Redemption! Parashat B’shalach is a Torah portion of glory — glory in the Song at the Sea, the poetic celebration of liberation from Egyptian bondage, and glory in the details of the Israelites’ first steps out of Egypt.
The parashah begins with the verse that sets the scene for the entire next thematic section of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites’ early adventures wandering in the desert. Exodus 13:17 reads, “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.’ ”
To understand this verse, let’s break it down into a few sections:
1. “Now when Pharaoh let the people go …” Who is responsible for freeing the Israelites? Here, the Torah says that Pharaoh lets the people go. While it is technically true that Pharaoh utters the words that free the Israelites (Exodus 12:31: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!”), the Torah makes it very clear that Pharaoh is not ultimately in control here; it is God who brings the plagues against the Egyptians and also compels Pharaoh’s reactions. (See my commentary on Va-eira)
2. “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer … ” Wait ... so the Israelites took a circuitous route through the desert because God wanted to take the scenic route and not because they were lost? Here, we learn that God is responsible for wanderings in the desert.
3.“For God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart …’ ” A fascinating tension appears here: Although God orchestrates the route in the desert, it is clear that it is still the Israelites themselves who determine their own future. They have the power to return to servitude in Egypt. Additionally, it appears that God wants to avoid the war. The Israelites do indeed have free will, and God is working hard to set the scene for them to make the “right” choices, which is clearly far from predetermined.
Taken as a whole, Parashat B’shalach’s opening verse sets the stage for the Israelites’ complex experience of desert wandering and their first encounters with freedom. Even the opening verse of this ecstatic and climactic Torah portion reflects the Israelites’ anxiety about their new reality.
We can empathize with the uncertainty that the Israelites experienced. It is obvious to us as readers of the Torah that the Israelites had to leave servitude in Egypt. And it seems like it was obvious to them too that slavery was no real way of life. That said, taking those early steps towards freedom was like walking into a vast abyss — freedom was not only a world that they had never known, but also a world none of their even remotely recent ancestors had ever known. Even for institutional memory, 400 years of slavery is an awfully long time. (As a parallel, how much can we relate to a pre-Christopher Columbus world?) God is compassionate towards the Israelites’ conflicts about freedom, recognizing that their relief was likely also tinged with terror. Fear, and particularly fear of the unknown, can be tremendously powerful and it seems that God decided to redirect the Israelites’ route both to spare them the pain of seeing war and to let them avoid the easy excuse to give in to fear and return to the lives they knew in Egypt.
Michael Walzer, Princeton University professor and author of the stunning book, Exodus and Revolution, considers how centuries of philosophers and theologians have understood this period of Israelite redemption:
"Theorists of revolution (and writers about the Exodus) can usefully be divided into two groups: those who believe that the liberation of the oppressed will always be ... a gift of God (or of history or the vanguard); and those who believe that liberation must to some degree, at least, be the work of the oppressed themselves. Among Jewish writers ... there was always some resistance to arguments [denying the Israelites’ agency in their redemption] — even if this meant denying that Israel’s deliverance was entirely the work of God’s mighty hand. In any case ... if God were wholly responsible, the people could never have held back, as we know they did; and if they were able to hold back, then they were also able to step forward." (Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution [NY: Basic Books, 1985], p. 49)
Walzer emphasizes our tradition’s commitment to the Israelites’ agency. Regardless of God’s role, the Israelites chose freedom when they left Egypt, and even more powerfully, they kept choosing freedom even as the uncertainty of their journey grew, even through 40 years of wandering.
B’shalach’s opening verse provides a powerful reminder for us today. In our own lives, we often expect the beginning of a new journey to be filled with excitement and anticipation — certainly not anxiety or longing. But like the Israelites, even when we are excitedly anticipating adventure and are ready for the next step, we can discover that the journey has its own obstacles that we must navigate as well.
Maimonides realized just how inherently human this experience is. He wrote, “Had [the Israelites] immediately been confronted with the task of conquest, after their sudden redemption, they would not have been capable of undertaking it.”1 The experience of liberation itself, as joyful and powerful as it is, does not make a free people who are able to thrive in a new world order. But a moment of liberation coupled with a twisting, hard journey can lead to the Promised Land, something totally unfathomable to the Israelites in their first steps out of Egyptian bondage.
1. Nehama Leibowitz, quoting Maimonides, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.), p. 242
Rabbi Bonnheim shows a particular, timely insight in her reference to the “Israelites’ anxiety about their new reality.” When we think of Parashat B’shalach, our first images often turn to the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, an explosion of rapturous song and joyful dance, and the celebration of the new-found state of freedom.
But not here.
This journey, with its dangling carrot of collective redemption, presents itself in alternating forms of paralytic panic, fear of the abyss, relentless struggle, and loss of control. A leave-taking moment, indeed.
Let’s not forget that Exodus 13:17 is just the very beginning of this narrative. What is its purpose? Why then do they lift their voices in song only when that moment finally arrives?
“Finally on the brink of potential freedom they were also on the brink of potential death, as the walls of water seemed to close in all around them through the night. … it is possible that the people were singing” (Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan, “The Singing of the Oppressed”).
Eit hazamir higi-ah, “The time of singing has come” (Shir HaShirim 2:12). Let the depth of our collective song and our unified voice give rise to the rallying cry against hatred, bigotry and injustice.
The poet, storyteller, and psychoanalyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.”
May we move past the unknown with renewed faith, courage, and strength through meaningful action at every turn. And may we be held within Shechinah’s comforting presence every precious moment and every powerful song along the way.
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
Haftarah, Judges 4:4–5:31
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 703−709; Revised Edition, pp. 462−467