Beshalach/Shabbat Shirah Exodus 13:17-17:16

This week’s parasha, Beshalach, continues the tale of the Israelites’
deliverance from Egypt, including the dramatic story of the parting of
the Sea of Reeds. After the Israelites leave Egypt G-d once again
hardens Pharaoh’s heart, compelling him to send an army to chase after
As the Israelites stand at the banks of the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptian
army is closing in on them. Moses, under G-d’s instructions, raises
his arm and the sea parts so that the Israelites can cross through.
Midrash says that as the Egyptian army was advancing, the Israelites
stood at the sea and could not muster the faith and courage to believe
that G-d would save them. However, the rabbis tell us that one man –
Nachshon Ben Aminadav – stepped into the sea with perfect faith, and
then the sea parted. The Israelites followed him and passed to the
other side.

The Egyptian army continues in hot pursuit. G-d instructs Moses to
stretch out his arm, pointing towards the split sea that the
Israelites have just walked through. Moses does so and the water
engulfs the Egyptians. The text tells us that G-d “hurled,” “shook
out,” or “stirred” the Egyptians into the sea (Exodus 14:27). Rashi
explains that they were stirred like someone stirring a pot and goes
on to describe a movement modern cooks call “folding in” ingredients,
where one stirs so that what is on the bottom comes to the top and
vice versa.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira because it includes the Song at
the Sea. The Song is deemed a particularly important portion of the
Torah, recited as part of the daily liturgy and included in all Torah
readings for Beshalach, even for those congregations that follow
triennial cycle. The distinctive layout of the song makes it easy to
find in the Torah scroll. It is set out in the form of two “walls” of
words, representing the walls of water as the sea parted. From a
literary point of view, it marks the conclusion of the narrative about
the Exodus from Egypt and ushers in the next narrative – the wandering
in the wilderness.

Modern scholars consider the Song at the Sea to be one of the oldest
sections of the Torah. One clue to that, as pointed out by bible
scholar James L. Kugel, is that it contains no instances of the
definite article (the prefix ha – meaning “the”). The definite
article is a late addition to ancient Hebrew. Modern linguists think
it unlikely that a text of this character and length would just
coincidentally be missing any occurrence of it. Therefore they
conclude it was written before that development in the language, by
contrast with most of the Torah.

After the dramatic scene of crossing the sea, the Israelites journey
on. The people complain that they have neither meat nor bread and
will die in the wilderness. Although it makes sense that their supply
of matzo is exhausted by this point, it’s puzzling that they complain
that they don’t have meat, since they took their flocks with them. In
any event G-d provides them with both quail for meat and manna for
bread. Manna is described here as lechem min hashamayim – bread from
heaven, but later on in Numbers it will be described as a substance
that is made into bread by the people, through grinding and baking.
The Talmud, in Yoma 75b, resolves the discrepancy by saying manna was
a different substance for different types of people. For the
righteous, what fell was baked loaves, ready to eat. For ordinary
people, it fells as loaves, but they had to bake them. The wicked had
the most work – manna fell for them as hard grain that had to be
ground, made into loaves and baked. It’s sort of the opposite of
modern nutrition sensibilities, where those who don’t use convenience
foods are often considered more righteous.
The food situation is resolved but in Chapter 17 the people complain
of lack of water. Under G-d’s direction, Moses strikes a rock with
his rod, in the presence of the elders, and water flows from it. It’s
interesting that in this part of the text, the dramatic striking of
the rock to bring water is characterized as demonstrative of G-d’s
strength, yet when Moses does the same thing later, he is punished for
taking the glory upon himself.

The parasha ends with a battle with Amalek, the enemy who comes upon
them without warning and attacks. Joshua leads the battle – this is
his first appearance in the text. Moses stands on a hill, watching,
and when his arms are raised the Israelites win, but when they are
lowered the Amalekites win. So, with some help to keep his tired arms
upraised, Moses leads from afar and the Amalekites are vanquished.

Haftarah Judges 4:4 – 5:31

The haftarah comes from the Book of Judges, which chronicles exploits
of heroes said to live after the death of Joshua and before the rise
of the Israelite monarchy. Although called “judges” the characters
described do not have exclusively judicial functions, but rather serve
as leaders in a variety of ways, including military. Deborah, the
subject of this week’s haftarah, is the only female judge. She is
introduced at the beginning of the haftarah by saying she was isha
neviah – a woman and prophet – and she was eshet lapidot. The latter
is usually translated as “wife of Lapidot” but Tikva Frymer-Kensky of
the University of Chicago points out that Lapidot is not a name seen
elsewhere and that it is missing the patronymic. She says that this
should be translated as “woman of torches” instead, for Deborah’s
fiery exhortations to the general Barak ben Avinoam to follow G-d’s
commandment to wage war on Jabin, the king of Canaan. He agrees, but
only on the condition that Deborah accompanies him.

The story of the war is told twice – first in prose and then in
poetry. The Song of Deborah – the poetic retelling in chapter 5 – is
considered to be one of the oldest extant examples of Hebrew poetry.

Both the parasha and the haftarah tell of a victory due to divine
intervention, connecting the haftarah thematically to the Torah
reading. The Song of Deborah in the haftarah and Song at the Sea in
the Torah reading connect the two in form, as well.

Women are at the center of this tale of conquest. Deborah instigates
the war (at G-d’s command) and a woman named Yael uses subterfuge to
kill Sisera, the general of the Canaanite army. Perhaps another point
of commonality that led to the choice of this piece as the haftarah is
the fact that a prophetess accompanies Barak, just as Miriam the
prophetess accompanied Moses.

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