Five Rashis, Beshalach: Success and Failure at Accepting Hashem’s Help

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

I’m not sure there’s a big theme this week. If there is, it’s that we begin to see the complications of living in a world where Hashem is there and helping, but we are meant to make our contributions as well. That figures in our experience of war, in one rabbi’s experience of non-Jews (and their failure to acknowledge Hashem), in Rashi’s insertions of the parah adumah where it doesn’t obviously belong, and in the Jews’ experience of the manna, along with its lessons for the rest of Jewish history.

Giving Room to Succeed, Even When We’ll Fail

Early on, 13;17, this week’s parsha notes that Hashem took the Jews on a route that avoided Plishtim, lest the people have a change of heart when they saw war so soon after having left Egypt. Other commentators wonder at that, since the route the Jews took was the one that brought them to Sinai to receive the Torah, as Hashem had told Moshe would happen when this whole process started.

Rashi doesn’t address that issue. What he does note, on the words בראתם מלחמה, is that when the Jews’ heard from the spies (more than a year later, in Bamidbar 14;4) that they’d have to fight the Amalekites and Canaanites, they reacted exactly as predicted, agitating for another leader, who would take them back to Egypt.

Rashi offers it as a קל וחומו, an argument a fortiori—if they did that then, after having seen so many miracles, all the more so that they’d have done it had Hashem taken them on a direct route. But the argument is its’ own question: if the people were going to mishandle the challenge of facing enemies either way, why not rip off the bandage now, as it were? I might even argue that their sin would have been less serious had they reacted that way before seeing the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, the daily מן, manna.

Rashi doesn’t say, but his comment implies to me that Hashem gives us as many chances as possible to succeed. We were not predestined to react to the spies’ report as we did; we just did. Had we encountered Plishtim within a few days of leaving, Hashem diagnosed that there was no way we wouldn’t chase back to Egypt. Taking us the circuitous route gave us some chance to do it better. We didn’t, in the end, but that’s what Hashem sought.

A reminder that when we see Jewish history, much of it isn’t what Hashem decided should happen, it’s what we made happen.  All along the way, Hashem has been giving us opportunities to make better choices and achieve better outcomes. Some of which we’ve taken, but many of which we’ve missed.

What’s With R. Shimon b. Yochai and Non-Jews?

On 14;6, Rashi reports a comment of R. Shimon b. Yochai’s from Tanchuma VaEra 20. When Par’oh leaves to chase the Jews, 14;7, the verse refers to his taking 600 of the best chariots, and all the riders of Egypt. Rashi wonders where all these animals came from, since we had been told that the pestilence and hail wiped out the Egyptians’ animals. His answer is that 9;20 noted that some Egyptians feared the word of God and brought their animals to safety.

All well and good, except that those same Egyptians now apparently joined Par’oh to chase the Jews. Reacting to that, R. Shimon b. Yochai said it shows that the best of the Egyptians was terrible (his phrase was: kill the best of the Egyptians, crush the best of snakes).

It would be an arresting comment if it stood alone, but I found two similar comments by R. Shimon b. Yochai. Sifrei Bamidbar Beha’alotcha 69 (in a series of explanations of words that have dots above them in the Torah scroll) says that Bereshit 33;4 (which is where Rashi quotes it), has dots above the word וישקהו to show that Esav kissed Ya’akov insincerely. R. Shimon b. Yochai says that while it is well-known that Esav hates Ya’akov, here his compassion was aroused, and he kissed him with full brotherly love.

A third example is in Shabbat 33b, the story of R. Shimon b. Yochai spending a year in a cave with his son. What some might not know is that the Gemara sees the precipitating event to that year in a discussion R. Shimon had with R. Yehudah and R. Yose, in which R. Yehudah praised the Romans for their public works projects, R. Yose stayed silent, and R. Shimon said they did it all out of self-interest (which displeased the Romans).

The three comments paint R. Shimon b. Yochai as a determined realist regarding non-Jews: for him, the best of the Biblical Egyptians were ready to chase the Jews a few days after they left, Esav had a moment of true love for his brother, on a background of general hatred, and the Romans did much of value for the broader public, but all out of self-interest.

What’s With Rashi and the Red Heifer?

At Marah, where the waters were bitter and then healed, 15;25 tells us Hashem gave the Jews some Torah, first steps in learning the discipline of living Jewishly. Rashi lists Shabbat, פרה אדומה, the red heifer, and dinin, civil law and/or a court system. Some have pointed out that the red heifer is an odd member of that trio, since the Jews did not yet have any laws of ritual purity or a Tabernacle or Temple where they would apply.

In addition, Sanhderin 56b, Rashi’s source, lists ten commandments the Jews received at Marah, the seven Noahide laws, Shabbat, כיבוד אב ואם, honoring one’s parents, and dinin, (The Gemara is bothered by that last one, since it’s also one of the Noahides, but that’s not our topic).  Seemingly, Rashi substituted the red heifer for honoring one’s parents. An immediate solution, which I’ve heard advanced as the solution, is that a scribe erroneously converted the acronym for kibbud av, honoring one’s parents, כ”א, to one that could mean parah adumah, פ”א.

Maybe, but it would have taken more than one scribal error. In 24;3, when Moshe speaks to the people prior to the giving of the Torah, he tells them כל המשפטים, all the laws. Understanding that to mean the laws they have so far, Rashi repeats Sanhedrin’s list of ten commandments given at Marah, and again refers to the red heifer, פרה אדומה, instead of honoring one’s parents. Ramban quotes this Rashi, on 15;25, and also has parah adumah, meaning the scribal error would have had to have been made early (and Ramban had to not notice or question it).

Laws Without Reasons

Rashi makes that same “error” on the next verse. When giving the Jews these laws, 15;26, Moshe Rabbenu tells them of the protection from ills Hashem will provide if they obey His Will. Moshe refers to משפטיו and חקיו, roughly translated as Hashem’s laws and statutes.

To distinguish the two, Rashi says חקים, statutes, are Divine decrees with no reason (Rambam would have said no immediately obvious reason; it’s unclear whether Rashi would have agreed), which therefore lead our evil inclination to challenge us, to urge us to disobey.  Rashi gives examples, the prohibition against wearing shatnez, eating pig, and parah adumah. As above, his source for this comment, Sifra Acharei Mot 9 has pig and shatnez as examples (and others—chalitzah, the rituals for purifying a metsora, the scapegoat on Yom Kippur), but not the red heifer.

To me, something else Rashi omitted from this Sifra suggests a reason he inserted the red heifer in so many places where it did not appear in the original. Rashi spoke of our evil inclination challenging us because of these laws’ having no reason, but Sifra mentioned that that nations of the world did that as well. Why would Rashi leave that out?

It makes me wonder whether non-Jews of Rashi’s time—who did engage Jews in conversations, trying to prove the superiority of their worldview—pointed to parah adumah as a problematic observance. If so, it would be a practice Rashi “saw” everywhere, and whose importance in Jews’ minds he was focused on strengthening. At the same time, he didn’t want to mention that previous non-Jews had attacked this issue, so his contemporaries wouldn’t know he was responding to them. His point might have been to respond to challenges of his time while seeming to engage solely in textual interpretation. It’s a guess, but it explains the fact of Rashi’s several surprising insertions of parah adumah.

The Importance of Effort

16;17 tells us that the Jews ended up with the same amount of man whether they gathered a little or a lot. On the words המרבה והממעיט, Rashi says that people actually gathered different amounts (some spent more time or invested more effort), but when they measured it, they found they had gotten the same amount, an omer per person.

On the sixth day, 16;22 says they gathered double, but according to Rashi they only discovered that when they measured it, back at their house. Their gathering experience was the same, Rashi is telling us, with a different result this day.

It raises the question of why they had to try at all. If Hashem is going to give them one omer per person, and two on Erev Shabbat, no matter how much effort they put in, what are they doing? Perhaps the answer is too easy, that they had to put some effort into it, but how did they know what was enough? What led one person to gather for an hour, working hard, and another to gather for a casual half hour, when, after a few weeks of this, they had to know they were both going to get the same amount? Why wouldn’t I walk out to where the man was, pick up a scoop, and turn around and go back to my tent?

Rashi doesn’t answer; my guess is that each person was required to do as much work as felt like it was enough to gather that amount for each member of the family (I alluded to this in “You Can’t Change Human Nature,” a short story in Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, available in both print and Kindle at Amazon). Some people, perhaps less secure in the process, took longer before they felt they’d gathered a day’s worth of food.

That seems to me a sensible standard. Especially when Hashem gives us our sustenance directly, it might be our job to work at it until we feel we’ve put in the reasonable effort that Hashem would expect of us to give us our sustenance for that day. Which can differ from person to person.

From the Man to Earning Our Livelihoods Even When It’s Not Raining Down

In 16;32, when Hashem tells Moshe to put a canister of man aside for all generations to see. On the word לדרותיכם, Rashi says this was especially for the times of Yirmiyahu, whose listeners told him they could not learn Torah because they were busy making a living. In Yirmiyahu 2;31, he calls on them to see Hashem’s words, since the man shows that Hashem has many ways to offer us our livelihood.

It seems to me to capture the two sides of the question. Even when the man was raining down, we had to earn our keep in some sense; all the more so once we get to Israel and are expected to work the land and otherwise build an economy—it’s not like there’s ever an indication that we are allowed to sit back and leave it to Hashem. (At the end of Hilchot Talmud Torah, Rambam seems to imply one could rely completely on Hashem so as to be able to learn Torah full time, but not at the cost of expecting or asking the community to support him; that calls for a longer discussion).

At the same time as we are clear that we have to do our part, the man—and Moshe’s being told to have it available for all generations to see—reminds us that it’s also true that our earnings come from Hashem. We never make our fortune wholly as a function of our efforts. I know skilled, hardworking people who reap little, and the reverse, those who stumble into untold wealth.

We are to remember both sides. We have to do our part or we won’t get, but as we do our part, we have to remember that it’s ultimately from Hashem, and therefore a mistake to allow our search for livelihood to prevent us from the other important aspects of our lives, such as the study of Torah.

Five Rashis for the week of Parashat Beshalach.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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