Parshat Shalach  Exodus 13:17-17:16                                                      
Summary

In Be-shalach – “when Pharaoh sent them out,” God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt concealed in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. In fulfillment of an ancient promise, Moses also brought along the bones of Joseph. But for one last time, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he decided to go after the Israelites with 600 chariots and soldiers. Trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea of Reeds, the people were terrified, and they accused Moses of taking them into the wilderness to die. God directed Moses to lift his staff; the sea split, and the pillar of cloud separated the Hebrews from their Egyptians pursuers. The Hebrews passed through the waters on dry ground, but when the Egyptians followed them the sea closed in on them, and they drowned. So great was their joy at witnessing this miracle of liberation that Moses and the Israelites sang a song to God: “Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?” Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron and Moses, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after and danced with timbrels in their hands.

The Israelites continued on their journey but they run short of water for three days. When they reached Marah they did find water, but it was undrinkable. Once again the people began to complain. Accordingly, God instructed Moses to toss a piece of wood into the water, which became sweet and drinkable. Shortly afterward, the Israelites’ food provisions grow smaller, and the people accused Moses and Aaron of taking them into the wilderness to starve. In response, God told Moses and Aaron that the Israelites would eat flesh that evening and bread the next morning. As promised, in the evening, quail appeared and covered the camp; and in the morning, God sent a fine flaky substance called manna to feed each person according to his or her own need. But the people did not heed the instruction not to keep any of the manna overnight, and the leftover portions become infested and smelly. On the sixth day, however, the Israelites were to gather a double portion of manna, for on Shabbat no manna would appear.

At Refidim, people again ran out of water. Once again, they complained against Moses. This time, when Moses cried out to God about the rebelliousness of the people, God instructed him to strike a rock from which water would flow. Moses did so in the sight of the people. Accordignly, the place was named Massah and Meribah (“Trial” and “Quarrel”) because the people had tried the patience of God there.
Also at Rephidim, the Amalekites come to fight with the Israelites. While Joshua led the defense, Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of a hill to watch. Whenever Moses raised his arms, the Hebrews would win. And whenever he lowered his arms, the Hebrews would lose. Moses’ arms began to get heavy, so Aaron and Hur held them up for him, and the Hebrews were victorious. God instructed Moses to record these events and to remember Amalek as Israel’s eternal enemy.

Commentary

  • Be-shalach is the first parasha to identify Miriam by name. It is clear that Miriam had a significant leadership role, particularly among the women who followed her out in dance. Earlier in the book of Exodus, it is Moses’ unnamed sister who watched the pitch covered wicker basket as it floated down the Nile so that she might see what would befall the infant inside of it. Once the child was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, it is this sister who suggested getting a Hebrew nurse to suckle him. The sister then arranged for the child’s biological mother to be the nurse. Water is a constant theme in Miriam’s life. Her name is a combination of two Hebrew words: mar meaning “bitter” and yam meaning “water” or “sea.” It is interesting that her name means “bitter water” when – according to midrash – it was due to her merit that a travelling well of water was given by God to the wandering Israelites in order to quench their thirst throughout their desert trek. “Miriam’s well” remained with the Israelites until Miriam’s death, which occurred just prior to their entering the Promised Land.
     

  • In response to the people’s complaints about not having food, God sent them manna. It is described as being “like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey” (Exodus 16:31). The Midrash says that manna tasted different to everyone, taking on the taste of whatever food a person wanted. To little children it tasted like milk, to strong youths like bread, to the elderly like honey and to the sick like barley soaked in oil and honey. The examples given are for people of different ages. If you had to eat manna, what would you like it to taste like?

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Throughout the Torah portion, the attributes of God are referred to in many ways – as “Father”, “Warrior”, “Healer”, “Rock”, “Redeemer”. When you think of God, what name do you use? Do you have more than one name? Do the names reflect different aspects of God? When do you “change” God’s name?
     

  2. Our rabbis tell us the story of two Hebrews walking through the Sea of Reeds on dry ground complaining because their shoes were getting muddy. What does this tell us about human nature and our response to special “God-moments” in our lives?
     

  3. The Torah doesn’t tell us who was the first person to step into the Reed Sea. It only says that God told Moses to lift up his rod over the sea and split it (Exodus 13:16). The Midrash tells that Nachshon ben Aminadav was the first to plunge into the waters and that the waters parted only after he went into the sea up to his nostrils. Can you imagine being in a situation that requires you to be the first to act in a time of emergency? What would make you take responsibility and be a leader instead of waiting for others? What do you think it means to have faith in God in times of crisis? How does having faith in God compare or contrast to having self confidence? Do you think Nachshon had more faith or confidence?
     

  4. After seeing the plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, how long would it take you to begin to complain against God?
     

  5. It is clear from this parasha that Miriam is a strong woman and a leader of the Israelites. (She is one of only seven women whom the Hebrew Bible refers to as a “prophetess.”) What does the word “strong” mean in this context? Name other strong women that you know. What makes them strong? How is their strength demonstrated? What have you learned from them?
     

  6. In Be-shalach, several miracles or acts In seem to contradict the laws of nature. Attempts have been made to supply scientific explanations for the pillars of cloud and fire, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the miraculous waters of Marah and Horeb, and the provision of quail and manna. In this connection, Martin Buber has written: “It is irrelevant whether ‘much’ or ‘little,’ unusual or usual, tremendous or trifling events happened; what is vital is only that what happened was experienced, while it happened, as the act of God. The people saw in whatever it was they saw ‘the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded’ and ‘they had faith in the Lord.’ From the Biblical viewpoint, history always contains the element of wonder.” What is a miracle? Do miracles happen today? How do you understand the miraculous events in the story of the Exodus? Is it important to you to find a reasonable explanation for the miracles in the Bible? What experiences have you had that might be seen as miraculous?
     

  7. The song of Moses and the song of Miriam together comprise shirat ha’yam, the Song of the Sea. When Moses leads the people (B’nei Yisrael – does it mean “men only” here?), the grammar is in the masculine singular [Az yashir Moshe – “then Moses sang,” followed by the first person Ashirah – I will sing. (Exodus 15:1)] When Miriam leads the women, we find the plural form shiru, “they sang,” after their cooperative effort in each taking a drum. (Exodus 15:20-21) How might we account for the different approaches of Moses and Miriam?