Parashat Beshalach / פרשת בשלח
Torah Portion: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
This week in the Torah, we find a study in perspective. While the Israelites are fleeing Egypt, they feel tension in the present moment and comfort in the past, but they struggle to envision their future. We learn that a) we owe an allegiance to our past, but only to the extent that doing so doesn’t restrain us from becoming our best selves, b) we must live in the present and learn to cope with life’s exigencies, and c) despite today’s challenges, we must keep moving forward, for only by engaging with the unknown future do we grow as human beings. The message is that we must find a balance between looking backward, looking forward, and living in the here and now.
According to Exodus 12:40-41, the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years. (Some scholars doubt the accuracy of this number. See http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/The-Duration-of-the-Israelite-Sojourn-In-Egypt.aspx#Article for a discussion on alternate views of the chronology and defense of the Torah’s position.) While the Israelites and the Egyptians fared well during the time of Joseph, eventually a “king arose who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) and he oppressed them. Thus, the Israelites became enslaved to that Pharaoh and remained enslaved for hundreds of years. Finally, though, God heard the cry of the Israelites and freed them from bondage.
So here are the Israelites, a free people departing Egypt, when we read “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph” (13:19). How odd that as the people should have been running for their freedom, they went to the effort to exhume Joseph’s bones and bring them out of Egypt with them. This couldn’t have been such an easy task. Yet, on his death bed, Joseph had requested that when God would take the Israelites out of Egypt, the Israelites would take his remains with them and inter them in the Holy Land. Even in the midst of escaping Egypt, the Israelites — or Moses, at least — maintained faith with their past.
We have an obligation today not to forget the generations that came before us. They are the ones who put in the labor that has helped us get to today. Our ancestors may not have been perfect, yet they deserve to be honored for the contributions they made to the Jewish people. It is heartening to know that even Moses understood this and went through the trouble of honoring Joseph’s request.
Fast forward just a few verses to Chapter 14, and the Israelites discover that the “pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night” – God’s way of directing them on their voyage in the wilderness – had led them to a dead end. The Israelites now stand at the shore of the Red Sea. As they look behind them, the Israelites catch sight of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit of them, and the Israelites panic. “You should have left us to serve the Egyptians,” they protest to Moses. “You’ve surely brought us to our graves.” Already, and for good reason, the Israelites are wishing they were back in Egypt!
When Moses beseeches God for guidance, God’s advice is priceless:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” (14:15-16)
In essence, God responds by saying, “Focus on the future. Stop looking back. Have faith that I’ll be with you as you move forward.” With Moses’ help, God causes the sea to split, and indeed, Israel rushes toward their freedom once and for all.
Were it not for God’s urging them forward, the Israelites would have lain down to meet their doom. If they couldn’t go back to Egypt, where they lived in misery but they lived, then they were prepared to not live at all. Can we blame them? There seemed to be no alternative.
The Israelites at the Sea of Reeds provides us with a powerful metaphor of how sometimes we are unable to see past the moment, and all we can think of is how miserable we are. At times like that, the past looks pretty good. This dynamic is illustrated even more clearly soon after the sea closes in on Pharaoh’s soldiers: Facing a shortage of water and food, the Israelites, lament: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” (16:3). In times of desperation, we often look nostalgically on the past, but if that’s all we do, we’d never make any progress. Besides, we delude ourselves when we believe we were better off living in bondage.
There are times to honor the past, to live fully in the present, and to embrace the future. Apart from carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, something the Torah actually attributes to Moses, the Israelites are totally incapable of holding on to this perspective. The past is glorified not for what it was but for how they perceive it in a time of desperation. The present time, full of challenges and uncertainty, is something to be avoided. “If only, we could go back in time,” the Israelites cry out. Stuck in the past, anxious in the present, the Israelites saw no future other than certain death. If Pharaoh’s men didn’t do them in, then the sea, dehydration or starvation would. What they needed was faith.
To be fair, the Israelites couldn’t reasonably have been expected to know that God would split the sea and then provide them with manna, quail and water. They had witnessed God’s “mighty hand” coming down on the Egyptians, but they hadn’t intuited that God’s “outstretched arm” also reached into Egypt and brought them out. They had no reason to believe they’d be saved. Of course, faith was in short supply. So, we should cut the Israelites a break.
Given their lack of faith, then, it’s a good thing the Israelites had Moses as their leader. Though he had his own uncertainties, he kept in touch with God. He allowed God to guide him and, thus, he became a model of faith for the rest of Israel. Unable to envision their future, the Israelites found a savior in Moses, who was able to respect an element of the past but not get stuck there, who, with God’s help, kept his cool in the moment, and who eventually looked forward, raised his staff, and opened before the Israelites a glorious future.
On this Shabbat, may we learn from Moses and put the past, the present, and the future in proper perspective.