Parshat B’Shalach, Shabbat Shirah
Exodus Chapter 14, verse 15 through Chapter 16, verse 10.
In this week’s Parsha—B’Shalach—we read of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and of B’nai Israel’s escape to freedom after over 400 years in Egypt. The Parsha includes Moses’s famous Song of Redemption—Az YaShir—a song, we believe, that was taken up spontaneously by every Jew on the far shore of the Sea. In fact, that experience of song might be, some commentators suggest, the first act that the Jews all do together as Jews. This song gives the Shabbat its name of Shabbat Shira.
There is so much in this well-known Parsha that one might choose to examine in more depth, but I want to focus on one event from B’Shalach:
A midrash tells us that each Jew saw lying on the shore the dead body of an Egyptian he or she had personally known during their time in Mitzrayim. Another midrash is even more specific: it has every Jew seeing the dead body of his or her taskmaster. A third midrash tells us that after the Song of the Sea the angels took up a celebratory song, at which point Hashem enjoins them to stop: God tells them, “There should be no joyous songs while My handiwork lie “dead in the Sea.”
What are we to make of these midrashim and the concepts and principles implicit in them? Imagine: here at this moment of great relief, where we Jews have finally been blessed with freedom from bondage and we have witnessed the awesome miracle of the sea’s parting and victory over the mightiest army in the world? Nothing, we are told, could have defeated those charioteers, nothing, that is, except for simple mud. How could we not burst into song?! Even the angels are moved to song! Yet Adonai does not urge singing; whatever joy He might have felt at this new phase of his people’s lives, He reminds us of the dead lying there, dead through their own bad choices and the evil they foisted upon the Israelites, but dead nonetheless.
As I think about these narratives and their relationship to the Parsha, I cannot help but think that what connects them all is not the salvation of the Jews but the deaths of the Egyptians. However many miracles they saw and warnings they heard, the Egyptians went after the fleeing Israelites. There is no doubt that, unless the Egyptians were overcome in this mighty way, there would have been no escape. But God’s caution to the angels and the Jew’s recognition of an Egyptian serve to remind us that life must not be taken away lightly—even the life of our enemy. Perhaps even more so when it comes to the life of our enemy. This is not meant to suggest any definitive solution to the complicated ethical issues of capital punishment or prosecuting a just war or even killing in self defense. Rather, I interpret this excerpt less about what we do and more about how we do it.
The Egyptian enemies were not faceless; in some way, perhaps, then, we should strive to give all of our enemies faces. The Torah tells us, we must not even uproot a fruit tree —fruit trees whose lives we also celebrate this Friday night as we commemorate Tu B’Shvat. Using the principle of Kal V’Chomer (light and heavy), it would follow that the demand on us to preserve human life whenever possible is all that much stricter. And if it is not possible to preserve human life, (for example, in a just war) then it would seem that we must not glory in life’s destruction but rather minimize suffering and celebrate the lives granted to us by God.
We read about the last three of the ten plagues visited on Egypt in this Parsha. Why is the darkness the next-to-last plague? We are told that the plagues get worse as we go from one to ten. Wouldn’t you think that, after vermin and bloody water and locusts and boils (sh’chin), that a little darkness couldn’t have been so awful? Couldn’t they have just lit candles? Couldn’t the Egyptians simply sit tight until the plague ran its course? And this plague, unlike the others, doesn’t seem to cause any tangible harm.
I think we could think about this in a couple of ways. The first is that without light, everything around us becomes an obstacle. Anything, even vast riches, can trip up a person who walks in darkness. In other words, the very objects that might have helped us to improve our lives in the light become dangerous threats to us in the absence of illumination.
Another thought: light motivates us to action. Darkness breeds depression and passivity. Think about how happy we all are to add a minute or two of light to each of these days! When we are “in the light,” can raise our consciousness and move beyond our own immediate needs. During the Ninth Plague, the Egyptians were in a state of total spiritual darkness. They couldn’t even see their “brother,” meaning that they couldn’t care about anyone but themselves. And even candles couldn’t save them. The Israelites didn't suffer from the plague, because their light was provided for by Torah and mitzvot—As Proverbs tells us, "A mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light.” When we have the brightness of the Torah and its mitzvot, a whole new world comes to light. Obstacles are no longer obstacles; instead, they become God’s creations meant to assist us on our spiritual journey.
The ninth plague teaches us that it is in our hands to brighten our lives; we have all the tools we need to do so. And when we manage to live in light despite the darkness that surrounds us, we are able to see our brothers and sisters, to rise above our own immediate needs to become a community, a true people.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
We read in the Torah narrative of our oppression in Egypt, beginning with Pharaoh ordering all Jewish males to be murdered at birth. Due to the heroic actions of two women, Shifrah and Puah, the ruler’s diabolical plan was thwarted.
Commentaries abound about these women--they were Egyptian, they were Jewish, they were Moses’ mother and sister, but one thing is indisputable: their names. They were named for the actions they performed in childbirth. One (Shifrah) would smooth the baby’s limbs and the other (Puah) would coo gently to the newborn.
It is strange that these mundane activities would be the basis for their names. Rabbi Isaachar Frand suggests that their names might have more appropriately been G’oola and Hatzilah, Redemption and Saving. Instead of focusing on the huge and dangerous acts of kindnesses they were doing, their names tell of the small, comforting things they did.
A story is told in the Talmud of Rabbi Yossi who taught Torah under threat of death by the Romans. A colleague visited him and asked why he was risking his life when God had obviously allowed the Romans to hold sway. He replied that he felt it was his duty. Yossi then asked his friend if he thought he would merit the World-to-Come. His friend asked him what good things he had done in his life, to which Yossi replied, “I once had money for tzadakah that I put in my pocket with my own money. When I reached the synagogue, since I had mixed the monies together, I gave everything I had in my pocket to charity.” Yossi’s friend then told him that he certainly merited a place in Olam HaBah!
These examples show us that it is not the headline-grabbing actions that define us and earn us our Reward, but the small kindnesses we perform on a daily basis. How fortunate that all of us have daily opportunities to perform such acts.
May we all look for ways to show and act on our impulses of kindness--every day!
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot, Exodus. We have seen the Torah describe the evolution of a family throughout the first book, Breishit, Genesis. This concept of family is a consistent theme and reaches greater heights with the evolution of a nation as described in Shemot. Each story in the narrative of Breishit tells of a younger son rising in prominence over his older sibling, usually with dismal results. The final narrative in Chumash Breishit is the one story of two brothers with better results. It does not result in any form of hatred or jealousy, and that is with Ephraim and Menashe. In our story now, in the beginning, it is not an issue either, as we see Moshe, the younger son, rise to prominence over his older brother, Aharon. Their relationship, in fact their partnership, demonstrates a true role model of a familial relationship that includes love and care. The final result is Geulah, Redemption. This Aleph and Mem partnership of Aharon and Moshe can also be seen in other stages of Redemption with Esther and Mordechai in the Purim story, and ultimately in the final Redemption, Eliyahu the Prophet and the Melech HaMashiach – Aleph and Mem.
In our Parsha this week, as a way of being introduced to Moses, we see three incidents from early in his career. He comes on the scene when an Egyptian taskmaster is beating a Jewish slave. Moshe intervenes and kills the Egyptian. In the second vignette, two Jews are fighting among themselves and Moshe intervenes. The third case is in Midian when Moshe comes upon a well and finds the shepherds contending with the daughters of Yitro. In each situation Moshe was an outsider. It is of interest that the three cases are Jew vs. non-Jew; a Jew vs. a Jew; and then non-Jew vs. non-Jew. These are three totally different types of situations, and in each case, Moshe did not hesitate to take action. He involved himself in order to right the wrongs he witnessed, and to create a sense of justice and morality. Although covered in short sentences, the Torah describes Moshe’s actions with terse, non-judgmental language. Despite the lack of fanfare in the Torah, what Moshe was doing was demonstrating tremendous character development. Moshe is then chosen by Hashem once he has proven himself worthy of the position that he is given.