Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

Parashat Beshalah
January 25, 2013 – 15 Shevat 5773

Annual: Ex. 13:17-17:16 (Etz Hayim p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial: 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 Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

The Israelites leave Egypt, following a circuitous route to the Sea of Reeds. They carry the remains of Joseph, fulfilling his wishes and linking the generation of the Exodus to its forbears. God's providential and protective care is manifested by the pillars of cloud and fire that accompany the Israelite refugees by day and by night. In a final act of defiance, Pharaoh and an armed force pursue the Israelites, trapping them at the sea. Moses reassures his panicked followers, splits the sea and the Israelites cross to safety on a dry seabed. The Egyptian army pursues, their chariots malfunction and the soldiers are drowned when the sea closes back on them. From the safety and freedom of the opposite shore, Moses and Miriam – she with timbrel in hand – lead the Israelites in the celebratory "Song at the Sea." The special melody used in reading the Song recalls the Israelites' musical celebration.

Quickly the Israelites' newfound freedom degenerates into a faithless longing for the simplicity and familiarity of Egyptian slavery. Only three days after their salvation at the sea, the Israelites complain of the lack of water. God guides Moses in miraculously rendering sweet the formerly bitter waters of Marah. A central biblical motif is introduced: the survival and well-being of the Israelites will depend upon their fealty to God's commandments.

The Israelites find repast and repose at the oasis of Elim and subsequently are provided with quail for meat, and with manna, which provides both for their physical needs and for their spiritual education. The manna must not be collected on the Sabbath, and so the Israelites must trust that the life-sustaining substance will be provided in double portions on Friday. The people's faith in confronting adversity and privation wavers again at Massah and Meribah, and is at least temporarily restored when Moses produces water from a rock.

The Israelites are attacked by Amalek, whom they defeat in battle. Moses makes a written record of the victory and erects an altar in celebration.

Theme #1: "To Your Health"

"He said, ‘If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer." (Exodus 15:26)

Derash: Study

"God is the ultimate source of healing. Just as He cured the waters at Marah, so will He heal the ills of obedient Israelites. Here, a great deed of God is cited to support an injunction to the Israelites. Until now, God's miracles were directed to convincing Pharaoh to let Israel go." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can repair… If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal." (Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav)

"We must undertake to treat people, even in extremis, even to the very last, in a humane and life affirming way. That means that we must accord the patient's wishes great respect, and our concern for the patient's total well-being must be seamless. Yet above the patient is the presence of the Almighty, closer, it would seem, than at almost any other time. His is the final medical judgment, the final intervention. We seek His guidance and test His instructions by doing all we can to heal and treat the ill, to the last; we recognize His hand by staying ours where it seeks to overrule the very nature of His creation in favor of a new one we have devised." (Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, A Halakhic Ethic of Care for the Terminally Ill)

"In seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences… her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker." (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations)

"When I stand before thee at the day's end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing." (Rabindranath Tagore)

Questions for Discussion

Is good health a boon (and, conversely, ill health a travail) entirely unrelated to our behavior and lifestyle? A reward for our goodness and responsiveness to God's Commandments? A benefit that flows naturally from good living, clear conscience, and an elevated spirit? How might Dickens (above, describing the reclusive Miss Havisham) respond to this question? Rabbi Nachman? Tagore?

When have you experienced God as Healer? How do you understand prayers offered for healing and good health? If obedience to God's Commandments does not guarantee the blessings of good health, what properly motivates our religious observance and fidelity to God's Law?

Consider the Etz Hayim commentary. Which was the more effective prescription by the Divine Healer: the "bitter pill" of the plagues on Egypt… or the sweet and therapeutic transformation of the Israelites' water at Marah? Which brought about the desired result?

Rabbi Reisner eloquently affirms the Biblical model of God as Healer. How does his view lend particular contemporary urgency to our verse? How are we to discern God's "final medical judgment"?

Theme #2: "Documentary Hypothesis"

"Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!'" (Exodus 17:14)

Derash: Study

"Why did God command that His promise to destroy Amalek be written down and also transmitted orally? Since Amalek rejects Israel's mission to elevate humanity, God commanded that His promise to obliterate Amalek be recorded in the Written Torah. The Written Law is, after all, the primary source of Israel's moral influence on the world. And since Amalek also denies Israel's unique spiritual heritage, God commanded that this promise be transmitted verbally, corresponding to the Oral Law, the exclusive Torah of Israel." (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook)

"We are to remember, because Hashem will erase that remembrance? Does this follow, or make any sense? Which is it to be? Are we to remember the cunning and the evil of Amalek, or work towards the goal of wiping away any trace of his existence? History does not need reconstruction or revisionism. Amalek's record need not be stricken from the books. What happened happened, and people can study it till the end of time. Awareness of Amalek's misdeeds is not itself a barrier to the moral progress of human civilization. Glorifying the agenda, the life-style of Amalek is." (Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein)

"The Holocaust is a central event in many people's lives, but it also has become a metaphor for our century. There cannot be an end to speaking and writing about it. Besides, in Israel, everyone carries a biography deep inside him." (Aharon Appelfeld)

"We do not need to proselytise either by our speech or by our writing. We can only do so really with our lives. Let our lives be open books for all to study." (Mahatma Gandhi)

Questions for Discussion

God's instruction to Moses is the Torah's first reference to the process of recording history. What significance is there in the mandate to write aboutAmalek, the archetypical enemy of Israel? That is, why was this specific topic deemed appropriate and worthy of a written record?

What does it mean to Jews to "carry a biography deep inside" us? What is the message of your Jewish "biography"? What future direction do you want that story to take? How does Appelfeld's insight differ from Gandhi's counsel to "proselytize" with our lives, rather than by speech or writing? In what ways is Jewish living intended to convey and express our collective historic memory?

How does God's instruction to Moses regarding Amalek anticipate the contemporary process of documenting and writing about the Holocaust? Does this growing body of literature necessarily contribute to "moral progress"? What can (or must) we do to assure such progress in the post-Holocaust world?

What is Rav Kook's point concerning the Written and Oral Torah? In what ways does our verse speak to the Jewish People's dual historic mandate: elevating humanity and cultivating our own unique spiritual heritage? Which goal do you consider primary? Which is currently in more need of renewed attention?

Historic Note

In Parashat Beshalah, read on January 26, 2013, the Israelite people triumphantly leave Egypt and slavery, crossing the Sea of Reeds on their way to establishing their own nation in the Promised Land. On January 26, 1980, the State of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt established diplomatic relations.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Tu B'Shevat Seder celebrations generally include the sampling of a variety of fruits, accompanied by any of several blessings said prior to their consumption. One should be careful to recite (and Tu B'Shevat seders properly prescribe) berachot in an order reflecting their specificity; that is, the most specific blessings first, followed by incrementally more general blessings, lest a very general blessing (like "she-hakol" – applicable to all fruits, vegetables, and beverages) be recited early in the proceedings and render other berachot unnecessary! Blessings should follow this order of specificity: Ha-Gafen, Ha-Etz, Ha-Adamah, and She-Hakol… being sure the blessings are applicable to the food being consumed. Within these parameters, there is also a traditional precedence determined by species. The species of the Land of Israel (see Deuteronomy 8:8) take precedence over all others, and in the following order: olive, date, grape, fig, pomegranate, roasted wheat, spelt, oat and rye grains. Whole fruits take precedence over fruit that is not whole, and a fruit one usually prefers takes precedence over a fruit one happens to prefer at any given time! (See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 202-212; Rabbi Naftali Hoffner, Dinei Brachot Ha-Nehenin.) Wishing you a Happy Tu B'Shevat!

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016