PARASHAT BESHALLAH - TU B’SHEVAT - SHABBAT SHIRAH
February 3, 2007 – 15 Shevat 5767
Annual: Ex. 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 14:26 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 405; Hertz p. 269)
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Summary of the Parashah
Following the tenth plague, the Israelites left Egypt promptly. It did not take long for Pharaoh to change his mind about allowing them to leave and to send his army, complete with chariots, in hot pursuit of the former slaves. The army threatened to overtake the Israelites at the Reed Sea (known to some as the Red Sea. Scholars disagree as to the exact location of this body of water). The miraculous crossing of the parted sea by the Israelites is a miracle about which we take note in our prayer services every day, as we quote from it. We say “mi-komokhah,” at both Shaharit and Arvit services. Chapter 15 of Exodus, which we read this morning, contains a celebration of the crossing of the sea in lyric song.
Not long after they crossed the sea, the Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of food, and then of their lack of fresh water. Both these problems were resolved, although not without friction and testing.
The Israelite camp is attacked by the warriors of Amalek. Under Moses’ leadership, the attack is successfully repelled. God directs Moses to record this event.
Issue #1: Trapped by the Egyptian Army
As the Israelites were being chased by Pharaoh’s army, their only escape route was blocked by the Sea of Reeds. Limited options were available. Some of the recently freed slaves chose to express themselves through protest:
Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying: Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness! (Exodus 14:11-12)
Moses preferred to pray; but God said to him in response:
Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward! (Exodus 14:15)
Clearly this was a time for definitive action. Although the text of the Torah does not specify exactly who seized the initiative, a midrash related in the Talmud, aptly enough in the name of Rabbi Judah, seeks to fill in this gap.
This tribe said: “I will not descend first into the sea,” and that tribe said: “I will not descend first into the sea.” Nahshon ben Aminadav (of the tribe of Judah) sprang forward and descended into the sea. (Sotah 37a)
Nahson’s leadership apparently was rewarded later, when he was selected to be the first of the tribal representatives to bring an offering at the ceremony of commemoration of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – in the desert (Numbers 7:12).
When is reliance on quick action mandated? When is a slower approach a better one? Is it possible to devise guidelines as to when a problem needs to be studied and contemplated, and when definitive action should be undertaken? Can one create guidelines which are universally applicable? Or, could it be this is an example of what must be situationally decided?
Issue #2: Manna and Sabbath Observance
Chapter 16 is devoted to the sustenance of the Israelites, both physically and spiritually. First we read the complaint of the people that they lack the ready availability of foods that they had in Egypt. God responds by telling Moses:
I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion – that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. But on the sixth day, when they prepare what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day. (Exodus 16:4-5)
Later, there is more instruction about the observance of the Shabbat, still using the manna as a context for teaching. On a Friday, the people were told:
Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath of the Lord. Bake what you would bake and cook what you would cook; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.
To this day, many Jews place two loaves of challah on the Shabbat table to honor the Sabbath and to recall the gift of manna in the desert. This practice of placing a double portion on the table is referred to as lechem mishneh, a phrase borrowed directly from verse 22 of this chapter.
It is many people’s custom to have two loaves of challah not only on Friday evening, but for Shabbat lunch as well. The Shulkhan Arukh, a basic code of law from the medieval period, mandates:
“The ‘great kiddush’ is said with two loaves, just as in the evening.” (Laws of Shabbat, Oreh Hayim 289)
Why has the custom of having two loaves at each meal, not just on Friday night, remain strong? Should we spend some time each week explaining this custom? Are there other such customs for Shabbat and Holy Days that might benefit from regular review and discussion?
As you reread Chapter 16, what other incidents about manna do you find? Notice the guidelines given to the people about how to collect and eat the manna. How did those who sought to test the limits learn that these rules were more than mere suggestions?