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Parshah Overview: Beshalach

by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky

  

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Parashat Beshalach encompasses many major events, both sublime and momentous: the first stages of the Exodus, the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Divine revelations that attended it, the subsequent song of praise, the descent of the heavenly manna and quails, and the victorious battle against Amalek.

Yet the parashah is not named after any of these events; it is called Beshalach—“when [Pharaoh] sent [the people] out.” Since this word was chosen as the name of the parashah, there is evidently something about it that both encompasses and transcends the parashah’s other elements.

On the other hand, the word beshalach implies that the Jews were unwilling to leave Egypt and had to be forcibly expelled. It is hard to imagine that this idea could be the underlying and unifying theme of the parashah; moreover, it seems to be a denigrating and derogatory comment on the state of the Jewish people at that time.

If we pause to consider, it indeed seems strange that Pharaoh would have to send the people out. Why would any Jew not wish to leave Egypt? Egypt was a harsh dictatorial state that subjected the Jews to oppressive slavery. Moses had promised the Jews that their exodus would lead to the pinnacle of spirituality—to be chosen by God as His nation and given the Torah on Mount Sinai. That, in turn, would be the precursor to their entry to the Promised Land. Who would not jump at such an opportunity? True, as we have seen, there were a significant number of Jews who did not wish to leave Egypt, but we also saw that all these Jews died during the plague of darkness. Thus, those who were actually liberated from Egypt were only those who desired to go out. Why, then, did Pharaoh have to “send” them?

It seems strange that Pharaoh would have to send the people out. Why would any Jew not wish to leave Egypt?
The answer is that there were two dimensions of the Jews’ desire to leave Egypt. On the one hand, they were eager to leave the oppression and become the chosen people at Mount Sinai, as we said. This desire, strong and genuine as it was, was simply a direct result of the situation and the opportunities available to them. It was a rational desire that was essentially dictated by logic, a desire about which they had virtually no choice.

But the moment they were freed, they experienced an altogether different type of desire to leave. The minute they breathed the fresh air of freedom, the profound contrast between their enslavement to the idolatry of Egyptian materialism and the freedom from it afforded by the Godly life hit home. The intensity of their desire to leave immediately rose far above what it had been when their desire was dictated by calculated logic. Their flight from Egypt became suddenly supra-rational, a frenzied obsession, an ontological necessity. Relative to the transcendent intensity of their new desire, their former desire was forced and imposed.

This contrast is underscored by the use of the word Beshalach as the name of the parashah. This name reminds us that as intensely and sincerely we yearned for the freedom to fulfill our Divine destiny all the years of the oppression, our desire to leave shrinks to the equivalence of a forced expulsion when compared to the yearning for this freedom we experienced once the shackles of slavery were broken.

In this context, all the miraculous events of this parashah can indeed be considered subordinate to the general tenor expressed in the word Beshalach, for once the Jews began to relate to God on the supra-rational level, the stage was set for God to transcend the laws of nature in His reciprocal relationship with them. It was precisely this ascent to a supra-rational connection with God that provided the spiritual impetus for all the miraculous events of the ensuing narrative to take place.


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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Amalek
Anti-Semitic tribe descendant from Esau; first to attack the Jews upon leaving Egypt. We are commanded to remember their vile deed and obliterate all memory of them.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.