By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
The splitting of the ‘Sea of Reeds’ is one of the seminal events in Jewish history. This week’s Torah parsha, Beshalach, begins with a description of how the Israelites finally left Egypt and the yoke of the Pharaoh.
What had been considered impossible had occurred! The mightiest army in the ancient world – – the Egyptians with their horse-drawn chariots – – had been defeated and drowned. With a sense of exhilaration and rapture, Moses and the Israelites spontaneously sang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider, He cast into the sea; this is my Lord, and I will glorify Him (1). Then, Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, picked up a hand-drum, and led all the women in a chant: “Sing to the Eternal, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver, he hurled into the sea” (2). The Israelites were so overwhelmed with God’s might and felt such deep gratitude for His kindness and compassion, that they were impelled to declare their complete devotion and dedication, to glorify His name.
Unfortunately, the exuberance of the Israelites quickly faded. The strain of their prolonged bondage and the fatigue of their daily routine had drained them of virtually any sense of spirituality. The Children of Israel had grown instinctively dependent upon their Egyptian masters. Therefore, to facilitate their transformation from Pharaoh’s slaves to God’s servants, they were forced to change their instinctive dependence on Egypt, to a cognitive and spiritual dependence on God.
This transformation began just three days after living in the desert. The people complained to Moses of their need for water. God deliberately told Moses to lead the Israelites to the place of ‘Marah’, where they could NOT drink the water because it was too bitter. God had led them to a location of noxious water in order to teach this new nation that their physical survival was now dependent upon Him. God sweetened the water and told Moses to tell the Children of Israel: “If you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God; and you do what is proper in His eyes; and you listen closely to His commandments – -all the sicknesses that I visited upon Egypt, I will not visit upon you, for I, the Lord, will heal you” (3).
After moving to another territory (‘Midbar Sin’), the Israelites discover that their food supply is nearly depleted. The people began to grumble: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt; where we had meat; when we ate plenty of food” (4). So, the Eternal one said to Moses: “ I will rain down for them bread (manna) from the sky; and the people shall go out and gather each day” (5).
The next stop on the Israelites’ travels was an encampment in ‘Rephidan’, and again there was no water. However, this time, God’s plan was more complex. He directed the people to traverse the distance up the mountain of ‘Horeb’ (re-named: Mount Sinai) to attain clean drinking water (6). In this way, his scheme would prepare the Children of Israel, both physically and spiritually for the ‘Revelation’ at Mount Sinai.
As the Israelites were preparing their journey from ‘Rephidan’, the nation of Amalek attacked them. God instructed Moses to climb Mount Sinai, and to raise his staff toward heaven. “Moses, standing with his hand raised high on Mount Sinai, was a strong sign to the people – – just as Mount Sinai had become their source of water, it now became their source of military victory, as well” (7).
(1) EXODUS (15: 1-2)
(2) EXODUS (15: 20-21)
(3) EXODUS (15:26)
(4) EXODUS (16: 2-3)
(5) EXODUS (16:4)
(6) The TANACH Study Center
(7) Ibn Ezra “Book of Exodus”, translated to Hebrew, 1488