Crossing the Sea of Reeds was Easier than Crossing the "Sea of Peace"

B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16

D'Var Torah By: Shlomo Bar-Nissim

As I started reading this week's portion, Parashat B'shalach, I could not believe its implication for what is currently happening in Israel. Exodus 13:19 tells us: "And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the Children of Israel, saying, 'God will be sure to take notice of you: Then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.'" Oy vey! What a burial site they chose! One that a few thousand years later would become the center of friction and violence between Arabs and Jews and would cause the death of dozens of young Israeli soldiers.

There is no archaeological proof or scientific evidence that this is truly the site where Joseph is buried. Why do we need to endanger the lives of young soldiers who are protecting the so-called Tomb of Joseph? This site, located at the edge of the city of Nablus, has become a yeshiva established by the extreme right settlers to strengthen their claim to all of Eretz Yisrael.

Many Israelis, myself included, have supported the idea of closing the site to save lives and promote peace. I was very glad to hear that the Chief Sephardic Rabbi issued a halachic rule that the site may be closed forpiku-ach nefesh, "saving lives." I heaved a sigh of relief when, on the day after Yom Kippur, it was indeed closed. However, I, like many millions of Jews, was outraged by the savage destruction and burning of the site. That action shattered my hope for peace and coexistence between Arabs and Jews.

The main theme in Parashat B'shalach is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. There is a midrash that teaches us that the sea did not part until a brave man named Nachshon jumped into the water. Then the sea parted and the others followed him. Each generation needs a Nachshon of its own. I consider the late Yitzchak Rabin to be the Nachshon of our time. He jumped into the stormy sea of peace, hoping to reach the other shore, but he unfortunately drowned. He drowned in the raging waves of sinat achim, "hatred of brothers," caused by the extreme-right politicians in Israel and by the waves of sinat Yisrael, "hatred of Israel," caused by the terror organizations Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Those who followed Rabin are still struggling in the waves. It took the ancient Israelites forty years to traverse the wilderness of Sinai after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. But it took the modern Israelites more than forty years of wandering in the wilderness of violence and war just to arrive at the shores of the "Sea of Peace." A few months ago they almost succeeded in reaching the other shore, but the unpredictable climate of the Middle East drew them back into the stormy waters.

As we sing in "Hatikvah," Od lo av'da tikvateinu, "Our hope is not yet lost," we may yet see our yearning for peace realized in our own time. When that day comes, then we can sing in our daily prayer the Mi Chamochah that first appears in this parashah: "Who is like You, Adonai, among the celestials;/ Who is like You, majestic in holiness,/ Awesome in splendor, working wonders!" (Exodus 15:11) Let us fervently hope that we can add the words v'Oseh Hashalom, "Maker of Peace."

Cantor Shlomo Bar-Nissim is the cantor emeritus at Temple Beth El in Closter, NJ.

The Voice We Hear

Three years ago, my parents commissioned a sumptuous talit for my installation. The talit displays a portion of Shirat HaYam, "Song of the Sea," Exodus 15:20: Vata-an lahem Miriam: Shiru L'Adonai ki ga-oh ga-ah, "And Miriam chanted for them: 'Sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously....'" Dad exulted that he had selected this particular verse "because Miriam was the first cantor." The love with which my parents gave me this talit is joined with the memory of my father's voice at the time. Whenever he was proud of me, he would say, "Puppilein [German for "Little Doll"], you done good."

At this writing, nearly six months have gone by since my father passed away. I constantly grope for the memory of the sound of his unique voice (think Henry Kissinger transplanted to East Tennessee), and I am blessed with the ability to play it back in my head whenever I so desire.

Parashat B'shalach depicts communication between a very patient God and an extremely fractious people. Granted, the Israelites have just started out on an onerous and uncertain journey to freedom. We witness a pattern of exchange much like that between a long-suffering parent and a child who is experiencing the "terrible twos." The child is happy when the parent lavishes him or her with grandiose displays of attention but becomes peevish when the going gets rough. For example, God leads the Israelites "in a pillar of cloud by day" and "a pillar of fire by night that" "did not depart from before the people." (Exodus 13:21-22) But upon seeing Pharaoh's army approaching in pursuit, the people turn to Moses and voice both fright and sarcasm: "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11) God responds with an even more miraculous show: God parts the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land, but then closes the sea just in time to prevent the Egyptians' safe passage. The Israelites then praise God with the greatest ode in the Torah. In just a matter of days, however, the Israelites begin to grumble irritably about the lack of potable water (Exodus 15:24; 17:2-3) and dearth of food (Exodus 16:3) in the desert. Each time, God sends the sought-after sustenance. The job of the Almighty appears to be an endless and thankless one.

Eventually, most children learn that while their parents supply a constant stream of gratification in the beginning, they are expected to become progressively independent and build their own lives. While our parents are always there for us to consult (even in our memories), the final decisions lie with us. Nevertheless, the voices of our parents resonate in our decisions. If they ring true, we've probably steered ourselves right.

The essence of my father's legacy is his challenge to me to find the delicate balance between making my own decisions and being open to hear the voices of others. He taught me right from wrong in a way that transcends any political or religious affiliation, although he was a committed, righteous Jew. Our kishkeshave a way of telling us when we're right on and when we're way off. But it seems to me that for the past six months, my right choices are accompanied by a voice inside me that says, "Puppilein, you done good."

Questions for Discussion

  1. In what way do you think that their life in slavery has affected the Israelites' problem-solving abilities? How has it affected their ability to form a relationship with God?
  2. At what point, if ever, do the Israelites realize that they are free?

Cantor Jacqueline Shuchat-Marx is the cantor at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, NM.

Reference Materials

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406

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