Parashat B'shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) contains a startling mixture of themes and symbols: manifestations of God's power and miracles, God and Israel testing each other, complaints against Moses and Aaron, water, manna, and the staff of God. It is the bridge between the redemption from Egyptian slavery and the revelation at Sinai, a foundation for the image of Israel as a rebellious people, and—as we shall see—a narrative and poetic passage of Torah that challenged the ancient Rabbis' understanding of God's nature for reasons that still challenge us today.
The parashah begins with a description of the circuitous route that the Israelites were compelled to follow as they began their departure from Egypt, a description of their armed condition, and the introduction of the "pillar of cloud" and "pillar of fire" that were to lead the people through their desert wanderings (Exodus 13:17-22). The explanation of the circuitous route is presented immediately as the opportunity for God to demonstrate saving power at the Sea of Reeds, with the miraculous salvation of Israel and the drowning of Pharaoh and his army (Exodus 14). The Song at the Sea, one of the greatest victory poems in all of human literature, celebrates God's overturning the Egyptians (Exodus 15:1-21).
This parashah also describes Israel's test of Moses and God at Marah, the place of bitter water, and the miraculous transformation that occurs as God causes Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water to turn it sweet (Exodus 15:22-25). Chapters 16 and 17 present a series of scenes of the Israelites grumbling and complaining against Moses for lack of bread, meat, and water, and of God's providence in providing these, ultimately in the form of manna, with its miraculous properties. The parashah ends with the victory over Amalek and God's promise "I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven!" (Exodus 17:14) and the proclamation "The Eternal will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages" (Exodus 17:16).
As Reform Jews, we are attracted to passages in rabbinic literature that mitigate some of the more ferocious aspects of Deity as presented in Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. For this reason, one particular tradition speaks to us of God's sadness or compassion or caring—even as Pharaoh and his hosts are about to drown in the sea.
Rabbi Samuel bar Nachmani said, "Why is it written '. . . so that the one could not come near the other all through the night' (Exodus 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to utter [a joyous victory] song in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be God. The Holy One, blessed be God, said to them, 'The work of My hands are drowning in the sea and you are going to sing [a joyous victory] song in My presence!'" ( Yalkut Shimoni , Torah, 235 and other sources, trans. Rabbi Lewis M. Barth).
The Exodus verse in context clearly means that the Egyptians did not come near the Israelites as the Israelites passed through the sea. However, Rabbi Samuel bar Nachmani interprets the verse as if it is a reverse echo of the chorus of seraphs seen by the prophet Isaiah who joined together "and one would call to the other, 'Holy, Holy, Holy [is] Adonai of Hosts!'" (Isaiah 6:3). It is likely that the midrash plays on the similarity of expression "one to the other," while noticing the similarity of the first two letters of the verbs in each verse ( kuf-reish-bet, "to come near"; kuf-reish, "to call"). What appeals to us in this midrash is God's compassion, the capacity to care for one's enemies even as they are being destroyed.
In fact, the biblical text expresses just the opposite view. It presents an image of Deity whose primary goal in destroying the Egyptians is twofold: (1) God's desire to express God's own power and (2) God's decision to force the Egyptians and certainly the Israelites to recognize that power. Exodus 14:4 states this idea clearly, and the idea is reprised in 14:17-18.
Here are several English translations of Exodus 14:4, followed by a quote from the medieval commentator Rashi, to help us imaginatively understand the emotion with which these Hebrew words are spoken :
- ". . . that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Eternal" (W. Gunther Plaut ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary , rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005])
- ". . . that I may assert My authority against Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know. . . (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary [New York: UAHC, 1981])
- ". . . and I will get me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; and the Egyptians shall know . . . " ( The Holy Scriptures [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1951])
- ". . . so that I may win glory for myself at the expense of Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know . . . " (M. Jack Suggs, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Mueller, eds., The Oxford Study Bible [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992])
Unlike the midrash quoted above, the biblical text pictures God as expressing God's authority; desiring to gain glory, honor, or recognition; and intending to build an image of awesome power so that in destroying the Egyptians the people will come to know who "the Eternal" is. Rashi's comment on Exodus 14:4 deepens this understanding: "When the Holy One, blessed be God, takes vengeance on the wicked, God's name is magnified and honored. And similarly Scripture says (in Ezekiel 38:22-23), 'I will punish him with pestilence and with bloodshed. . . . Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am the Eternal. . . .'"
It is not news that we live in a time when religious extremism threatens our civilization. There are too many in the Jewish community, and within the Reform community as well, who are quick to point the finger at Islam as the only manifestation of this extremism, when our own sacred texts present a significant number of images of the Eternal as a God of vengeance. Nevertheless, regarding vengeance and compassion, Jewish tradition from the biblical period to today is not monolithic. Among our Sages there were always some whose discomfort with the vengeful image of Deity led them to read into and draw out of Scripture a very different sense of the nature of God, which emphasized divine caring for all peoples. Even the enemy is "the work of My hands." For us the question remains: How shall we seek to emulate this image of God in order to develop the capacity to understand the divine in every human being?
Rabbi Lewis M. Barth is professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.