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Israel Drazin

Thoughts on the Biblical Portion Beshalach

The weekly biblical portion Beshalach, meaning When Pharaoh “sent out” the Israelites from their centuries of enslavement, tells how the exodus began, Pharaoh pursued the Israelites, the Israelites’ panic, God’s assurance of safety, the splitting of the sea, the survival of the Israelites in the sea while Egyptians drowned, the Israelites sing a song of praise of God, they thank Him and va-ya-a-minu, a word mistranslated by many as “had faith in God,” Moses lead the people three days into the desert, three again, and find only bitter water, God feeds the people manna, “food from heaven,” which fell daily except on Shabbat, the people experience lack of drinkable water again, they are attacked by the tribe Amalek, Joshua leads a band of Israelites to fight and vanquish them, and the portion ends with the obscure verse, “the hand is on the kos of God, Y-h-v-h maintains a war against Amalek from generation to generation.”  

  • Maimonides tells us in his Introduction to his Guide for the Perplexed that the truth is the truth no matter its source, even if the source is an idol worshiper. He, for example, drew many of his rational ideas from the ancient Greek pagan philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Many philosophers, rabbis, and scholars advised people to not simply read books but think about what they are reading. The Chinese thinker Kongzi, whom we call Confucius (551-479 BCE), wrote, “If you learn without thinking about what you have learned, you will be lost. However, you will fall into danger if you think without learning.” That is why the Torah is written in an obscure manner. To prompt us to think and improve ourselves and society.
  • An example is the beginning of this portion. Maimonides stresses in his Guide 3:32 that the underlying lesson if we think about it, helps us understand Judaism. The Torah states in the opening verse that God did not lead the people the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was the shortest way, because the people, accustomed to meek slave thinking, would become frightened by war with the Philistines and rush back to slavery in Egypt. It is impossible, he wrote, for people to suddenly go from one extreme to another. Therefore the Torah had to allow sacrifices because, at the time, they were certain sacrifices would assure them a good life. But the Torah gave many hints encouraging the Jew to think about the matter and realize that God neither wants nor needs sacrifices. And the Torah provides the sages the authority to change the laws.
  • In the Torah, the word amen means “confirm,” to acknowledge that something is true. It does not mean having “faith.” Faith is a passive feeling. It is an idea that Paul introduced to Jewish Christians. He told them they do not have to keep kosher or have males circumcised. As long as they have faith, that is, believe that Jesus is a savior, Jesus who controls matters, will make sure their lives are pleasant. In contrast, confirming is active. It asserts that confirmers agree with what is seen or heard and act accordingly. When the Israelites saw how God saved them at the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptians in 14:31, they va-ya-aminu, they confirmed that Y-h-v-h is God and they will do what God commands. Thus, Jewish tradition states that when individuals say amen when they hear a person make a blessing, it is considered as if they made the blessing also. Thus, Maimonides does not say we should have faith in God but learn to know God by observing what God created or formed. Therefore, Spinoza should be understood as Maimonides; He was not saying God is nature. He was saying God is seen in nature.
  • Many people misunderstand Maimonides’ name. The name Maimonides means “son of Maimon.” The Hebrew acronym Rambam denotes Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. The Hebrew name is the preferred usage of many pious Jews. But it is incorrect. Sephardic Jews such as Maimonides did not use the title Rabbi.
  • Many commentators on this week’s portion criticize Pharaoh when he was told the Israelites fled in 14:5. He exclaimed, “What have we done, that we let Israel go from serving us?” He took 600 of his best chariots and other chariots in Egypt and pursued the children of Israel, “for the children of Israel went out with a high hand.” The commentators say Pharaoh had agreed they could leave. Now he changed his mind. But is this true? Didn’t Moses repeatedly say they wanted to go for three days to make sacrifices, and Pharaoh agreed they could leave for the three days? He was angered that he was tricked.
  • What is the meaning of “with a high hand”? The former Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi J. H. Hertz, explains “confidently and fearlessly.” Why should their confidence disturb Pharaoh? Is it a better understanding that they left mocking the king who fell for their trick?
  • The Israelites seem to be called by two different names in 14:5, Israel and children of Israel. Are the two names different ways of saying the people were Israelites? When and why were they called Israelites? Does Israelites refer to Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel? Why aren’t they called Jacobites?
  • Why does Pharaoh call them Israelites here? When Moses spoke with Pharaoh, he called his people Hebrews. This seems to be the name Pharaoh knew them by.
  • Is the report that Pharaoh took 600 best chariots and all other chariots in Egypt typical biblical hyperbole, exaggerations to highlight the matter?
  • Is the number of Israelites also hyperbole? Verses 12:37-38 state the Israelites numbered “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even much cattle.” How did the Israelite males increase from seventy to six hundred thousand in what tradition states were 210 years of slavery? Midrashim state that women gave birth to many children during these horrendous years. Is this reasonable?
  • Why doesn’t the Torah give us the number of women and children who exited Egypt? If numbered, the total of Israelites would exceed two million. Is this reasonable?
  • Who were the mixed multitude? Were they Egyptians who intermarried with Israelites, or people who saw an opportunity to escape Egypt with the Israelites, possibly other slaves?
  • The poet Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) states in his book Kuzari that Jews have superior biology to non-Jews, so much so that even if a non-Jew converts to Judaism since biology does not change with conversion, the new Jew is inferior to other Jews. Does this make sense since we see that from the beginning, many Jews intermarried, and later many converts joined the Jews, such as King Herod, who ruled Judea just before the Common Era, and there were many rapes of Jewish women? As strange as it may appear at first thought, it may even make sense to say that, in all probability, many people today have “Jewish blood” in them, even antisemites like Hitler.
  • Relying on several biblical commenters, Midrash Mechilta, and the Babylonian Talmud, Joshua Skarf focuses on two similar events in his book ArchitecTorah. The Israelites needed to pass through the dangerous two walls of water of the Red Sea to move from slavery to freedom, and Moses had to pass between two walls of darkness to reach God and obtain the Ten Commandments. After facing the difficulties, the Israelites and Moses became different persons. This should make us realize we must be unafraid to pass through difficult situations and work to be all we can be.
  • The Israelites were saved from their Egyptian pursuers who were drowned in the Red Sea. They saw the event as God interfering with nature and producing a miracle for them. They raised their voices, men and women, and sang a song of praise and thanks to God. This is not the only song of praise and gratitude in the Bible. Most people fail to realize that each is a poetic, not realistic, overstatement of what the singer saw and heard. A classic example is the biblical Joshua 10, where Joshua’s troops were able to beat their Amorite enemy in a single day. When they sang about it, they had Joshua say, “Sun, stand still upon Gibeon, and you moon, in the valley of Aijalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed until the nation had avenged themselves on their enemies.” Unfortunately, many readers misunderstand the biblical poetic style for songs of praise and thanks. The poetic words mean that the day of fighting went so quickly, and the victory came so suddenly that it was as if the sun was standing still.
  • Similarly, when the beloved prophets Elijah and Elisha died, those who thought of their death spoke poetically about it and said they were taken in chariots to heaven.
  • A careful reading of the song sung after the drowning of the Egyptians will reveal many statements that differ from the factual narrative that precedes it in the Torah. These are many poetic elaborations.
  • Anti-Semites criticize the Hebrew Bible as overly cruel because they fail to understand the biblical style. They claim that the Jewish God killed innocent firstborns in the tenth Egyptian plague and many innocent Egyptian soldiers at the Red Sea. They miss the critical message that Maimonides taught in his Guide for the Perplexed 2:48. As I explained previously, he wrote that whenever the Torah states that God did or said something, God did not do it. The event occurred according to the laws of nature. The Torah attributes what happened to God because God created or formed the laws of nature. God did not kill the firstborn and soldiers. The Egyptians caused their deaths.
  • One of the laws of nature that the Bible emphasizes is the law of consequences. Every act produces consequences. People need to learn to be careful about what they do. If a nation murders many male newborns and tosses their bodies in the water, there is a good chance that they will pollute the water, kill fish in it, and cause frogs who can live on land to escape the filth and pollute the land. So too, soldiers need to be careful when they thoughtlessly rush into water. Unless they are careful, they will drown.
  • We noted in the past that the Torah frequently speaks hyperbolically. It exaggerates statements to catch our attention and cause us to think. Should we say that not all Egyptian soldiers died in the water? There is a Midrash that Pharaoh survived.
  • Exodus 15:17 has, as a part of the Israelite song of praise at the Red Sea, the statement “the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.” The commentator Rashi is understood to say that this refers to the third temple that God will build in the messianic era and cause to descend to Jews from heaven. Rashi, like other Jews, insists we must rely on God for everything. Maimonides rejected this view and insisted, as he should, that we must do what needs to be done.
  • The following are some examples of untruthful poetic statements in the Song. “The Lord is a man of War.” “Your right hand, Lord, dashes the enemy in pieces.” “With the blast of Your nostrils, the waters were piled up. The floods stood upright as a heap.” “The mighty men of Moab trembled.”
  • Why does the Torah tell us what “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” sang at that time?
  • Why is she called a “Prophetess”?
  • Why is she identified as the sister of Aaron and not Moses and Aaron?
  • Is her song better than the longer song sung previously? She sang a single sentence, “Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted, the horse and his rider he threw into the sea.”
  • Moses led the people into the desert after the episode of the drownings. “They traveled for three days in the desert and did not find water.” Here we have “three” again. Should we understand it means a “relatively short distance” or that it was three days?
  • Why couldn’t they find water? Moses had been a shepherd in the area. Didn’t he know where he was taking the people?
  • Then they came to Marah and could not drink the water there because it was bitter. The people “murmured against Moses.” When the rabbis discussed why the second temple was destroyed, they said it was because the people could not get along. They fought with each other and made it easy for the Romans to destroy the temple and exile many Judeans from the land. Historians agree that this is true. Doesn’t this problem still exist today?
  • Moses cried to God for help. God showed him a tree. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. What happened here? Was this a miracle? How can a fallen tree sweeten water?
  • Then, Moses “made for them chok u-mishpat, a statute and ordinance. “He said if you will carefully listen to the voice of Y-h-v-h your God” and do what he requires, “all the diseases that I placed on the Egyptians, I will not put on you, for I, Y-h-v-h am your healer.” The first part of the statement indicates that two things were given. But what follows is just one lesson: neither a statute nor an ordinance. How should we interpret this?
  • Rashi, relying on Sanhedrin 56, interprets that Moses gave the Israelites a few sections of the Torah, the laws of Shabbat, the red heifer, and justice. When did Moses learn these laws? Why do the Talmud and Rashi say this when the Torah only says he told them why they should obey God?
  • Moses led the people further, and they murmured again. This time they were hungry. God told Moses he would give the people bread from heaven. This was manna. God said He would do so to test whether the people would do what He instructs. He will give just enough each day for people to eat. But on Friday, He would give a double portion so they will not have to collect the food on Shabbat. Why does God have to test the people? Isn’t God all-knowing?
  • Why was food not sent on Shabbat? Is this why the Talmud and Rashi say that Moses taught the laws of Shabbat to the Israelites at Marah?
  • The portion ends with Moses saying after the victorious battle with Amalek the obscure verse, “the hand (of God) is on the kos of God, Y-h-v-h maintains a war against Amalek from generation to generation.” What is kos? Is it as just about everybody maintains “seat” missing the final Hebrew letter hay? Is it a mistake, a scribe misspelled the word? Are there other misspellings in the Torah? Are we expected to believe that God ensures that no error ever enters the Torah when copied?
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.