Parshat Beshalach

Torah Reading for Week of February 2-8, 2020
By Rabbi/Cantor Arik Wollheim, AJRCA Professor of Liturgical Studies
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 Shabbat is fondly often called Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of song) based on the fact that in this week’s parsha we read Shirat Hayam, the famous song Moses and the children of Israel sang after crossing the Red Sea. In this great miracle God parted the Red Sea and the Jews were able to cross on dry land when Pharaoh and his army were chasing them.
Over the generations, a few customs have developed for this Shabbat like chanting Shirat Hayam during Torah reading using a special trope (melody) or responsive reading of Shirat Hayam with Torah cantillation verse by verse as part of P’sukei D’zimra (introductory psalms) or conducting services with special musical elements like extra singing, choirs or a guest cantor, hence showing the importance and fondness of this particular song and songs or poems and music in general in our tradition.
As a cantor it’s natural for me to focus and therefore write about subjects like poetry, songs, music etc. but the truth is that much has been already written on the subject; therefore, I’m not going to write about Shabbat Shira today nor about the importance of poetry and music in our tradition.
I would like to draw your attention to the beginning of the parsha where we read:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. …” (Ex 13; 17-18)
It seems that the reason why God chose a longer route is because of the concern that the Jews are not ready to face war. However, if God was “afraid” the Jews can’t handle war why didn’t God tell the Jews not to fear the Philistines?! Furthermore, the plan was to bring them to a land which they’ll have to concur thru fighting. Canaan was populated by seven nations at the time, not to mention resistance from the neighbors Edom, Moab and the Emory.
Indeed, some suggest this was the reason why the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Only a new generation, brave, free and proud will be able to fight. However, the Torah is very clear why the Jews were punished by wandering 40 years in the desert, the sin of the golden calf.
Additional question is why not perform another miracle thus enabling the Jews to enter the land without a fight?! What’s the purpose of the roundabout taking them to that location?
It seems that God had a good reason for taking an indirect route and bringing the Jews to this specific location.
I would like to suggest that the purpose was that the great miracle, splitting of the sea, had to occur specifically in that location.
Unlike today where everything is documented, videotaped and broadcasted, in the time of the Exodus events had to be witnessed in order to get publicity.
This location enabled Egypt, Edom, Moab and the Canaanites to witness a great miracle like splitting the sea into two. But for what reason?!
One might answer that this would create the desired impact, creating fear among the inhabitants of Canaan thus ensuring a smooth entering into the land.
But a smooth entrance can be “arranged” by God regardless, so why it is so important for the nations to witness this miracle?!
I think that the answer can be found in Shirat Hayam itself.
After crossing the sea in dry land, the Jews sang Shirat Hayam and there we find one verse that might have the answer: “ זה אלי ואנוהו “
This is my God and I will אנוהו (read anvehu) and many explained this unusual word ואנוהו.
One explanation is that the word ואנוהו comes from the word נווה — home meaning this is my God and I will build a house for Him (referring to the tabernacle and later on to the Temple). Another interpretation is based on the word נוי beauty suggesting the reading as ‘this is my God and I will Beautify/ Glorify Him. ‘
However, the interpretation given by the Vilna Ga’on (1720-1797 Lithuania) resonates with me most. According to the G’ra (Ga’on Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna) the word אנוהו is a compound word made of אני (me)and הוא (Him) suggesting the reading of the verse ‘this is my God and I will be like Him’, I will emulate Him.
This idea was developed in the Talmud and the Rambam (1138-1204 Spain) rules that this principle translates to the commandment והלכת בדרכיו walk in His ways, is the most important one in Judaism. The Rambam then explains: “Just like He is merciful you should be merciful, just like He is companionate, you should be companionate and just like He is holy you too should be holy.” (Mishneh Torah, Mada, Deot; 1,11)
With this understanding let’s examine again the question why it was important for God to perform the Miracles of the Exodus and split the sea in front of witnesses hence taking the Israelites on a roundabout?
Freeing the Jewish people was not only because of the hardship in Egypt or even the promise God has made to Abraham many years before during what we called ברית בין הבתרים (covenant of pieces Gen 15; 7-21). It was done also because the world had to learn an important lesson that slavery is wrong, and all humans are created in God’s image and therefore no one and no nation has the right to enslave another. God himself, creator of mankind, decided and He rectified the situation when His law was abused.
The lesson had to be taught with publicity so all the nations will witness and learn the lesson.
Emulating God’s ways mean also that we, the Nation God Himself took out of slavery, have the responsibility to educate other nations and do everything in our power so all human beings are free.
Shabbat Shalom.