Exodus 13:17 - 17:16  Lesson 16 Notes
Torah Portion Beshalach

I. Introduction - Events that Mark the Journey 

I want our study through this portion to feel like the first part of a journey where we re-visit experiences the Israelites had after they were freed from bondage in Egypt. The portion - b'shallach - is about what happens to those "when let go" from bondage in Egypt. 

These experiences - including the deficiencies the people brought to them, Moses' leadership, God's help, the lessons learned, and perhaps some growth achieved - will be our focus today. 

Each major experience in this portion, I believe, involves a serious problem that confronts the Israelites, a weakness or deficiency on the part of the people, often a challenge to Moses' leadership, a need for God's intervention, and generally some sort of growth. The people are brought to a deeper understanding of what God is asking and expecting from them. And, of course, the lessons learned, the path to a transformed life with God, are there for them as well as us. 

 I'd like to have some discussion in the last 10 minutes or so today to pull out your impressions of these experiences and their trajectory as we study them. What do we see; what do we learn? In what ways are people strengthened on the journey? Militarily? Spiritually? Communally? Individually? In relationship to God and each other? 

What's discreet to each experience? What's common? And do the lessons from experience to experience build on each other? If so, how? So, be thinking about this during our study, and share your thoughts in our closing moments. 

 A. First, let's begin by reading 13:17-19. 

1. What do we make of the dual lesson we learn in the first sort of experience in these verses - that the great request was fulfilled (to let my people go), yet the people were not ready and had to journey in a roundabout manner?

Being let go is necessary but in no way sufficient. Indeed it may be that God's taking over with a different direction may have been to counter Pharaoh's direction of leading the people out. In fact, we might ask whether Pharaoh's action might have been intended to cause some sort of perpetuating attachment to, connection with, the people. (?)

It will be a long journey with different markers to get to strength and readiness. This journey will be both physical and spiritual. This portion will be a lot about these markers. We learn here, in addition, that the short path, without obstacles and struggles, does not lead to true fulfillment of the things that matter most. Faith and strength require time, hard work, effort, God's hand, and a transformation that's difficult to achieve. 

Did God's making the people take the roundabout path entice Pharaoh to consider coming back after them, thus causing his complete defeat?)

2. What do we make of the second marker - they came out "armed?" The Hebrew word is difficult. Hamushim. Armed? Five or fifty? Resolute? With a high hand, not seeming as weak as former slaves? We don't know what, if any, arms they had, or whether or how organized they were militarily. So, what might "armed" mean?

(Obviously they're not so well armed that they could go straight! But...

They are armed with Joseph's bones! What's the significance of that?

(It honors oath, remembers tradition and example, keeps faith with an ancestor who also played a saving hand with God's support. This all has a strengthening effect. Being "armed" with having done these brings remarkable power to a people. And, especially for Moses, this act surely has the effect of bringing Joseph's strengths and virtues upon himself. And it's a tribute to Moses that he felt and acted upon the duty to do this, especially in the midst of all his other responsibilities.)

B. Read 13:20-22. What is the third strengthening marker of the journey? What do we make of the image of the Lord going before them in a cloud and the fire?

Dynamic presence of God. God going before them. Another verb action. Continuous motion, that has the feel of God leading a battalion. 

The metaphor is also of support of protection: a) by a cloud of cover in the vulnerable time of day, b) as a guide by day, c) by the intimacy as within a cloud with the tactile feel of mist with God and the people to grow and get closer, and d) fire by night for light and maybe show of power and cause of awe. This presence "does not depart from the people."

This image, which surely resonated of the impact of those plagues that also "came from the clouds," must have been powerful and intimidating.

Listen to this fabulous account from the Zohar: Within the pillar celestial hosts and chariots accompanied the Shekinah (the feminine aspect of God that is often very close to us on earth, perhaps akin to the idea in Christianity of the Holy Spirit) on the way from Egypt, singing and praising God for his deeds, at which point God awakened and strengthened the broken spirits of the Israelites.  "All the ways emitted healing savors which entered their bodies, and the singing...entered their souls, filling their spirits with joy and gladness.")

C. The fourth marker - the miracle at the sea.  Read 14:5-7, 10-18, 21-31. 

1. What's the response of the Israelites to the advance of Pharaoh? What does it represent?

(They still have a slave mentality. Their faith is lacking. The Baal Shem Tov had a nice idea: we think we can run away from our problems only to find them running after us.)

2. What's this business with God's response to Moses: Why do you cry out to Me? Is it Moses crying out on his own, or is he crying out on behalf of the people? And how generally are we to interpret these verses?

This is very complex with many possibilities, which causes us to see that there's really sufficient mystery here we should be cautious about being too sure. Here are some very differing ideas:

a) Isn't it natural for the people whose salvation was due entirely to God's redemptive hand to feel dependent and cry out in this manner? 

b) Or was there a weakness or shallowness in the prayer, perhaps in its manner or purpose, especially in the context of their complaining spirit expressed at this time? 

c) Just to complicate your thinking even more, there are some sages who say the people did have faith here and that's why they were saved. It may be that God was saying He didn't need any more prayer from Moses, that Moses had had the instruction, and it was past time for his prayers. Indeed some say Moses was crying out not about the peril but out of frustration at the people's continuing murmuring toward him (and his leadership!), and God is saying: stop, and get going!

Here's mine: This is a different struggle than what occurred in Egypt. Now the people need to begin to stand up, take their place, play their role. They've been freed, and now they need to begin to show the signs of responsibility and duty and action befitting a people who will begin to take charge, as God's partner, of their destiny. This is a time for action, not merely a sort of timid prayer. 

There is a beautiful midrash that there was actually one man, a fellow named Nachson, of the tribe of Judah, who was first to proceed into the water. He walked in faith and at the moment the water was at the level of his mouth and nose, the waters parted for the people to walk through. 

Is it possible, too, that this is an internal or spiritual struggle, a very different struggle, that the people must take on themselves? Could this be an internalized Pharaoh they're confronting and must move beyond and actually witness and facilitate (with God's support) his destruction?

Carrying this spiritual or internal idea further, we could think that this is why God brought them here, the roundabout way, to see the topography of their wounded souls, below the surface of the sea, where they must act to move forward, to go through, so that the Egypt (in them!) is drowned!)

D. The Song Of the Sea - Chapter 15

We'll not spend much time with this beautiful poem. Please, please read it on your own. It's fantastic, and represents, I believe,  the fifth marker of growth on the journey in our portion, and a necessary step as the people enter the wilderness. Plus, we must understand the significance of this song in that it is the first singing of praise of God in the Bible. 

It's an acknowledgment of God's triumph, His serving as their strength and deliverance, and, crucially, their commitment to "enshrine" Him as their God. It's outwardly gratitude to God for deliverance, and inwardly a sense of gratitude and a direction to absorb the lessons. The song takes the experience beyond witnessing the miracle. This is a huge advance, though we know, there is so much further to go. 

Take a look at verse 11. Read it. This verse on the incomparability of God is a key part, sung indeed, in traditional Jewish worship. 

Finally, you'll note at the end of the song verses that show the glorious impact of the redemption in that all the world has seen God's might and that the way is paved first for this people and then, as we studied in the prophets, for all the world, that "The Lord will reign for ever and ever!" (18). 

Ramban says, "Moses is saying that just as He has now shown that He is King and Ruler by having brought deliverance to His servants and destruction upon those that rebel against Him, so may it be His will to do so in all generations forever..."

E. Read 15:22- 27

What? After the signs and wonders, the salvation at the sea, and the beautiful and heartfelt song at the sea, what happens in 24? How is that possible?

(Witnessing and singing are simply not enough. After enough "thirst," there is still, even after all these remarkable markers,  thirst! The pain and difficulty in life and inclination to stray never go away. We must be aware of it, combat it, be aware of God's miracles on our behalf, and, perhaps, mostly know that God has given us the encouragement, the guidance, and the reward for following His direction. 

What is the next marker? What does the "piece of wood"represent and how does it sweeten the water, metaphorically?

It's a foretaste of Torah, of God's guidance on how to live. We call Torah eytz hayim, the tree of life. This "wood" in the "water" "sweetens" life, avoiding "diseases" of Egypt and leading to springs and palms. Always look for allusions to trees and water. God's guidance in the flow of life. We may have bitterness in life, but God gives us instruction and support that can make it sweet. 

In 26, we see a new name of God, our healer.  "Healer" suggests that we may fall away or have disease, etc., and that God can heal from it. 

This experience - the challenge, understanding, learning, and growth from it - is the sixth marker I see on this part of the journey.)

F. Read 16:1-5

What do we continue to see, and what are our new insights here about the deficiencies that remain in the people and the treatment for them?

(When, out of bread but with memories of Egypt oriented to fleshpots rather the horrors of bondage (so, all of Egypt is not yet purged; indeed is it ever?), God rains down quail but primarily manna each day, with double portion to avoid collection on Shabbat. This marker conveys that God provides adequate daily spiritual support and well being and a sense that sufficiency from the Source (rather than excess and over-acquisitiveness) is the ideal.)

G. Eighth, let's ponder what happens at Rephidim, with no water, leading to regrets about leaving Egypt, quarrelsomeness, doubting God, anxiety of a deep nature that might extend to death. Moses is desperate really. 

This is a case of God's gift to the leader of an instrument to open up from the rock (God?) to generate a flow of saving water. We've talked about wells and water and Moses being drawn from and drawing water. Yet, here the marker at moments of absolute fear and desperation really comes almost entirely down to God's love and mercy and saving hand. 

H. Read 17:8 - 13. 

While we don't have time to get into who Amelek is and what the specific significance of this battle with him might mean, here and for the future, we can discuss the broad  significance of this experience. Thoughts?

(When weak, we're vulnerable to attack, but, with God's help, the people can come through a journey of the sort we've re-experienced today and begin to get ready for battle. Now they are organized with a plan. This certainly was not possible until now. The journey has led to a certain readiness of that sort. It was hard. What do you make of verse 12?

Beautiful! God expects us to support each other in our faith in God and our help of each other.  And that contributes crucially to victory.)

II. Conclusion - we've come a long way in the journey in this portion, a good way from Egypt to the first possible entry into the land. Final reflections before we wrap up?

Torah Portion Beshalach   Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

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