Torah Readings for Saturday, January 31, 2015Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of the Song
Beshalach (When he had sent away)13:17-17:16 Shemot (Exodus)
Beshalach is the fourth sedrah in the book of Shemot (Exodus). Beshalach takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the sedrah. “And it came to pass when Pharaoh had sent away (Beshalach) the people.…” Beshalach can be divided into five basic parts - The Parting of the Sea, the Song at the Sea, The Grumblings, The Giving of Manna and The Battle with Amalek. Beshalach is primarily a straightforward narrative. Unlike last week’s sedrah and next week’s sedrah, Beshalach is almost devoid of formal commandments, containing but one.
The Parting of the Sea ()As the Israelites begin their departure from
What follows is the oft-told tale of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites pass through in safety. The Egyptians pursue and are trapped by the raging waters of the sea. The Midrash and Rabbinic commentaries on this miracle are too numerous to review here. The Miracle at the Sea eclipses all of the Ten Plagues. It is God’s ultimate victory over Pharaoh. Once and for all, the newly freed Israelites are to be impressed with the power of Adonai, the God of their liberation from bondage. The crossing of the sea presents a lesson in the responsibilities of both God and man for what goes on in the world. On the one hand, Moses reassures the people that “The Lord will battle for you.” On the other hand, “the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.’” In other words, God has a role in the world, but so does man. We must pray to him for salvation, but we must also act to save ourselves. There is an interesting Midrash about a man named Nahshon. From a Biblical perspective, Nahshon is a real person; he is mentioned twice in the TaNaCh. He is the brother-in-law of Aaron (Shemot ). He is also an ancestor of King David (Ruth -22). But Nahshon’s real claim to fame comes from the Midrash in which he is described as being the first Israelite to actually start across the Sea. While Moshe was busy waving his rod and God was turning back the waters, it still took the action of one ordinary person to make the miracle happen. If Nahshon had not had the faith and the courage to enter, the Egyptians would have overtaken the Israelites. This Midrash reinforces one of the themes of Judaism - individual responsibility for what goes on in the world. In the end, the Israelites see the reality of God’s power as the Egyptian corpses wash up on the shore. This section of the sedrah ends with a statement that the people have trust in God and his servant Moshe. As we will see, that trust is only of a momentary nature.
The Song at the Sea (15:1-21)The Song at the Sea is a poetic rendering of the events previously described. For those of us with limited or non-existent Hebraic skills, it is difficult to appreciate the full majesty of the poem. But even in English, the Song is a powerful rendering of the deliverance from Pharaoh. If you read the Song as being sung at the time of the deliverance, the last portion starting with verse 14 carries a note of prophecy. Here, the author tells of the fear that the Canaanites will feel when they hear about this miracle. He also describes the future settlement of
The Grumblings (16:1-3 & 17:1-7)Six weeks after the Exodus from
The Giving of Manna (16:4-36)God hears the cry for food. His first response is to send a flight of quail to meet the need for meat. His second response is to send Manna to meet the need for bread. While the quail come but once, the Manna will come daily except for Shabbat for forty years. There have been attempts to explain this miracle food in temporal terms. Like all such attempts, they fall short of the mark. We do not know what manna was other than what is described. We may assume that the authors put in the Story of Manna to reassure us that God will provide for our needs. In the giving of manna, we find rules about the observance of Shabbat. The seventh day is described as “a day of rest, holy Shabbat of the Lord.” In other words, even before the giving of the Commandments at Sinai, Shabbat, as a day of rest, was part of the Israelites’ observances. The section ends with one of those "timing” problems since it tells of the placing of a jar containing an omer of manna in front of the
The Battle with Amalek (17:8-16)No reason is given for the attack by the Amalekites. However, the event must have been of great importance since it is described for a second time in Devarim 25:17-19 and it is one of “The Six Remembrances” that are recited every morning. The victory over the Amalekites requires military action on the part of the Israelites as well as divine inspiration as evidenced by the raised hands of Moshe. This is the first mention of Joshua, Moshe’s loyal lieutenant and successor. The sedrah tells us that God will “blot out the memory of Amalek.” Further, that unlike with the Egyptians, “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” Regardless of the historic origins of this tribe, the Amalekites have become synonymous with evil and those who would destroy us such as Haman in the Purim story.
Themes:Commandments - (Just one this week, the torrent comes next week.)
24. “The prohibition against walking beyond permitted limits on the Sabbath (). From this has come the Rabbinic law forbidding walking more than about a half-mile outside city limits on Shabbat.” Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Shabbat Shirah - This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah. Shirah is the Hebrew word for “song.” So Shabbat Shirah means The Sabbath of the Song. The song in this case refers to the Song sung at the sea after the deliverance. This Song is also sung on the seventh day of Pesach. Different communities have special tunes for chanting the Song. In
, on the seventh day of
Pesach, “communal chanting of ‘the Song’ forms part of the ceremonies held by
the shores of the Israel Mediterranean and Red Sea at Eilat.”
Daily Prayer - The Song at the Sea is part of the Shacharit or Morning Prayer Service. It comes in a section concentrating on “God’s revelation in nature and history.” (See pages 58 and 78-81 of The Complete Artscroll Siddur.) The familiar chant of Me Chomocho (Who is like You) which we sing just before the start of the Amidah is verse taken from the Song at the Sea. The daily repetition of the Song of the Sea should give us some idea of how important this event was in our history.
Shabbat - The Israelites were commanded to take a double portion of manna on the sixth day of the week. It is customary to have two Challot on the table for the Shabbat evening meal and the meal eaten after Shabbat morning services. This is a reminder of the double portion of God’s beneficence to our ancestors.
Pesach - The parting of the sea is part of the Haggadah narrative. According to some, the drowning of the Egyptians is symbolized by two of our practices at the Seder; the spilling of wine and the egg on the Seder Plate. Also, the Song at the Sea is part of the Torah reading on the Seventh Day of Pesach. The congregation always rises when this portion is read. The only other time the congregation rises in this manner is for the reading of the Ten Commandments.
Observing the Dietary Laws - In discussing the laws of Kashrut, some wonder why chicken, and for that matter all fowl, are treated as meat when it comes to the prohibition about not mixing meat with milk. Read -14 and consider the following. God tells Moshe “By evening you shall eat flesh…” “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp.” In other words when God promised flesh he sent quail. The Hebrew word translated as flesh is “bahsahr” which also can be translated as “meat” as in “meat and milk.” In other words, when God promised meat he sent fowl. If God treats fowl as meat, I think it is a safe interpretation for us to treat it in the same manner.
Joseph’s Bones - Promises made, promises kept. At the end of Bereshit, Joseph makes the children of
promise that when God delivers them from Israel , they will take his bones
with them. This is one of those many
reminders that both God and man have a responsibility for what happens in the
world. The Exodus may have been God’s
responsibility but it was the Jewish people who were going to have to redeem
the individual Jew; in this case, Joseph son of Jacob. “And Moshe took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had made the children of Egypt swear,
saying God will surely visit you, and you shall bring up my bones from here
with you” (). Please note, for all of those higher critics
of the Torah; check out the similarity of the language here and at the end of
Bereshit (50:25). How did Moshe know
where Joseph’s bones were buried?
According to a Midrash, Serach, the daughter of Asher and granddaughter
of Jacob told him. Remember that she is
one of the few women mentioned in the listing of those who came down into Israel . Her merit, for which she was granted extra-long
life, came from the fact that she was the first one who told Jacob that Joseph
was alive. Supposedly this very old
woman told Moshe that that the Egyptians had placed Joseph’s bones in a metal
casket that they had then hidden in the Egypt Nile. By hiding the bones in the Nile,
the Pharaoh had thought the Israelites would never leave since they had
promised to take Joseph’s bones with them.
The Midrash continues with Moshe calling out to Joseph from the
riverbank that it is time to go and either his bones should appear or they are
released from the oath. At that point
the casket bobbed up to the surface and the rest is “history.” There are those that say this story points to
the great merit of Moshe. For he was
busy redeeming the promise of the Israelites while everybody else was busy
gathering the booty from the Egyptians.
First Things First - One day a desperate woman came to see her Rebbe. Her family had fallen ill and she wished him to utter the benedictions for their recovery. The Rebbe said he would, but first things first. The women must have faith in the Lord. And why, she asked, should her faith have to be any stronger than our ancestors who left
. For doesn’t it say in recounting the events
at the Splitting of the Sea, “Thus the Lord saved in that day Israel of out of
the hand of the Egyptians” (14:30). “And
Israel saw the great power which the lord had shown…and the people believed in
the Lord.” (). If the Lord could act first and then the
Children of Israel believed in Him, surely the Rebbe could pray on behalf of
her family and trust that her faith would follow. The Rebbe laughed, realizing that the woman
was right. He prayed. She believed.
The family’s health was restored. Egypt
The Power of Song - In the days when Jews lived in the Austrian Empire, an evil decree was pronounced against the Jews of Nikolsburg. Despite the fact that it was winter time, the leader of the Jewish community decided that he would go to
and asked the Emperor to reverse the ruling against the Jews. When he got to the Vienna Danube,
he found blocks of ice floating in the river.
No boat man would cross for fear that the ice would sink the frail
craft. Finally, one brave sole said he
would take the Rabbi across, if he would leave enough money to take care of his
wife and child whom he was sure were about to become a widow and an
orphan. The Rabbi agreed, but assured
the reluctant sailor that he had nothing to fear. The two men pushed off into the ice choked
river. As the boat man rowed, the Rabbi
began chanting “Ahz Yashir Moshe,” (Then sang Moses) and proceeded to sing
Moses’ “Song at the Sea” (15:1-18).
People on both banks of the river watched in amazement as the boat
miraculously crossed the river, successfully dodging the giant chunks of ice. As the boat drew up to the dock on the far
side of the river, the crowd began cheering.
A minister of the Emperor was riding past and asked what was causing all
of the cheering. One of the on-lookers
told him the amazing tale about the chanting Rabbi’s crossing of the ice choked
When the Emperor heard the story, he was so impressed by the Rabbi’s
courage and the power of this “Hebrew Song” that he lifted the decree and the
Jews of Nikolsburg were permitted to live on in peace with the permanent
protection of the Austrian government.
Fathers and Sons; Sons and Fathers - Traditionally sons defer to the wishes of their fathers but not always. A successful American Jewish businessman sent his son to
for the summer. The son was expected to return home, go to
college and join in the family’s commercial endeavors. Instead, at the end of the summer, the son
called the father and informed him that he was staying in Israel
permanently. He was making Aliyah. The distraught father caught the first plane
to Tel Aviv where his son met him at the airport. “How,” the father asked, “can you turn your
back on all that I have taught you?” “I
am not turning my back on what you have taught me. Instead, I am doing that which is best for
me. In the Torah first it says ‘This is
my God and I will glorify Him’ (15:2) and only later does it say ‘my father’s
God and I will exalt Him.’”
Understanding that his son was now his own person and that he was his
own person in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Jewish religion
that he revered, the father embraced the son and the two returned to the
amicable relation that they had enjoyed in the past. Israel
A Person of Importance - In the land beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a famous sage was always being invited to spend Shabbat with his co-religionists in the various towns throughout the region. So each Shabbat the sage and his secretary would visit another town. They would Welcome the Sabbath Queen, say Kiddush and eat. In the morning he would rise, recite the morning service complete with the weekly reading and sit down for a sumptuous Kiddush lunch. Following the meal there would be a discussion of Torah followed by the afternoon service, followed by the Third Meal and Havdalah. As the night would fall, the sage and his secretary would mount their horses for the ride home. But before going, the sage would always ask to meet the person responsible for preparing the food. The Rabbi would profusely thank him or her and ride off in the night. One night, as they were riding away the secretary asked the sage about this strange ritual. You never ask to meet the person who led the service. You never ask to meet the person who chanted the Torah portion. You never ask to meet any of the town’s dignitaries. You only ask to meet the cook. Why? Because, explained the sage, it is the cook who keeps us from sin. In the Torah when reading about the manna it states, “And Moshe said, ‘Eat it today for it is Shabbat.’” (16:25). Food that is prepared for Shabbat must be eaten on Shabbat, not after Shabbat. If the food were poorly prepared it would go uneaten and we would have violated the injunction of Moses. A chazzan with a weak voice can be overlooked. Mistakes in Torah reading can be corrected. But a bad meal will not be eaten. Hence, I always thank the cook for keeping us from sin.”
Short Memory - In talking about the 15th day of the first month of the year, last week’s reading says “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand…” (13:4). This week we read, “on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt…the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron… ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread…for you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve…’”(16:1-3). Exactly one month to the day after the Exodus, the Israelites apparently were violating the commandment to remember the event and had forgotten the impressiveness of the event itself. How many of us are like our forefathers; quick to forget the good things and equally quick to grumble about what does not seem to be going our way? How many times do we show ingratitude and how many times do we show a lack of faith? It is a shortcoming that is part of the human condition, one which seems to have afflicted us from the very beginning and one from which we all seem to suffer. (In an era when authors are required to make full disclosure, this passage resonates with me because I am the guiltiest one of all when it comes to this.) Maybe “wandering in the wilderness” or “wandering through life” is the opportunity that God gives us to rectify this fault, at least in some small manner.
Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia:1. What did Moses take with him when he left
2. What did God do to the Egyptians just prior to drowning them? ()
3. What did Moses do to the water at Marah in order to make the bitter water sweet? ()
4. How does the TaNaCh describe the taste of manna? ()
5. What was the secret to the Israelite victory over the Amalekites at Rephidim? ()
Why Not Fight? - When the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea of Reeds, they began berating Moses, seemingly preparing themselves for death or capture. Why didn’t they make any plans to fight? We know they had weapons: “Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt” (). So what held them back? Maybe the answer can be found in the statement, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph” () which immediately follows the statement about the Israelites being armed. This was the generation that carried bones. What do we know about bones? From Ezekiel’s Vision of the
we know that
bones without the spirit of the Lord in them are just that, inert calcium. It takes the breath of the Lord, an infusion
of the Spirit, to give the Jewish people life.
This generation, this generation of slaves had weapons, but they were
like the bones of Joseph - lifeless.
Only after they had crossed the Valley
of Dry Bones
and left Sea of Reeds
behind would they begin to be infused with the Spirit of the Lord as we see
when these same Israelites take up arms against the Amalakites at Rephidim and
with the Lord’s help gain military victory. Egypt
Farewell Pharaoh - This week marks the end the contact with Pharaoh. As soon the Israelites cross the sea, he is gone from the narrative. One week he is this seemingly all powerful being who threatens the very existence of the Hebrews and then, like the wind, he is gone. Many people are bothered by the fact that in the story of the plagues, the text tells us that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Under these circumstances, Pharaoh does not seem to be a free agent making his own choices but merely a puppet that God uses to show off His divine power. This week shows that such was not really the case. “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart…He ordered his chariot and took his men with him…” (14:5-6). Only then does the text say “The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh…and he gave chase to the Israelites.” (14:8). In other words, Pharaoh made the decision to go out and recapture his slaves before God intervened. He could have left well enough alone, but like any despot, he had no intention of giving up his human property. If there was ever any doubt as to the nature of Pharaoh, if there ever was any question that somehow God was the one who made Pharaoh behave in an evil manner just to show off His power, this interplay should put the claim to rest.
Amalekites - By the end of this week’s reading the enemy has shifted from Pharaoh and the Egyptians to the Amalekites. The enmity towards the Egyptians seems to have ended as soon as the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds. But as for the Amalekites the Sedrah ends literally “There is a war for Hashem against Amalek from generation to generation” or “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” The puzzle is that there is no explanation for this long-term, eternal state of enmity. All we know is that the Amalekites attacked the rear, or weakest, section of the Israelite line of march as they made their way through the Wilderness. On the other hand the Egyptians were cruel taskmasters for over four centuries. Some Rabbis say that the Amalekites have come to represent all of the enemies of the Jewish people but that explanation begs the question. Do we have another one of those puzzles that provide the impetus for reading this material year in and year out? Only time will tell.
Boundaries - The movement to free the slaves in the United States drew on the stories from Exodus for much of its morality and many of its literary motifs. One cannot help but be struck by the role of water in the two tales of liberation. For the Israelites, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds marked their entrance into a world where they were no longer slaves. For African-Americans, crossing the Ohio River meant the same thing. Personal note: The first time I jogged across a bridge that crossed the Ohio between Kentucky and Indiana, it struck me as so strange. At one end of the bridge, a person was a slave; at the other end the person was a free human being. Gives a whole new meaning to “Life is a narrow bridge. Do not be afraid to cross.”
Jewish Women: TaNaCh versus Hamevaser - This week’s Torah and Haftarah readings remind us of the dynamic and important role that women have played in the life of the Jewish people. There is Serach, the keeper of Jewish memory. There is Miriam, the prophetess who cared for the infant Moshe. Finally, there is Deborah, who was such a powerful figure that the Israelites would not go to battle without her. Compare this with the ultra-Orthodox paper Hamevaser which digitally removed Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and other women from a photo of this week’s Paris march following the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of at least six Jews, four of whom were killed at a Kosher market while shopping for Shabbat. This on-going war on women carried on by the ultra-Orthodox stands in stark contrast to the reality of our history which includes the sage Rashi educating his daughters.
HaftarahJudges 4:4-5:31 (Ashkenazim)
Judges 5:1-5:31 (Sephardim)
The Book: Judges or Shoftim is the second book in the section of the TaNaCh called Prophets or Neviim. It is preceded by the Book of Joshua and followed by the Books of Samuel. This is appropriate since the book covers the two to three hundred year interval between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel. This is hardly a time of glory for the Children of Israel. You might think of it as a period like the Dark Ages, that period of history between the end of the
and the beginning of the Renaissance.
There was no national government.
Each tribe existed in its own little world. As the text says, “In those days there was no
king in ;
every man did that which was right in his eyes.” Furthermore, the Israelites had lost the
religious purity with which they had entered the Promised Land. They fell victim to the temptations of the local
deities and began to worship them. As
the text says on more than one occasion, “And the Children of Israel did that
which was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
Finally, this was a period of intermittent warfare. The different Israelite tribes found themselves
under attack from a variety of enemies including the Philistines. In other words we have a period of religious
and political chaos where there was little in the way of law and order either
in the realm of spiritual or temporal affairs.
During this time of anarchy, individuals would arise to provide
leadership to some or all of the tribes in the face of various calamities. It is these figures including Deborah,
Samson, and Gideon, to name three of the more famous Shoftim, who provide the
literary structure and historic content for the Book of Judges. The Hebrew term used for Judge is
Shofet. This does not refer to a judge
in the sense of a judicial official or an officer of the court. Shoftim did settle disputes but they also
served as administrators, political leaders and military chieftains. They were “defenders, deliverers and avenging
The Message: The haftarah focuses on one of the most famous Judges of all, Deborah. First in prose and then in poetry, it tells how she rallied a portion of the tribes under the military leadership of Barak and defeated the army led by Sisera. It also tells of how a woman named Jael killed Sisera. After his army had been defeated, the general sought refuge in her tent. To make a long story short, she ended up killing him by driving a tent pin through his temple. The haftarah definitely reinforces the notion that in Judaism women play key, active roles.
Theme-Link: The sedrah contains the Song at the Sea. It includes the famous songs of victory by Moshe and Miriam that celebrated the deliverance at the
. The haftarah includes the Song of
Deborah. This is her famous hymn of
victory that describes the deliverance from the armies of Sisera. Both deliverances are credited to God. Interestingly enough, both enemy armies relied
on chariots. In both cases their
advantage comes to naught when their vehicles become mired in mud. Of course the mud is a gift from God. Sea of Reeds
The Sephardim only read chapter five, which is the poetic version of the story. Why do the Sephardim opt for a shorter version of the haftarah? According to one source, the practice of translating the Torah portion during the service lasted longer with the Sephardim than it did with the Ashkenazim. They opted for shorter prophetic portions so as not to make the services overly long.
Copyright, January 2015, Mitchell A. Levin