Parashat Beshalah – On Who We Were and Who We Can Be

א’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד

Parashat Beshalach is composed of 116 pesukim that split neatly into two groups of 58. In the first, which might be best titled ‘Miracles’, Bnei Yisrael are guided through the desert by miraculous pillars of cloud and fire and are saved from Egypt by ‘א’s miraculous intervention at the dead sea (Shemot 13:17-15:21). The second section, let’s call it ‘Complaints’, consists of Bnei Yisrael complaining to Moshe twice about lack of water and once about lack of food, their failure to uphold any of the requirements of the manna, and the battle with Amalek (15:22-17:17).

Miracles establishes the new status quo in the desert, wherein all of the people’s needs are cared for in a miraculous fashion. They are guided not by a human leader, but by pillars of cloud or fire that moved on their own. Despite this, the people still feared Paroah (14:10) and could not fight back when they were attacked at the Sea of Reeds, and so ‘א  fought for them, destroying the Egyptian army, and leading to the people fearing ‘א instead, and this is capped by the singular use in Tanakh of the root “have faith in” by a nation, “the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.”[1] (14:31). This would seem to represent a great changeover in the mindset of the people after they leave Egypt. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

In direct contradiction to the trust of 14:31, Complaints depicts a situation of complaining and doubting. The complaints betray not only a strange desire to return to Egypt, but also a complete lack of trust in ‘א and in Moshe His servant. What explains this strange contradiction? The answer lies in the unifying factor between the complaints of Bnei Yisrael after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and their singular complaint prior to it.

The main thrust of their complaint before the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds is that they would rather have been slaves in Egypt. This formulation, and others like it, characterize all of the complains found in parashat Beshalach, but this one is particularly poignant because of one fact: Bnei Yisrael could have fought back. The torah specifically states that they left Egypt armed, and yet they don’t even try fight back. Not only do they not attempt to fight back, they don’t even ask ‘א to fight for them. The Ibn Ezra explains this problem with a deep psychological insight. He says that Bnei Yisrael were still stuck in their mindset as slaves to Egypt, and as slaves they could not possibly imagine the possibility of successfully fighting their masters. Slaves rarely succeed in armed rebellion. This “slave mindset” is the reason that they did not fight back[2], but it in itself is just one manifestation of a more basic issue: Bnei Yisrael are still thinking like they’re in Egypt.

This “Egypt-mindset” becomes obvious from a close reading of the text. The desire to be back in Egypt is an obvious example. More interesting is the parallel between “the people feared the Lord”(14:31) and “the people feared Paroah”(14:10). 14:31 is seem on the surface like a statement of praise for Bnei Yisrael, that they have achieved this new level of trust in ‘א. But this parallel highlight a subtly devastating problem in their relationship with ‘א. They’re relating to Him in the same manner they related to Paroah.  That’s why Bnei Yisrael emphasize all the things they had in Egypt and why the lack of those things cause them to question the presence and attentiveness of their new master. They don’t get that leaving Egypt didn’t mean trading one master for another. Leaving Egypt was meant to be a paradigm shift, and Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the message.

Several powerful midrashim highlight this idea.[3] The Mekhilta explains “And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea” (15:22) to mean that Moshe had to force Bnei Yisrael to move on from the sea, that Bnei Yisrael just wanted to go back to Egypt. The Midrash says that when Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian army wiped out in the Sea they took it to mean that they could return to Egypt without fearing for their freedom and worship idols there, which was why Moshe had to make them move on. Perhaps most strikingly, the Midrash Rabbah says that despite all of the miracles that had been, and would yet be, done for Bnei Yisrael, they brought the “idol of Michah” with them as they crossed the bottom of the sea. This is a reference to Shoftim 17-18 which depicts the creating and worshiping of this idol. As it had not been created at the time of the Splitting of the Sea, the midrash obviously intends not the idol itself but rather the idea it represents, that of Bnei Yisrael making a fundamental mistake in how they conceive of their relationship[4] with ‘א. Bnei Yisrael are may have physically left Egypt, but they brought their misconceptions with them.

The strongest indicator of this misconception is found in a seemingly innocuous line in the Song at the Sea. Shemot 16:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.” This phrase has since been reproduced all over the Jewish liturgy. However, much of its meaning is lost in the subtlety of Ancient Hebrew grammar. This phrase is technically in Future-tense, and so would literally mean not that ‘א reigns “now-and-forever” but rather that ‘א will in the future reign forever and ever. This is of course theologically untenable, but the vagaries of Ancient Hebrew grammar enabled commentators to explain it as “now-and-forever.”[5] The Mekhilta, however, understands this line literally, and sees there the ultimate corruption of Yetziat Mitsraim.[6] Essentially, this line places redemption now in the present, but in the future. Could there be any more powerful statement about the mindset of Bnei Yisrael?

This Galut Mindset has many ramifications. Most obvious but perhaps least significant, is just a matter of wanting to be in Galut. Being in Galut make one want to be in Galut, something that makes it very hard to leave. Rashi (Bereishit 47:28) actually puts the start of Galut Mitzrayim at Beraishit 47:27-28, the end of Parashat Vayigash and the beginning of Parashat Vayehi. The lack of a separation between the two Parshiyot is unique in the Torah, and cause the redundancy of the phrases “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt”(27) and “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt”(28) to be quite obvious. Galut only starts when they going from “dwelling” in Egypt to “living” there. In that sense, your mindset is at least as important as your location, which is why leaving Egypt doesn’t stop Bnei Yisrael from wanting to be there. The first step to leaving Galut is wanting to.

The second ramification of this idea is a function of how we live our lives on a daily basis. Is Redemption happening now, or are we still waiting for it? This issue is far from theoretical. Redemption makes certain demands of us, not just in terms of where we choose to live but also in terms of how we choose to live. Galut is a consequence of incorrect behavior, and Geulah means that we need to make sure we don’t bring Galut upon ourselves yet again. Our actions ought to reflect Redemption, regardless of where we live.

Lastly, a matter of vision and purpose. How we think of ourselves and our past dictates how we think of others and our future, and thinking about the future in terms of the past is both harmfully and unnecessarily limiting[7]. In Galut we have come to think of ourselves as “Hated Amongst the Nations,” something that was certainly true once, but is not necessarily so any longer[8]. The sense of persecution and isolation we have acquired in Galut colors how we see everything. Halakha in the Galut has been very defensive and isolationist, separating us more and more from the rest of ‘א’s children[9]. This need not be so. There have been enough more open and accepting Halakhic-decisors throughout Jewish history, the Meiri being a prime example, for Bnei Yisrael today to be able to interact with the Nations of the World in an open and Halakhic manner[10]. Beyond Halakha, the Redemption is a matter of eschatology[11]. Throughout the prophetic literature we find many different possibilities in terms of what the future redemption will look like. Many books discuss a war with the nations, either with them attacking Bnei Yisrael, with ‘א exacting vengeance on them for their crimes, or something in between. But there are also prophets for whom no such war will occur, where the End of History is depicted not as a age of Dominance but as an era of Harmony, where Bnei Yisrael enable the nations to live in the presence of ‘א. These are all potential eschatological visions. All are embraced by the last pair of Maimonides Principles of Faith. So which do we believe in? What future are we hoping for? Feeling like we are hated has many Jews hoping for the destruction of the nations. But ultimately this is an obscuration of Bnei Yisrael’s goal as a Light unto the Nations. We cannot be a Kingdom of Priests if there are none to aid in the service of ‘א. We cannot experience Redemption if our idea of Redemption is actually more reflective of Galut.

 

[1] Translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Rav Yehuda Amital, Z”TL, used this mindset as an explanation for ‘א taking the jewish people on a different path than the Road of the Land of the Philistines.

[3] All the midrashim in this paragraph are brought from their quotation in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalah (Hebrew)

[4] “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[5] See Onkelos, Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye Ad loc.

[6] Quoted in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[7] For an examples of this one need look no further than the paintings we make depicting the future. The Old City of Jerusalem is full to the brim with paintings depicting the Temple Mount with neither the Dome of the Rock nor the Al-Akhsa mosque atop it, clearly an eschatological depiction, and yet there is no Beit HaMikdash; Bnei Yisrael gather at the Western Wall, Or worse yet, sometimes the pictures do depict the Bet HaMikdash atop the Temple Mount, but Bnei Yisrael still gather at the Wall! Paintings like these are something only a Galut-mindset could create.

[8] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book, “Future Tense,” discusses this issue at length.

[9] Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, The Halakha: Its Power and Its Purpose (Hebrew)

[10] For those concerned that the Meiri is a minority opinion, I refer you to Mishna Eduyot 1:4, “Why do we mention the words of the individual alongside the words of the majority even though the law follows the majority? In case Beit Din should choose to rely on his words.”

[11] A fancy word meaning “religious thought about the end-times”.

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