by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970
This Shabbat’s parasha is Beshalach which means “in his sending“, referring to Pharaoh finally letting the Jewish people go (after ten terrible plagues), and it takes us through Exodus chapter 17. When God led us out of Egypt, He didn’t take us straight north. Though that would have been a more direct route, it would have taken us right into Philistine territory. Instead He led us through the wilderness to the Red Sea. God went ahead of us, manifesting His presence in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Moses took Joseph’s bones with them – fulfilling Joseph’s request that when Israel did leave Egypt (a matter of which he was certain), they should take his bones with them. He wanted to be buried in the land of promise, not a foreign country. It might seem like a minor detail to some people, but this was actually very important and we are encouraged that Joseph’s directive was not overlooked in the grand event of the Exodus.
God tells Moses to lead the people south, which will give Pharaoh the impression that the Jews have wandered aimlessly and are now trapped at the shore of the Red Sea inside Egypt. Pharaoh, who since the death of his firstborn had had time to calm down, realizes that he’s just freed his entire unpaid work force, and again, predictably, hardens his heart. He saddles up and takes 600 of his best charioteers and a massive army to pursue Israel. When Israel sees Pharaoh’s army, they yell at Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” It was meant as sarcasm – the Egyptians were obsessed with death and graves and the underworld. It wouldn’t be the last time our people treated Moses maliciously. In fact, three times in just these four chapters Moses is accused of evil.
But now, faced with what appears to be certain death at the hands of the mighty Egyptian army, Moses utters these unforgettable words:
Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord… for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever.
Moses waves his staff over the Red Sea, and the Lord sends a powerful east wind – so powerful that the sea was swept back and divided in two, completely drying out the ground in the middle to make the way of escape for the Jewish people. We walked through the midst of the Red Sea, a wall of water on either side, and no one’s sandals got muddy! All that night the pillar of fire, which had gone before us, was now behind us, preventing the Egyptians from giving chase. At daylight, however, the angel of the Lord moved behind us, and Pharaoh’s army resumed their pursuit, driving right into the Red Sea. God threw them into chaos and impeded their chariots. The Egyptians perceived that the God of the Hebrews was doing this, and began to flee. God told Moses to stretch out his hand once more over the Red Sea, and the waters rushed back, it drowning every Egyptian soldier.
Our Exodus from Egypt would be the most memorable event for the Jewish people for thousands of years to come. Dor l’dor – from generation to generation we remember that Adonai redeemed us from the house of slavery. Our people feared Him when we saw His deliverance. Egypt, too, learned that their gods were nothing and the God of Israel was the only One.
Chapter 15 contains a song. It might seem odd to have an historical narrative suddenly interrupted like that. But in Scripture, when a story is interrupted in this way, it means we’re supposed to pay special attention. Remember, in ancient times books were not readily available as they are to us today. The Scriptures were read aloud in the assembly, so you had to be a good listener. Whenever a narrative was interrupted by something different – a song, a poem, it was designed to capture your attention! And what do we find in the Song of Moses? Well, among other things, these marvelous refrains:
The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation… Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders… The Lord will reign forever and ever…
Moses’ song is more than a glorified sigh of relief; it is a series of lofty theological truths. Two important facts emerge: 1) the God of Israel is the only God, and, 2) that man cannot save himself. Salvation comes from God alone.
Sadly, the celebration didn’t last. Our people began to complain. In the Wilderness of Sin we ran out of food, got hungry and kvetched. Moses was accused of bringing us out into the wilderness to kill us. God graciously sent manna – supernatural bread from Heaven. He also sent quail. He also sent instructions. We didn’t follow the instructions. We found out the hard way that manna didn’t keep overnight. Then we came to Rephidim and had no water, so again we blamed Moses. God graciously provided water. By the way, the sons of Israel never did apologize to Moses for the accusations.
In chapter 17 the Amalekites attacked Israel. Joshua led Israel’s army, while Moses went up on a hill and lifted his staff. So long as Moses’ staff remained above his head Israel prevailed. But when his arms got weary and came down, Amalek prevailed. Aaron and Hur knew just what to do – they sat Moses down and each of them held up one of Moses’ arms until Joshua completely defeated the Amalekites. Attacking a newly freed people was wicked enough, but later in the Torah we learn that the Amalekites attacked us from the rear, targeting the weak and elderly and those with very young children. God held the Amalekites in utter contempt and later commanded Israel to blot out their very memory from under Heaven! At this victory, Moses built an altar and named it Adonai Nissi – the Lord is my Banner! In the midst of life’s raging battles, the One who is our Banner is always able to come to our aid, leading us to victory!
A few final thoughts:
Pharaoh was in his day what Haman was in his day what Hitler was in his day, and what Planned Parenthood is today: those whose Utilitarian View devalues human identity, and it always leads to murder; and often mass murder. God forbid that we should ever cease to recognize His fingerprint on each and every fellow human being.
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Beshalach בְּשַׁלַּח. Other transliterations: Beshallach or Beshalah