Although God is generally loath to tamper with nature, He caused trees to grow miraculously to teach the fledgling Jewish nation an important lesson: whenever there is an opportunity to utilize some part of creation in fulfilling God’s purpose, it should be taken advantage of. Thus God caused the seabed—which for the brief time during the Jew’s passage was capable of producing trees—to give forth fruit. These fruits in turn enhanced the people’s song to their Creator. The miraculous trees teach us that even the most fleeting opportunity can and should be used to a Godly end.40


    On a deeper level, God caused fruit trees to grow and bear fruit because this was an integral part of the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. The Splitting of the Sea was the revelation of reality’s hidden side, its potential to express the Divinity pulsing within it. This revelation had to occur at all levels of creation: in the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, as well as in humanity.

    The earth possesses the potential to sustain plant life, so when the sea split, the earth manifested this potential. Plant life has the potential to sustain animal life, so the trees that sprouted from the seabed bore fruit. Animal life has the potential to sustain and enhance human life, so the birds ate from the miraculously-produced fruit and thus were enabled to join the Jews in the Song at the Sea.

    As we will explain shortly,41 the sea would not have split unless the Jews first revealed their hidden Divine potential; the seabed revealed its potential to produce fruit-bearing trees because the people revealed their inner Divine potential.

    Similarly, when we repeat the experience of the Splitting of the Sea in our daily lives by revealing our hidden Divine potential, we affect the very fabric of reality. Since we are still in exile, we do not always see the effects of our actions, but eventually, when the unseen changes in reality reach a critical mass, they will usher in the messianic redemption. Then, even the inanimate kingdom will openly reveal its hidden, Divine potential.42

  28. Wendy

    From Rav DovBer Pinson

    To transition from one reality into the next we need to go through an intermediary stage, an impass, where we are no longer the old, but not yet the new. Between one Yesh/existence and another Yesh there is an Ayin/Emptiness/nothingness, transcendence in the middle. Going out of Egypt, removing the mentality of slaver…y and emerge a free people the people of Israel needed to go through the -split- sea

  29. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
    Reading the song and singing our own
    Here’s what I wrote about this week’s parsha in 2006 for the now-defunct Radical Torah.

    Shirat Ha-Yam is both visually and verbally breathtaking. Some compare it to brickwork, seeing in its shape the patterns of stone on stone that suggest how Torah can be foundational. Others consider it to evoke the ocean crossing, with ragged waves drawing back on both sides and a column of Israelites in the middle.

    From the Jerusalem Talmud comes the metaphor that Torah is written in black fire on white fire. Some modern-day midrashists suggest that the text’s missing stories exist for us to extrapolate from the white fire, the spaces between the visible words. If that’s so, then this poem is redolent with untold stories — or maybe the spaces in the text are openings for our own words of praise. Before we get to the white spaces, though, the black text is worth exploring.

    The Song of the Sea bedazzles with metaphors for God’s military might:

    In Your great triumph You break Your opponents;
    You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.
    At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up,
    The floods stood straight like a wall,
    The deeps froze in the heart of the sea…

    God’s fury here is fire, and wind, and ice — three of the strongest forces the natural world offers. The metaphors overpower the poem’s narrative. Yes, the Song of the Sea reminds us of the story we’ve just read, but here the imagery takes precedence over the retelling. Read it once as poetry, and notice how the words roll like waves.

    And then read it again as an expression of theology. Shirat ha-Yam teaches us that the appropriate response to survival is song. That he who seeks to conquer may himself be conquered, and that we have God to thank for our continued existence. That God is great, worthy of the finest words we can offer.

    Three-quarters of the way through, we hear a new strain of melody. The inhabitants of other nations, the poem tells us, quake in fear at what our God has done to the Egyptians:

    The peoples hear, they tremble;
    Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.
    Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;
    The tribes of Moab — trembling grips them;
    All the dewllers in Canaan are aghast.
    Terror and dread descend upon them;
    Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone —
    Till your people cross over, O Lord,
    Till your people cross whom You have ransomed.
    You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain…

    I’m not entirely comfortable with the language of fear here. Awe is fitting, but the kind of fear I see in the Song of the Sea goes beyond that. The poem depicts entire communities cringing from the anticipated blow — a gorgeous use of hyperbole, but also suggestive of a relationship with God that troubles me. I don’t want my God to be revered out of fear.

    The notion that our God is mightier than any other god in the neighborhood, and will smack down anyone who crosses us, may feel antiquated to contemporary liberal Jews. It’s theologically problematic for those of us who hold that though different peoples may choose different faces for our ascent, we’re climbing the same mountain. If our God isn’t just “ours,” this kind of singular bodyguard relationship doesn’t make sense. What’s more, history calls it into question. The seas don’t part in today’s world, no matter how much we need them to.

    But the last three lines of that excerpt change its tone. Once the Israelites finish their wanderings, the tenor of the song shifts. We may be approaching our desert wanderings with bravado, Hashem flanking our rag-tag mixed multitude, but once we cross over the need to instill fear evaporates. We need protection in the interim place between where we came from and where we’re going, but once we get there, we can relinquish that metaphor for God — and that mode of interaction with the other nations around us.

    What does it mean to be planted on God’s holy mountain, as the song predicts? Though the last lines clearly imply the building of the Temple, I want to suggest an alternate reading. The Exodus was never merely an escape from; it was also, and more importantly, a journey toward. Toward freedom, toward wholeness, and toward the responsibility implied by the covenant we formed when Torah was revealed at Sinai. Maybe this too is what it means to be planted in God’s holy mountain: the way we, individually and collectively, root our Jewish identity in the text we received at the foot of Sinai.

    A text which includes both black fire and white fire, words and the spaces around them. Shirat Ha-Yam is a praise-song from a particular place and time. In the white spaces that surround the written words, we can sing our own songs of praise, our own shout-outs to the ineffable One Who breathes us into new lives, new journeys, new iterations.

    Reflect on your life, and imagine a moment of profound liberation and rejoicing. Think of a time when you were–or, perhaps, a time when you hope to be–free from a Mitzrayim, a narrow-place which constrains you. What images would you use to express your joy at that liberation? What words make up your Song of the Sea, your song of jubilation to God today? What new song can we sing to God together when we reach this year’s Shabbat of Song?

  30. Wendy

    From Rav Kook

    Beshalach: The Proper Time to Light

    It is customary in Jewish communities around the world to light Sabbath candles 18 minutes before sundown (except Jerusalem, where they are lit 40 minutes before). The Talmud [Shabbat 23b] records a dialogue between 5th century scholar Rabbi Yosef and his wife regarding the correct time to light.

    Not Too Early, Not Too Late

    When Rabbi Yosef saw his wife lighting just before sundown, he gently rebuked her, explaining that the candles should be lit earlier, while it is still light outside. He compared the Sabbath lights to the pillar of fire that led the Israelites during their travels in the desert.

    “The Torah states: ‘The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never left their place in front of the people’ [Ex. 13:22]. This teaches that the cloud-pillar would complete the task of the fire-pillar, and visa-versa.”

    In other words, the cloud-pillar would appear shortly before the start of day, while the fire-pillar would appear shortly before the night. So too, we should light Sabbath candles before the start of night.

    Upon hearing this, the rabbi’s wife wanted to light much earlier Friday afternoon. But an elderly scholar instructed her that one should light “not too early and not too late.”

    This account requires clarification. What is the connection between pillars of fire and Sabbath candles? Why must one light not too early nor too late?

    Fire and Cloud

    The pillars of fire and cloud provided a visual focus for the Israelites in their travels across the vast desert. Superficially, it would seem that the fire and the cloud pillars were completely disconnected, serving diametric functions. The fire gave light, while the cloud blocked the light and gave shade. In fact, they were related phenomena, both providing a continual point of reference for the people. As Rabbi Yosef taught, each one completed the work of the other. This complementary relationship expressed itself in the fact that, as the day waned, the fire-pillar already began to appear. And as the night neared its end, the cloud-pillar would become visible.

    Similarly, Sabbath lights are a focal point of the inner peace, holiness, and enlightenment that flow from the sanctity of the Sabbath. Like the pillars of fire and cloud, here too we have two opposites – the Sabbath and the days of week. And like the pillars, they too share an inner connection. The enlightenment of Shabbat should not be confined to 24 hours, but should benefit the entire week. By lighting the Sabbath candles while it is still weekday, we demonstrate that the Sabbath light casts its spiritual radiance over the other days of the week.

    However, lighting too early is also inappropriate. The weekday has its own function and purpose. Without the six days of activity, the spiritual rest of the Sabbath would not be fully experienced. Just as a white piece of paper stands out more clearly when contrasted against a black background, so too the blessings of Shabbat are more vivid against the background of the six days of work.

    Exile and Redemption

    The final redemption is described as a time that is “completely Shabbat.” Yet it too has its polar opposite – the period of exile. Each is required in its own time. Were the redemption to come before its time, we would be unprepared for it, and blinded by its brilliant light. As Rabbi Yosef taught, the light needs to be lit at the proper time. Not too early, not too late.

    [adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 77]

    Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison

    Beshalach: Two Levels of Love

    When the Israelites saw that they had been rescued from Pharaoh’s army at the sea, they sang out with gratitude:

    “This is my God, and I will enshrine Him; My father’s God, I will exalt Him.” [Ex. 15:2]

    Is the repetition in this line from “Shirat Hayam” (the ‘Song at the Sea’) merely poetic? Or is there a deeper significance to the two halves of the verse?

    Although not apparent in translation, the verse uses two different names of God. The first half of the verse uses the name El, while the second half uses Elokim. What is the significance of each name? How do they specifically relate to the desire to ‘enshrine’ and ‘exalt’ God?

    Innate and Contemplative Love

    The song, Rav Kook explained, refers to two types of love for God. The first is an innate love and appreciation for God as our Creator and Provider. God, the Source of all life, sustains us every moment of our lives. All things are inherently drawn to their source, and this love for God comes naturally, like the innate feelings of love and respect for one’s parents.

    This natural love of God corresponds to the Divine name El. The word El is in the singular, reflecting an appreciation for God as the only true power and the ultimate reality of the universe.

    A second, higher form of love for God is acquired through thoughtful contemplation of God’s rule of the universe. As we uncover God’s guiding hand in history, and recognize the underlying Divine providence in the world, we experience this higher, contemplative love. This love corresponds to the name Elokim – in the plural – referring to the myriad causes and forces that God utilizes to govern the universe.

    Enshrining and Exalting

    These two types of love differ in their constancy. The natural love of God as our Creator should be a constant and unwavering emotion, like love and respect for one’s parents. But the elevated love, the product of contemplation and introspection, is nearly impossible to sustain continually, due to life’s many distractions.

    Regarding the innate love of God, the verse speaks of enshrining God. With this natural emotion, we can create a permanent place – an emotional shrine – for God in our hearts. “This is my God, and I will enshrine Him.”

    The higher, contemplative love, on the other hand, does not benefit from this level of constancy. One should always strive for an ever-deeper appreciation and awe of God. This is our spiritual goal, achieved by utilizing our faculties of wisdom and insight. Regarding this form of love, it is appropriate to speak about exalting God, indicating an emotion that is the product of concentrated effort. “My father’s God, I will exalt Him.”

    [adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 235]

    Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison

  31. Wendy

    From Rabbi Shefa Gold

    ~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~


    (When He Sent)

    Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

    The Israelites cross the Red Sea and celebrate with song and dance. They are sent on their journey and given manna for sustenance which appears daily. If one takes more than he can consume that day, it rots and turns wormy. The Israelites receive Shabbat. They start complaining.


    IN BESHALLACH WE ARE SENT on a journey of purification. The path seems impossibly circuitous, doubling back on itself, spiraling around and through every place of darkness within us – untangling the residual knots of our enslavement. We must take with us the bones of Joseph.1 The Hebrew word for bones also means “essence.” As we journey forth we carry the essence of our lineage, the bare bones of wisdom which we will flesh out with our own experience.
    Our blessing is the wilderness, the landscape that will allow us to recreate ourselves in the image of freedom! The journey will call forth all of our strength and reveal every flaw. This is the kind of blessing that Ram Dass calls, “Fierce Grace.” It begins in miracle as we walk on dry land in the midst of the sea.
    Thus every spiritual journey begins. In the midst of the turbulence of this world, and in spite of our fear, we somehow find the courage to take one loving focused step and then another, with each step finding our footing on a path that only reveals itself step by step. But we DO it! We don’t let the fear stop us. We cross into the wilderness leaving behind the safety of slavery – a life of conditioned response.

    WE CELEBRATE THE MIRACLE of this crossing with a song and a dance that become the force of “sending” (beshallach). The power of the song and the magic of the dance propel us into the wilderness. The song lays out a formula for Salvation. My strength, “Ozi,” and the Song of God, “ve-zimratYah,” will be my salvation.2 The blessing of Beshallach comes in the balance of these two aspects.
    Ozi is the force of will that I bring to this crossing – the place inside me that desires freedom and truth, and will do anything for its attainment. Ve-zimratYah is the part of me that knows how to surrender, that opens to the rhythm and melody of God’s Song and gives itself unconditionally to “what is.” The blessing comes in the balance of will and surrender.
    With too much will, I isolate myself from the flow of Divine Grace that moves the world. With too much surrender, I become passive and abdicate my responsibility for full partnership with God in the work of Liberation. Too much will or surrender, and I might have drowned in the sea. In the marriage of my strength of will and a surrender to the God-song, the sea of confusion splits open and the dry land appears beneath my feet.

    THIS INTERNAL BALANCE of will and surrender comes to us slowly through practice and by learning from our mistakes. The blessing of Manna and the blessing of Shabbat are given to us as practices we can use to perfect this balancing.
    Manna is the miraculous sustenance that is given to us each day. I may only gather what I can eat this day. If the force of my will grows too strong, it feeds my ambition and I will try to gather more than I can use. I will want to have enough manna for a week, a year, a lifetime, and from the will’s point of view I can never have enough.
    When I follow the impulse of ego-driven or fear-based will, all the surplus manna that I have gathered will rot. And so I must learn to gather only what this moment requires. Realizing that ultimately, I am not the one in charge, I surrender in faith to the taste of this day’s bounty. (The Midrash tells us that manna tasted different to each person.)
    The will is required in order to gather in sustenance and distribute it justly in our world. That force of will in us must be continually strengthened and refined. And on the sixth day we gather in a double portion in preparation for Shabbat, the day of surrender. The blessing of Shabbat is given to us as a practice of re-balancing and of integrating the gifts that we have been given.


    AFTER THE MIRACLE OF OUR CROSSING, we journey for three days into the wilderness and our thirst begins to plague us. The waters that we find here are bitter. Our resistance to stepping into the void disguises itself as complaining and rebellion. We are tasting the bitter waters that have accumulated inside us during the years of slavery. This is the place in us that is in the most need of healing and purification.

    DURING THE COURSE of a week-long retreat, it takes about three days for “normal” consciousness to drop away, for the cluttered mind to begin to clear, for the body to release its rigid posturing. Then I am confronted with whatever bitterness that has accumulated inside me.
    That bitterness might be projected on outer circumstance. “The food is terrible.” “My bed is too soft.” “My back hurts.” “The teacher isn’t very clear.” “Perhaps this isn’t my practice after all.” “I’ll never do it right.” “I should just go back home, this isn’t for me.”
    Beshallach sends us to our own bitterness that we might be healed. In order for this healing to occur, we must acknowledge the bitter murmurings and compassionately yet firmly set them aside, making room for Moses, our capacity for wisdom, to act. God shows him a tree, which Moses then throws into the bitter waters, rendering them sweet. The spiritual challenge of Beshallach is the sweetening of our own bitter waters. If those waters are not sweetened, they will poison us, and sell us back into slavery. (“I’m going back home, this isn’t right for me.”)

    THE TREE THAT MOSES USES to sweeten the waters is the Tree of Life. Whatever bitterness we carry (difficult memories, regrets, grudges, or disappointments), will be transformed when touched by this tree. So what does it mean to cast the Tree of Life into our pool of bitterness?
    The Tree of Life has its roots in Heaven and its branches spread out into our lives. It is the bridge connecting the infinite mystery with this finite seemingly imperfect world. When I take hold of that tree, I am touching the truth of my connection to the Source of all Life. In touching that tree I connect myself with all of Creation.
    When I can grasp that perspective, I can understand that my small pool of bitterness is only a drop in the ocean of the great being that we are together. My fixation on that small drop is what makes the water seem bitter to me. As the Tree of Life expands my perception, the spiritual challenge is to let go of the drop and become an ocean, vast and sweet. This is the healing that God-consciousness brings. “I am YHVH who heals you” – from the disease of feeling separate and abandoned.

    1 Exodus 13:19

    2 Exodus 15:2

    3 See Spirit Buddies by Rabbi Shefa Gold. for an explanation of this aspect of the practice.

    For Guidelines for Practice please click on link below to website

  32. Wendy

    From Rabbi Jill Hammer The Jewish Book of Days

    The Tree of Marah

    The Torah portions of this season tell of the Exodus, in preparation for the spring re-enactment of freedom from slavery. In one story, the Israelites come to a bitter spring called Marah. They are thirsty, but the water is impossible to drink. Moses cries out to the Eternal, and the Eternal shows him a tree. Moses throws a branch of the tree into the water and the water becomes sweet.

    The sages argue about what kind of tree has such healing power. They do agree that the tree had bitter wood. IT was not the inherent sweetness of the tree but the Holy One’s intervention that made the tree able to turn water sweet.

    This story too is reminiscent of sap. The sap of the tree is sweet, not because of the taste of the wood itself, but because the tree is able to make sugar from the light it receives from its leaves. So too in Shevat the Holy One teaches us that only when we allow ourselves to take in the light can we bring sweetness to the world.

    The Trees of Elim

    After the Israelites leave Egypt, they come to a mysterious place know as Elim. Elim has 12 springs of water, one for each tribe of Israel, and 70 palm trees, one for each of the elders of the people. The water and the trees are connected: Both symbolize the life force, that the Israelites experience now that they are free. They also represent Torah: Trees and water are both common metaphors for sacred text. Elim represents a community gathered around a common purpose, just as trees in the desert gather around a water source to grow.

    This is the season of earth within air, and the fragrant trees of Elim remind us how the scent of trees can carry in the wind. Perhaps this sent greets the Israelites as they approach the oasis. Torah, too is earth within air, the strength and permanence of trees, surrounded by ever-changing currents of human interpretation.

    At Elim, the Israelites rest, and begin to expand their horizons. At the end of Shevat, as we prepare for spring, we too expand our horizons. At the end of Shevat, as we prepare for spring, we too expand our horizons. Like the Israelites, we look for waters, physical and spiritual, to sustain us as we climb toward a new season.


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