Beshalach: Stumbling on the way to redemption

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Beshalach opens at a pivotal moment of Jewish history. The Children of Israel have just left the settled areas of Egypt, but are still within Egyptian sovereign territory. Slavery has not been formally abolished, but the practical reality of the Ten Plagues has prevented the Egyptians from enforcing it. Though the Children of Israel were no longer subject to hard labour, they were nevertheless unable to leave Pharaoh’s kingdom.

The Exodus has only just begun, but the Children of Israel are still within the borders of Egypt. They are living in a whirlpool of emotions – hope, fear, elation, nigh-hysterical relief, uncertainty, schadenfreude, nostalgia, and sadness for their brethren who had not survived the ordeals in Egypt.

They were on the very brink of freedom – but they had not yet crossed the brink.

Writing in Germany about 150 years ago, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch began his commentary on Parashat Beshallach:

“The ideal mission of the people of G-d was indicated in the preceding institutions of the Pesach offering, the Festival of Matzo, the consecration of the first-born, and the law of Tefillin. They had only just been redeemed from slavery, they were just at the beginning of their mission.

“We are at once shown that the people were by no means near that ideal stage to which they were called. At the same time we see how completely and absolutely lacking they were in the slightest trace of that power and that courage which could have attained freedom for themselves by themselves, or kept it if it had been attained. Not only the attainment of freedom, but the keeping of it too, was through the work of G-d alone.

“By themselves, so we read, they would have returned to the old slavery, if, on the road to assured independence, they were threatened with having to fight; and yet ‘they went out of Egypt fully armed’ (Exodus 13:18). It was not the sword at their side that was lacking, but the heart underneath that failed. They had no courage to fight, and above all they lacked the spirit of trustfully putting themselves in G-d’s hands under any and all circumstances, of finding will and courage, power and enthusiasm in the consciousness of His guiding”.

And indeed a week later, as the Children of Israel stood on the shores of the Red Sea and saw Pharaoh and his army approaching them, they quailed in terror. Their complaint was against Moshe who had led them out of Egypt and into this apparent death-trap: “Was because there weren’t any graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert?! What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?! Isn’t this what we meant when we told you, in Egypt – Leave us alone to serve the Egyptians?! – Because better for us to serve the Egyptians than for us to die in the desert” (Exodus 14:11-12).

The Ibn Ezra has a very incisive insight: “It is amazing that such a vast camp of 600,000 men were terrified of those who were pursuing them. Why did they not fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians had been Israel’s masters, and this generation that was exiting from Egypt had been trained from childhood to accept the yoke of the Egyptians’ burdens, and its soul had been humiliated. So how could they now fight against their masters, when Israel had been weakened and unschooled in warfare?” (commentary on Exodus 14:13).

Indeed this was no nation of lawyers, doctors, and accountants with hunched shoulders, clutching their briefcases and wearing business suits and neck-ties, confronting a victorious army; this was a nation of over 600,000 men of fighting age (Exodus 12:37, Numbers 1:1-46), armed (13:18), who had spent their entire lives doing physical labour as slaves and were therefore well-muscled and physically tough. There was no physical reason or them to be so afraid of the Egyptian army, which had been mortally weakened by Plague after Plague, and finally decimated and deprived of its most important commanders in the final Plague, the Slaying of the First-Born.

And as the Ibn Ezra (ibid.) concludes, “therefore Hashem Himself...arranged that all the men of nation who left Egypt would die [in the desert], because they did not have the strength to fight the Canaanites until another generation arose, the generation of the desert, who had not seen exile and who had an exalted soul”.

This is a genuine and powerful testimony to the after-effects of exile and slavery.

The Haftarah for Parashat Beshallach is abstracted from the Book of Judges, 4:4-5:31 [1], which narrative divides into two sections:

The first section, Chapter 4, recounts how Deborah the prophetess and Barak led an army of 10,000 Israelites to confront Sisera, the general who commanded the Canaanite army of the Canaanite King Yavin (Jabin), who had oppressed Israel brutally for 20 years (Judges 4:3).

The Israelite army defeated the Canaanites, and Sisera fled to the tent of Yael (Jael), wife of Heber the Kenite, who was ostensibly an ally of the Canaanite King Yavin. Having lulled the Canaanite general into a false sense of security, Yael tucked him into bed and, when he fell asleep, she killed him by driving a tent-peg through his head.

The second section, Chapter 5, is the song of victory that Deborah sang with Barak [2].

This song of victory, spanning 31 verses, is the most immediately obvious connexion between the Parashah and the Haftarah: Deborah’s son of victory follows the same rhythmic and ideological pattern as the Song at the Red Sea which the Children of Israel sang after the Egyptians drowned (Exodus 15).

Both songs are written in the form of “a half-brick over a whole brick, and a whole brick over a half-brick” (Megillah 16b, Soferim 12:9) [3]. Both songs are ecstatic poetic accounts of G-d’s salvation. And both songs conclude with a single sentence depicting Israel’s tranquillity once the conflict was over:

“Hashem returned the water upon them, and the Children of Israel walked on the dry land in the midst of the sea” (Exodus 15:19);

“Thus may all Your enemies perish, O Hashem! And those who love Him are as the sun as it comes forth in its strength! And the Land was tranquil for forty years” (Judges 5:31).

But there is another connexion, a deeper and more immediate connexion, between the Parashah and the Haftarah. Both record events which happened when the Jewish nation had recently become independent (recently is of course relative), when the Hand of G-d controlling and directing history for their benefit should have been clear, when world-changing miracles were the recent past, when they should, by all logic, have been possessed of supreme self-confidence – and yet when they trembled in fear before their enemies.

We cited above the Ibn Ezra’s insight that the Children of Israel, despite their numbers and their physical strength, had no spirit to fight. Parashat Beshallach concludes about six weeks after the Splitting of the Sea, with Amalek’s unprovoked and genocidal attack on Israel (Exodus 17:8-16), which the Ibn Ezra notes in the same paragraph: “When Amalek came with small numbers, he would nevertheless have defeated Israel had it not been for Moshe’s prayer”.

And the episode of the spies (Numbers 13-14), a year and four months later, displays the same lack of spirit: the entire nation lost heart upon hearing the spies’ evil report of how physically big and strong the Canaanites were. Sixteen months in the Sinai Desert was not enough to cure the Jews of the psychological and spiritual effects of generations of slavery.

Forty years on, the generation who had been born and grown up in the desert as free men had the spirit needed to march into their Land and conquer it. They had the courage necessary to confront the Canaanite nations and defeat them.

But even then, they were still well short of the ideal standard for an independent nation, and even further short of the standard demanded of G-d’s “kingdom of Kohanim (Priests) and holy nation”. Hence even though the Jews had conquered their homeland, defeated the Canaanites on the battlefields, and killed the 31 Canaanite kings (Joshua 12:7-24), those foreign nations remained in their midst for centuries.

The Tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh, though they settled in Trans-Jordan and achieved sovereignty there, they did not drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites (Joshua 13:13).

The Tribe of Judah – the Tribe from whom the king was destined to arise! – left the Jebusites in Jerusalem (15:63).

North of Jerusalem, the Tribe of Ephraim let the Canaanites remain in Gezer (16:1), and Manasseh levied tribute on the Canaanites in their territory but did not drive them out (17:13).

And even though “Hashem gave Israel all the Land which He had sworn to give their forefathers and they inherited it and dwelt in it, and Hashem granted them rest from all around...and no man of any of their enemies stood before them – Hashem delivered all their enemies into their hands – not one thing failed of all the good things which Hashem had spoken to the House of Israel” (21:41-43) –

– nevertheless the Jews failed to exercise full sovereignty over their Land; they failed to obey G-d’s repeated admonitions to expel the idolatrous inhabitants of the Land and to cleanse it of idolatry (vide Exodus 23:33, 34:11-16, Numbers 33:50-56, Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 7:17-20, 9:1, 12:2-3 et al.); in spite of the admonition to establish a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-15), it took some four centuries before they finally anointed Saul as King – four centuries during which the Canaanites, Philistines, Amalekites, Edomites, and other hostile nations never gave Israel real respite from war; the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which was supposed to be a temporary structure in the desert, served for fully 480 years until King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:1).

All in all, those first four-and-a-half centuries of sovereign Jewish independence in the Land of Israel were generally far from ideal. The history of the period is a story of very gradual recovery from the ravages of exile and slavery and of slow spiritual ascent from slave mentality to complete spiritual and psychological independence, punctuated by troughs of regression into idolatry and subjugation by hostile nations and by occasional peaks of greatness.

The Haftarah of Parashat Beshallach, the war or independence against the Canaanite King Yavin and General Sisera, records one of those peaks of greatness. Yet even then, the aftermath – Deborah’s song of victory – alludes to some very unpleasant events:

In the days of the Judge Shamgar, the fourth judge, Jews didn’t dare travel on the main roads of Israel and were reduced to building bypass roads to avoid travelling through hostile areas (Judges 5:6).

The Jews degenerated into idolatry and had no spirit even to possess weapons for defence, let alone fight for their independence (v. 8).

The Tribe of Reuben – the first-born, the Tribe who might have been expected to take the lead in defending the nation as a whole – refused to participate in the war against the Canaanites, preferring to tend their flocks (vs. 15-16).

Dan, dwelling by the sea in modern-day Tel Aviv, loaded their valuables onto ships, preparing to flee instead of standing their ground and joining the fight (v. 17).

The inhabitants of Meroz – a great city near the battle-ground (Radak, Ralbag) whose citizens were heroes (Malbim) – refused to fight (v. 23).

We build up a picture of a nation still unsure of its own right to rule its own Land, still restrained about enforcing its own sovereignty, not yet confident enough to live its national life the way G-d had ordained.

Yet still, a nation which, when tested in the crucible of war, was still capable of greatness.

In the last couple of weeks, many of us have been devastated and demoralised by the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court to destroy Amona, in the territory of the Tribe of Benjamin, and the subsequent actions of the IDF and Israeli police executing that decision. Immediately following, the same Court decided on further destructions.

And there are all the chronic failures of national resolve: the persistent refusal of the Israeli government to allow Jewish worship on the Temple Mount; Israel’s terror at the very thought of exercising sovereignty in the Old City of Jerusalem; Israel’s constant fear of America (even when the new President seems more pro-Israel than most of the Israeli government!); Israel’s refusal ever to consolidate military victories, and invariably to compromise on cease-fire agreements (which is why Israel has still not really won the War of Independence of 1948, or the Six Day War of 1967, or the Yom Kippur War of 1973, or any of the smaller, more recent wars against Hamas and Hezbollah).

After almost 70 years of independence, isn’t it time for us to finally break out of this exile mentality?

After almost 50 years of Israeli control over a unified Jerusalem, isn’t it time to exercise full Israeli sovereignty over the city, and particularly over the Temple Mount?

Why does Israel still tremble in veritable terror at Jewish worship on the Temple Mount? Whom do we fear? Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? The EU? The UN? Has G-d not shown us, over and over again, through practical experience, that we are more powerful than all these ciphers combined?

Yes, it can be easy to feel demoralised. But let us keep our situation in perspective. No, we as a nation cannot overcome 2,000 years of exile in two or three generations.

Yet we are way ahead of Israel of 70 years after independence the first time. At that time, Eglon, king of Moab, was able to subjugate and oppress Israel for 18 years (Judges3:12-14).

We are also way ahead of independence the second time: 70 years after the Maccabean Revolt which restored full sovereign independence to Israel for the first time since the Babylonian conquest, the Hasmonean royal dynasty had regressed into the very Hellenism that their founders had fought against. And combining the Priesthood with the Kingship made both institutions hopelessly corrupt. (But that is another subject for another time.)

Both the Parashah and the Haftarah, and their respective historic contexts, carry invaluable and inspiring messages for us today in sovereign independent Israel. All the tragic errors which Israel and its leadership are committing in our generations, all their fear and trembling before mere shadows of imagined enemies, all the destructions from the withdrawal from Sinai under Menachem Begin to the Oslo death accords to the Disengagement 12 years ago to Amona and beyond, are but the last gasps of generations of exile.

Delays on the way? – Sure. 40 years in the desert instead of a few weeks? More than 400 years to build the Holy Temple? The destruction of Amona? A delay, no more. At the end – maybe yet nearer than anyone can even imagine – stands the complete Redemption which all our Prophets have promised.


[1] Thus the Ashkenazi custom. The Sefaradi custom is to begin with Judges 5:1.

[2] “Deborah and Barak, son of Avinoam, sang on that day...” (Judges 5:1). The Hebrew verb is וַתָּשַׁר, “she sang” in the feminine. Hence the implication that it was primarily Deborah the prophetess and judge who sang this son of victory, and Barak joined in with her. The translation “Then sang Deborah and Barak...” (King James Bible, JPS, and many others) is therefore unsatisfactory.

[3] The Song at the Sea is written in the Torah-scroll in the following form:

The Song of Deborah is written in the same graphic form.