Torah Reading for Week of January 13-19, 2019
by Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
This parsha is one of three that contain the root sh.l.ch, with the basic meaning of “send.” We have Vayishlach, when Yaakov sent messengers ahead to meet Esav; we have Shelach, when God told Moshe to send for yourself men to spy out the land, and we have this parsha, when Pharaoh sent the Israelites out of Egypt. However, this time the word is less likely to be translated “sent,” but rather “let go,” as in “Let my people go.”
The construction of the word beshalach, where the Torah uses the preposition “b-“ that usually means “in” or “at,” presents translation problems for English. If one were to translate literally, one might use the English participle, “In Pharaoh’s sending the people.” The construction “b” plus a root that can be translated as a participle isn’t uncommon in the Bible, but modern English finds it awkward, so we usually translate with a clause: “When Y did X,” instead of “In the X-ing by Y . . .”
Just a grammatical curiosity? Yes, but it does stand out among the usages of the word ‘send’, perhaps more so since this root appears three times in titles of weekly portions. Tales of sending are quite common in Bereishit, and in most of them we find simply vayishlach, ‘and he sent.’ Definitive and direct – the actor and object are clear. Occasionally we find ki or k- (chaf) prefix to mean ‘when he sent.’ Beshalach uses neither.
Perhaps the Torah is calling attention to a distinct kind of “sending” which is not of Pharaoh’s own free will. We have already been told, two verses previously (Exodus 13.15), that Pharaoh had been “hardened” about freeing the Jewish slaves. A modern translation: “And so it was, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go….”
This helps us read the undertone of the parsha that begins in verse 17: “And so it was, in this so-called ‘sending’ by Pharaoh of the people, God didn’t lead them on the road through Philistine land, though that was nearer…. but God made the people go roundabout, by the desert road of the Red Sea.” Now we see the real force behind the story: Pharaoh may appear to be sending, but God has the whole thing planned. A few verses later we hear of the divine cloud and pillar of fire that enabled them to keep going day and night.
Rabbi David Fohrman, in his delightful book The Exodus You Almost Passed Over (put it on your must-read list between now and Pesach!), shows that this pillar-and-cloud business is an echo of the story of Creation, specifically the division between darkness and light. Perhaps then it is no accident that this parsha begins vayehi, ‘and so it was’ – even though that common idiom for a new episode in the story had just been used two verses before. Vayehi resounds throughout the Creation story in the first chapter of Bereishit. The next time the word is used in this story is after the splitting of the sea, as God is about to cause the waters to return and drown the pursuing Egyptians – the “uncreating” of creation for them, as Fohrman illustrates dramatically. And so it was. “The Israelites saw the great hand that Hashem made in Mitzraim” – the unmaking of a nation that had become arrogant and ruthless. Beshalach in this respect echoes parshat Noach, with waves that drowned the perpetrators of violence. This time, however, it was just one particularly egregious nation selectively punished, focusing on its first-born, and its warriors. The survivors in this case were many thousands, the seeds of the Jewish people.
So for us, it is a day of liberation, a day of Creation and a day of song. Just as Adam sang to praise God for creation, so we chant the Song of the Sea in morning services, and we call the day Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, The Jewish people was brought out to begin a new chapter in the creation of the world, founded on a new vision of the human species: to be free of slavery to one another.
We also, interestingly, have another reminder of Creation and freedom today – the birds. “Free as a bird,” as we say. Many people have the custom of leaving crumbs for wild birds on this day, to remind us of the free gift of the manna, the story of which also appears in this parsha. Birds also receive the food they need as a free gift (‘food for the crying young raven,’ Psalm 147.9). And, of course, birds are the great singers among the animals.
Finally, in our liturgy, the first blessing before the Shema is about Creation, and the last blessing after the Shema is about the Redemption at the sea – and indeed, we repeat verses from the Song of the Sea. We can remember the lesson of Beshalach, and the true Author of our freedom, every day in our prayers.