TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Beshallah

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TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Beshallah Shabbat Shirah
February 8, 2020 | 13 Shevat 5780
Annual | Exodus 13:17-17:16 (Etz Hayim p. 399-422; Hertz p. 265-281)
Triennial | Exodus 13:17-15:26 (Etz Hayim p. 399-414; Hertz p. 265-274)
Haftarah | Judges 4:4-5:31 (Etz Hayim p. 423-431; Hertz p. 281-287)

D’var Torah: On Slivers & Soul-Food
Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Conservative Yeshiva Alumnus

In this week’s parashah, Beshallah, the Israelites leave Egypt and set out towards freedom. In the very first verse of the parashah, we learn that God recognized the shaky psyches of Bnei Israel and routed them via Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds) to minimize the challenges and obstacles that would make them want to return to Egypt: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Shemot 13:18) But as we see in the next chapter, this is exactly what happens at the Sea: “As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the LORD. And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?’” (Shemot 14:10-11)

So what was it about Yam Suf and why did we have to go this way? “Yam Suf” in Gematria (Hebrew numerology) equals 196. 196 is also the Gematria for the word קוץ - a thorn or splinter. Being in Egypt was like having the biggest splinter you could possibly imagine, just stuck there, always causing you pain, and never being able to get it out. And that is what this journey is all about; taking out the sliver.

A sliver looks like the Hebrew letter vav (ו). And when you take out that vav from the middle of the word קוץ you are left with קץ (keitz). Keitz means an end - an end to the suffering in Egypt and end to this chapter of our people’s story. But keitz also means to awaken, as in “Vayikatz Par’o” - “And Pharoah awoke.” Leaving Egypt was meant to be an awakening for the people of Israel. But they needed someone to lead them through this awakening, into this new beginning.

A few weeks ago towards the end of Yosef’s life, he said to his brothers, “And you should take my bones out from here [Egypt].” (Bereishit 50:25) And this week, in Parashat Beshallah, we see Moshe do just that. The very next verse after we learn about the roundabout route, we read, “And Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef.” (Shemot 13:19)

Moshe takes the time to collect Yosef’s bones and bring them with him as they leave, just as Yosef had requested. The rabbis find additional significance in Moshe’ actions by comparing the leadership roles of these two characters. Rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kosov explains that Moshe taught Bnei Yisrael Torah. Moshe nourished their souls, taught them how to do mitzvot and how to care for each other. And Yosef took care of Bnei Yisrael’s physical needs. He provided food and shelter to them in their time of need: “Now Yosef was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land.” (Bereishit 42:6) He filled up their bodies. And the rabbis explain that Moshe knew that Bnei Yisrael needed both of these nourishments - body and soul - so Moshe took Yosef’s bones with them, hoping to step into Yosef’s shoes in a way, and nourish their bodies AND souls. This is the dual-nature of the task of a leader. A leader must find a way to embody Yosef AND Moshe. Every day they must work to engage their followers and fill them up with physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment - both food and soul-food. May the aspiring leaders among us find guidance in both of their examples, and may we find both kinds of nourishment in our own communities this Shabbat.

Parashah Study: A Ridiculed Leader
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Text: Shemot 14:5-7
(5) And it was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart about the people, and they said, ‘what is this we have done, that we sent off Israel from out service?!’ (6) And he harnessed his chariot, and he took his people with him. (7) And he took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over it all.

  • Listen carefully to the various Egyptian voices. Who are the various groups represented in these verses? What is motivating each group? Do they all have the same goal?
  • What difficulty does the phrase “he took his people” pose if read literally?

Commentary: Hizkuni on Shemot 14:6
And he harnessed his chariot: Rashi commented: ‘He himself [harnessed his chariot]’. From here [we learn that] ‘hatred upsets the routine’.

  • What routine was upset?
  • What in the style of the text suggested that Pharaoh himself is acting?
  • What general rule of human behavior does Hizkuni learn here? Can you think of other cases in which this rule explains the behavior of a person? Can you think of another human emotion strong enough to upset normal behavior?

Commentary: Rashi on Shemot 14:6
And he took his people with him: He drew them with words: ‘We suffered, they took our money, and we let them go! Come with me, and I will not behave with you as do other kings. With other kings, it is customary that their servants precede them in battle, but I will precede you,’ as it is says: “Pharaoh drew near” (Exod. 14:10). [This means that Pharaoh] himself drew near and hastened before his armies. ‘It is customary for other kings to take plunder at the beginning, as much as he [the king] chooses. [But] I will share equally with you,’ as it is said: “I will share the booty” (Exod. 15:9).

  • How does Rashi understand the words “he took his people with him”?
  • Rashi’s commentary suggests that the Egyptian people needed to be convinced to come along. Why do you think that they did not wish to join Pharaoh?
  • What arguments does Rashi suggest that Pharaoh might have used to convince his people? If you were to divide them into categories, how would you divide them?
  • Which arguments do leaders use today to convince their people to go to war?

D’var Haftarah: Another Leadership Model
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Biblical stories rarely inform us of the qualifications which engendered God to choose someone as a prophet or as a leader. In fact, much of the time this seems intentional, as if to tell us that any one of us might become qualified under the proper circumstances. Rabbinic sages frequently have a different agenda. Often, they fill in biographical details in order to use the heroes of the Bible as a model. Devorah, the prophetess, is a case in point. In the biblical story, she is introduced to the reader already holding official position as a prophet, judge and leader of the people, with no description of her background other than the name of her husband: “Now Devorah, a prophet-woman, the wife of Lapidot, she it was who judged Israel at that time.” (verse 4:4, Alter translation)

In Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, a late midrashic collection dedicated to ethical teaching, Devorah’s biography is elaborated so that she should play a paradigmatic role: “And what was the nature of Devorah that she merited to be a judge over Israel? … I bear testimony before heaven and earth that whether a person be a non-Jew or a Jew, a man or a woman, a slave or a maid-servant, the Holy Spirit resides with a person only in accordance with their deeds. They said that Devorah’s husband was unlearned. Devorah said to her husband: Go and make wicks and go with them to the Holy Temple in Shiloh. By doing so, [namely providing light for those serving there], you will be counted among the righteous and will merit the world to come. He made his wicks particularly thick so that they would provide much light – that is why he was known as “Lapidot” [meaning “torch”] … The Holy One Blessed be He examines hearts and kidneys [the organ of the body which stores knowledge!]. He said to Devorah: You intended (kavanah] and you made the wicks thick to provide much light, therefore I will make you great in Judah, Israel and among the twelve tribes.” (Ish Shalom ed. pp. 48-9)

It is interesting here to note what this midrash views as proper preparation for leadership. In this story, Devorah serves as someone who provides inspiration for another person to make a positive contribution to society and to better himself. In this role, she seems selfless (and, in fact, many may criticize this midrash because it pictures a woman playing a supportive role for her husband, putting herself in the background). Here, however, it is her willingness to be supportive of others which made her ripe to be the leader of the people. In some sense, I suppose, the message of this story is that true leadership is not about you.

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