Beshalach: Rabbi Avraham

Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16

Haftara: Judges 4:4-5:31 (Sephardi ritual: Judges 5:1-31).


Fairy tales may end happily ever after, but the Torah is an encounter with reality, in which progress and breakthroughs are frequently accompanied by reverses and obstacles.

The climactic drama of the Exodus, related in last week’s parshah of BO, was followed by the entry of the Children of Israel into the Wilderness, the MIDBAR, a place that “speaks” — MEDABER — teaching day by day. The MIDBAR is a super-reality, a stark no-man’s land where the ultimate existential reality of our lives, wanderers in this often inhospitable world, is writ large. It was fitting that the Torah was given in the Wilderness, a place to which no one can lay claim, a place where no one can take credit. In the wilderness, no one provides hospitality except G-d.

The main event of the “Giving of the Torah” at Sinai is recounted in next week’s parshah of YISRO (and also in the ensuing parshah of MISHPATIM, as well as partially in VA-ESCHANAN, the second parshah of Deuteronomy). However, the lessons learned by the Children of Israel in ALL their wanderings in the Wilderness are integral parts of this same Torah, as in this week’s parshah of BESHALACH, which begins to relate their encounter with the harsh reality of the Wilderness after the exuberance of the Exodus.

Directly after the triumphant march of the Children of Israel out of Egypt “with a high hand”, they appear to go into retreat, and their former masters come racing after them to recapture them. Directly after they depart from the Red Sea after witnessing the greatest ever freak event in the natural order, they find themselves three days into the Wilderness with no water to drink. They go further, and they have nothing to eat. They find food today, but will they have food tomorrow? They go further — and again there is nothing to drink. Suddenly, their deadliest enemies, the Amalekites attack.

The promise is that at the end of the journey lies the “happy ending” — the Land flowing with milk and honey. But unlike in fairy tales, the path through the speaking, teaching Wilderness of reality is long and arduous, twisting and turning in frightening ways. Each twist and turn in the journey comes to teach a new aspect of faith in G-d: faith in the miracles that take place in and through the workings of nature (“and they BELIEVED in HaShem and in Moses his servant”, Ex. 14:31); faith in the miracles through which we receive our livelihood (the root of MANNA is the same as EMUNAH, faith); faith in G-d’s miraculous power to heal through our keeping the Torah (“I, HaShem am your healer” Ex. 15:26); faith in G-d’s power to conquer the forces of evil (“and his hands were faith” Ex. 17:12).

Faith is the sustenance needed to survive in the wilderness of this world and to reach the promised “inhabited land” (Ex. 16:35) that surely lies at the end of the road. The very twists and turns in the road are trials sent to bring us nearer to this sustaining faith. For that reason, it is not written (Ex. 14:10) that “Pharaoh drew near” (KARAV, Pa’al verbal form) to the Children of Israel, but rather, Pharaoh HIKRIV, Hif’il verbal form — “Pharaoh BROUGHT closer” (see Rashi ad loc.). I.e. Pharaoh brought the Children of Israel closer: his very onslaught and the fear it caused brought them closer to G-d, forcing them to turn to Him in prayer and faith.

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A man once came to Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov, wanting to ask him a question. The man had studied science and philosophy, and according to what he had learned, at the time when the sea split before the Children of Israel, there were natural reasons why it split. Since the sea split naturally, why does everyone make such a fuss about the miracle of the splitting of the sea? This question made the man enormously perplexed, which is why he traveled to the Baal Shem Tov.

Before the man had an opportunity to put his question, the Baal Shem Tov went to the Synagogue and gave instructions to assemble everyone in the town for a sermon. The Baal Shem Tov stood up and said that there are crazy people and unbelievers who find this difficult, but they have eyes yet they do not see. For it is written, “In the beginning G-d — ELOKIM — created.” (Gen. 1:1). The Hebrew letters of the name ELOKIM have the numerical value of 86, which is the same as that of the letters of the word HATEVA = Nature. The Holy One blessed be He also created nature. And thus our sages taught that when “the sea returned to its strength (EITANO)” (Ex. 14:27), this can be read as if the sea “returned to its CONDITION (TANA-O)” (Midrash Rabba Beshalach 21:6). From this we learn that when G-d brought about the Creation, he made a condition and incorporated into the very nature of the sea that it would split before the Children of Israel at that precise moment. This makes the miracle even greater, for G-d gave the sea this nature from the very outset of the creation for the sake of the Children of Israel. BEREISHIS — “for REISHIS — for the Children of Israel, who are called REISHIS = the first”. If Israel had not needed this miracle, G-d would not have created nature so.”

(From Beis Yaakov — Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov — Parshas Bereishis & Beshalach).

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The Shabbos of Parshas BESHALACH is known as SHABBOS SHIRAH, the Shabbos of Song, because the parshah contains the SHIRAS HAYAM, the “Song of the Sea” sung by the Children of Israel after the miracle.

The difference between song (or music) and mere noise is that noise is random and meaningless, while song and music are ordered and communicate a message.

The Children of Israel burst into song after the miracle of the splitting of the sea, because at that moment, they saw clearly that nature is not random and meaningless. It was tailor made for them! The natural realm, random and chaotic as it may seem, is part of and subject to one greater order or system. It is all one song — the awesome Song of G-d’s HASHGACHAH, His “watching over” the world, supervising every tiny detail. Each detail is a note in the amazing beauty of this song. (See Likutey Moharan Part II, Discourse 8:9 and Rabbi Nachman’s story of the Exchanged Children).

At the very center of this Song, to which all the world dances, is the vision of the Holy Temple, the House on G-d’s Mountain in Jerusalem. This too is an integral part of BEREISHIS, the letters of which, when rearranged, spell out BAYIS ROSH — the “House that is the Head”. “In Your kindness You have taken this people that You redeemed, You have led them in Your strength to the dwelling-place of Your holiness. You will bring them and plant them on the Mountain of Your inheritance, the foundation of Your dwelling place that You have made, HaShem, the Sanctuary, O G-d, that Your hands have formed” (Ex. Ch. 15 vv. 13 & 17).

When we train ourselves to hear the Song of G-d’s providence, we can at treasured moments see, with the eyes of faith, the “inhabited land” that lies at the end of the road. It is this vision that gives us the strength to continue with the journey.

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Parshas BESHALACH is always read just prior to, or as this year, actually ON the festival of TU BISHVAT (15th of Shevat). Many people think of this as the “Festival of Trees”. However, the Mishneh (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) refers to it as the “New Year of THE TREE”. On one level, this is an allusion to the Etrog tree — and it is proper on Tu Bishvat to offer a prayer for the Etrog one will take in eight months time on the festival of Succos, for it is now, after Tu Bishvat, that the fruit begins to develop and grow on the tree. On another level, “THE TREE” is an allusion to the Tree of Life, which begins sending fresh vitality and life into the world just when spring starts to appear in the Land of Israel and the water from the winter rains enters the trees from the soil, sending energizing sap all through them.

“And they came to Marah and they could not drink the waters for they were bitter. And he cried to HaShem, and HaShem SHOWED HIM (or “taught him”) A TREE and he cast it into the waters and they were sweetened” (Exodus 15:23, 25).

The “Tree” that sweetens the bitterness of life is the Torah, which provides us with the waters of DA’AS, understanding of how evil is joined to good as part of G-d’s unity.

The first laws of the Torah were given at Marah: “There He placed for him [i.e. Israel] a law and judgment, and there He tested [the people]. And He said, If you will surely listen to the voice of HaShem your G-d and do what is right in His eyes and listen to His commandments and guard all His statutes, all the diseases that I have put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I HaShem am your healer” (Ex. 15:25-6).

The laws given at Marah were those of Shabbos, the Red Heiffer (purifying from defilement from contact with a dead body) and DINIM, the laws governing our relations with others (see Rashi on Ex. 15:25). All three are bound up with healing. Only through keeping Shabbos is it possible to heal from the curse of Adam, “with the sweat of your brow you will eat bread”. Man is forced to work in the world. The only release from this slavery (Egypt) is to abstain from work for one day of the week, in order to elevate the work of all the days of the week to the service of G-d. The Ashes of the Red Heiffer are the source of all healing (EPHER = ashes, has the same letters as the root RAPA = heal), for if we cannot heal from death and integrate it into our vision of life, we cannot heal from anything. The laws governing our relations with others in our family, marital, business and other dealings are the foundation of social healing, which must go hand in hand with individual healing.

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