Beshallach – the long way is the short way

Going out of Egypt was not the end of the story. G-d wanted the Israelites to get to the Promised Land, but, as this Parsha begins, the way through the Philistine territory (through Gaza) was too short. (These Philistines were ancient Phoenicians, and nothing to do with today’s Palestinians. The Arabs began using the name only in 1964 when the PLO charter was written) G-d says that in an armed confrontation with the Philistines, the Israelites would be afraid, and they would panic and want to go straight back to what they knew: slavery in Egypt. But what does happen is a near-confrontation with the Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds or Red Sea, ‘Yam Suf’. The pillar of cloud comes between the two sides, while G-d spends all night using the east wind to blow the water into two walls with a path in the middle for the Israelites to walk through. Hence the term “Red Sea Pedestrians” as used by Monty Python in ‘The Life of Brian’. It’s unclear whether the Red Sea is the same as the one today. There are several possibilities, and the interesting thing is that the Israelites could have got away via land. But the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptians was one last, very spectacular miracle to punish and educate them, “so the Egyptians should know that I am G-d”, and so that the Israelites should know their slavery was really over. The description of how the walls of water collapsed on the Egyptians has been discussed from a scientific point of view by many people. One theory is that the east wind caused the water to freeze, and then when it stopped blowing the water unfroze. The detail of the wheels falling off the Egyptian chariots was possibly corroborated by Ron Wyatt (see youtube videos) in diving in the Red Sea at Nuweiba. According to his theory, the Israelites crossed from there into today’s Saudi Arabia, which was then Midian (and therefore the site of Mt Sinai), and underwater chariot wheels covered in coral have been found there.

The point remains a relevant one: that the Israelites would not be ready for war as their experience of slavery had affected their mentality. How many Diaspora Jews are ready for an experience of active combat in today’s Israel Defence Forces? How many Israelis have been worn down by 64 years of warfare with their Arab neighbours and are consequently ready to believe anything they think Israel can do to make ‘peace’ with their enemies? It is a miraculous thing that so many Israelis today do have the mentality to take the stress of living in the Middle Eastern neighbourhood.

After the defeat of the Egyptians at the sea, Moshe and the Israelites sang a Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayam) in praise of G-d, followed by Miriam, her tambourine (called in Hebrew ‘Miriam’s drum’) and the women all singing and dancing. It was quite a singalong. Also in this parsha is the giving of the Manna, which rained down from the sky every day except on Shabbat. This was G-d’s education of these former slaves into the idea of a day off. The double manna portion on Fridays is remembered every Friday night when Jewish people have two challot on the table. On every other day, if the Children of Israel kept some Manna for the next day it would rot. But not on Friday. Many people say that if you don’t work on Saturday, G-d makes sure you earn the same amount anyway. It was hard for Jews who came to Australia in the early days, when shops could not open on Sundays and many people worked and shopped on Saturday. Some frum Jews would work Monday to Friday, not show up on Saturday, and be fired the following Monday. The religious Jews who came to Shepparton in Victoria in 1913 bought farms together so that they could make sure not to work on Saturday, and so they would have enough men for a minyan.

Already in the early days in the desert, the Israelites showed their penchant for complaining and whingeing. Of course, when they were thirsty or hungry for meat, they complained. But, as many parents tell their children, there are polite ways of asking.

The parsha ends with a confrontation with Amalek, which was like a war with ‘trainer wheels’. Joshua was the general in the middle, while Moses, Aron and Hur, Miriam’s son, were sitting on top of the hill, in a sort of ‘commentary box’. When Moses’ arms were up, the people did well, but when his arms fell, the Israelites were not successful in their battle. In the end, the Israelites won. Amalek, unfortunately, attacked the Israelites and was not impressed by the splitting of the Red Sea or the Plagues, unlike many nations around the world. This tribe was the archetype of the enemy of the Jews, who would attack us “from generation to generation”. The message seems to be that if we ask for help from G-d we can prevail, and otherwise we can be in trouble. The education of the Israelites continues…

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