Parashat B'shalach is a culminating scene in a part of our Torah which reads almost like a screenplay. Pharaoh finally releases the Hebrews from Egypt, only to change his mind again and chase after them with a force of 600 chariots. At the Sea of Reeds, God parts the waters and saves the Hebrews from slavery once and for all, drowning the Egyptians in their wake. The liberated Israelite slaves sing and dance expressing their unalloyed joy. But, the celebratory mood soon devolves into incessant kvetching. Moses and the Children of Israel must now survive the desert, a test greater than bondage for some. God sends them manna from the sky, and in a further manifestation of divine power enables the Israelites to win their first battle against the mighty Amalekites.
In the first aliyah, the Children of Israel set out from under Pharaoh's yoke into the desert. Massive beacons lead the way:
The Eternal went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they may travel by day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (13:21-22)
This week's parashah contains quintessential Biblical poesy. The images convey as much meaning as the words. The miraculous experience conveyed in the Exodus is revolutionary, and it cannot be confined to prose.
The image of the pillars is our first stunning portrait. Giant plumes of clouds, fire, and the resulting smoke, visible for miles around, make a lasting impression on every witness. Modern commentator Robert Alter interprets the scene as a sort of poetic justice: "This spectacular panoramic picture of the Israelite throngs following these miraculous guides through the wilderness nicely counterpoints the plagues that preceded. Several of the plagues involved destruction descending from the sky. Here a great mass of cloud descends from the sky to lead Israel. The penultimate plague plunged Egypt into terrifying darkness, and now a column of divine fire serves as a huge beacon to show Israel the way through the dark of the wilderness." ( The Five Books of Moses, 389)
The Israelites leave Egypt after generations of slavery. The plagues, pillars and journey in the desert are each stepping stones towards physical and spiritual freedom. Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092-1167) comments that Israel had learned to fear Egypt "from their youth." (cited in Plaut, 456) The pillars' constant presence is a source of comfort to the Israelites. They could not move immediately from dependence to independence. They needed reassuring signs that God was in their presence. The pillars were visible reminders that their emancipation was not an event, but a process. In the United States, there are people who are only a few generations removed from slavery. To them, slavery is not history, it is memory. The Pesach s'darim try to facilitate this understanding to the Jews of every generation. As we are reminded in the Haggadah, "It is incumbent for each person to see him or herself as though he or she came out from Egypt."
God is not only powerful, but caring. The generation who left Egypt witnessed God's awesome might in the titanic struggle against Pharaoh. They could have answered the question "Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped?" (Exodus 15:11) with the response, "No one. You, Adonai are the greatest, strongest God." That would have been true, but it would not have been the whole truth. It is divine providence, not divine potency that distinguishes Adonai. As great as the demonstration which God made at the Reed Sea may have been, it was in the pillars of cloud and fire that an indispensable element of God was revealed to the children of Israel. God is not only manifest in the supernatural, but in the natural. The morning blessings begin with an expression of praise for the God who gives discernment to the rooster (thereby heralding sunrise). The ability to see the supernatural in the natural and the transcendent in the mundane is a blessing. We may wait a lifetime and never see the waters part. Yet, we may miss the signs of God's daily revelations in the acts of benevolence that surround us.
The epic poetry of the Song at the Sea stands out in both form and content. Indeed, liturgical tradition asks us to stand up to hear it read, a distinction shared with the two versions of the Ten Commandments. As in the life of Moses, moments of pure poetry are rare in human life. Therefore, we each need to search to find God's presence in the prosaic, through the obscuring clouds and the forbidding fire.
- How can a song help you to express emotion better than simply speaking? Experiment with singing sentences in different ways and see how the medium can change the message.
- What consistent calming presences in your life give you comfort? What routines help to put order into your life? What figures seem to always be there?
- What do you think the pillars symbolize? What images do they bring to your mind?
For Further Learning
Our parashah includes the well known Song of the Sea. We know the first few verses as Mi Chamocha, a prayer within the series of blessings we say surrounding the Sh'ma in every worship service. The way this text appears is the closest we get to an illustration in the Torah. In Gunter Plaut's the Torah: A Modern Commentary, there is a unique flourish to the pages containing the Song of the Sea. Look at and read pages 438-441 of the Revised Edition. What do you see? What images in your head are evoked by seeing the illustrations on the page? What is different about the Hebrew text? Why do you think the text is represented this way?
For a bonus challenge, find another place in the Torah where the Hebrew text is written differently? (Hint: look carefully at the Hebrew text for Deuteronomy 6:4, page 1201 in the revised Plaut commentary.) Do you know why that text is different?