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Dan Has Questions About Songs, Skepticism, and Freedom: Parshat Beshalach

01/13/2022 11:10:10 AM

Jan13

Dan Leemon

Last week, we discussed freedom and the struggle that typically accompanies achieving it.  This week that story continues in Parshat Beshalach, which means “when he sent”. Pharaoh has released us from our enslavement and sent us out of Egypt — at last!   It is a happy coincidence that we usually study these stories of our ancient freedom around Martin Luther King Day.  Those who fight for freedom – whether Moshe or Martin Luther King – are people we honor and remember.  And freedom does not come easily.

God leads us out by way of the Red Sea to avoid running into the Philistines, an intimidating and war-making people.  God realizes that our first taste of freedom should not be war!  The Torah says God led us with a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night, and that the we marched triumphantly away from Egypt.  But we were not free just yet.

God tells Moshe that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart one more time and that Pharaoh, hearing that the people are trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, will bring his troops to recapture them. 

-           How do you think the Jews react when they see Pharaoh and his charioteers coming after them? 

If you said “fearfully”, you’d be right.  The Jews immediately complain to Moshe, saying “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the desert?” and "Didn’t we tell you before you tried to free us that we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert?”  Moshe reassures them, saying “Don’t be afraid — you will never see the Egyptians again after today."

-           After all the plagues — after everything that Moshe told them came true — why don’t the people trust that they will be ok?

God tells Moshe to hold his staff over the waters of the sea — that the waters will part and they will cross.  God says this is happening so that the Egyptians and Pharaoh will know that God is God.

-           Why do you think God is still trying to convince Pharaoh?  Is convincing Pharaoh a hopeless cause? 

Moshe does as God instructs, and the waters split, revealing dry land.  Our ancestors proceed through the sea, with walls of water on each side and the Egyptians chasing us.  God slows the Egyptians down and confuses them by making the wheels fall off their chariots.  God then tells Moses to raise his hand over the sea again.  Moshe does, and the waters come together over the Egyptians after we have made it to the other side of the sea.  The Torah says that "On that day the Lord saved Israel from the hand[s] of the Egyptians” and that the Jews believed in God, and that Moshe was God’s servant.  

-           How do you imagine our ancestors felt at this moment?

-           How would you have celebrated the defeat of the Egyptians and the miracle of the parting of the sea?

Moshe and his sister, Miriam, lead the people in song.

-           What words would you have sung?  What would your song have sounded like?

This song is a song telling the story of our liberation, and honoring God.  It includes the words “Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders!”  This moment in our history is so important that some of the words of the song are the prayer we say just before the Amidah — “Mi Chamochah” — and this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Shira” — the Shabbat of the song. 

Moshe leads our people past the Red Sea for three days, arriving at Marah, where the water is bitter and undrinkable.  The people cry out to Moshe.  God makes the water drinkable, and Moshe tells the people that if they listen to God and follow God’s commandments, that they will be fine and that what has happened to the Egyptians will not happen to them.  The people have plenty of water now.  And yet, they complain to Moshe again.

-           Now that they have water, can you guess what they want next?

Of course, they want food.  They accuse Moshe and Aaron of bringing them to the desert to starve to death, and say they would rather have died in Egypt where at least there was plenty of meat.  And God brings them quails to eat, and an odd substance that collects each day on the ground, called “manna”.  The Torah says it tasted like some kind of seeded wafer or cracker with honey.

-           Why do the people need to ask for food and water?  Why doesn’t God bring these necessities before they ask?

God instructs Moshe to tell the people that they should only gather the amount of manna they can eat each day.  Some disobey, and the extra manna they collect goes bad overnight.  God also instructs them to gather a double-portion on Fridays, so that Shabbat is a day of rest, yet some go out to collect it on Shabbat (and find none).

-           Why do the people disobey?

Their journey proceeds and our people are again are without water for three days.  Again, the people complain to Moshe.  Moshe goes to God, fed up with the complaints and afraid the people will kill him.  God tells Moshe to take his staff and hit a rock, and water will come out, all that the people need.

-           What’s going on here?  Why do the people — who were singing God’s praises and watching the Egyptians drown not too many days ago — still not believe they will be OK?

-           And why does God keep putting them in positions of thirst or hunger?

The final section of the Parshah tells about the first war the Jews must fight, with a people called Amalek.  Moshe selects a man named Joshua to lead the Jews in battle.  With God’s help, Amalek is defeated, and God vows to obliterate their memory from the earth. 

-           Why do you think God singles out Amalek to be so hated? 

So our journey to freedom and to the land God promised us has begun for real in this week’s Parshah.

-           What have you learned about the long path to freedom?  What does it take, and how are we doing in modern times?

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom, and a thoughtful Martin Luther King weekend,

Dan

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782