Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’shalach – Sh’mot (Exodus): 13:17 - 17

The peculiarities characterizing the relationship of a graceful, sustaining and forgiving Elohim with a people, who are marked by vacillation and unbelief, are very evident in Parashat B’shalach. This makes the current Parasha a most suitable introduction to this relationship, foreshadowing that which will continue to transpire for many generations to come. The opening words, referring to Par’oh's release of the Israelites, without attributing it to YHVH, have been called into question. However, since in the process of negotiating with Par’oh the term  "let go" ("", literally to “send or send off") is used time and again (seven, to be exact) and to no avail, the wording used at the beginning is meant to point out that (ultimately) the ruling king is compelled, "willy nilly," to do just that.1. Right after this "sending," we read that "Elohim did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines" (13:17 emphasis added). "Led" here is "nacham," of the root (noon, chet, hey). The same verb is used again, in verse 21, where it says that, "YHVH was going before them, in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them ["lan'chotam"] on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night." In Moses’ Song (15:13) he specifies further, saying (literally), "by Your grace you led the people…" (using the same verb). This root ( also means “satisfaction,” while the root, which is a related root, means “rest.” It is this type of guidance and leading which sets the stage for the entire wilderness journey, including the events described here. Interestingly, a potential encounter with the Philistines caused YHVH to take Yisrael in a round about way, even though they “came up from the land of Egyptprepared for action, or in martial arraychamushim” (14:18b). The root (chet, mem, shin), used here, also serves the figure “five” – “chamesh,” thought to be the minimal number required for ‘taking action.’

The next phase, wherein the Children of Yisrael find themselves 'between a rock and a hard place' (14:2, 3), is an inseparable part of YHVH's plan for them. YHVH intends to be "honored – ve’eka’veda’ - through Pharaoh" (ref. 14:4). "Honor" (and "glory" too) here, and in most other places, is "kavod," meaning "weightiness" or "heaviness." In verses 17 and 18, YHVH repeats the principle … "then the Egyptians will know that I am YHVH, when I am honored - ve’eka’veda - through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen" (emphasis added). A little later YHVH "caused their chariot wheels to swerve, and He made them drive with difficulty…" literally "with heaviness" - "bich'vedoot" (v. 25, emphasis added). This is indeed an intriguing usage of the figurative and literal manifestation of the "glory" and "honor" of the Elohim of Yisrael, who is to be honored even through the heaviness of His enemies’ chariots! But the divine irony does not end there… In the past two Parashot we encountered quite a few times the term “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” The verb used some of the time was “hach’bed” – made heavy (i.e. harden), such as in Sh’mot (Exodus) 8:28. Thus, it was the very “heaviness” of Par’oh’s heart (and also, proverbially, of his chariots), which brought about “high esteem” – kavod – to the Elohim who used the enemy’s ploys for the sake of His name.

Much of the description of the scene of the mighty deliverance (chapter 14) is echoed in chapter 15, by what is typically known as the "Song of Moses," or in Hebrew “Shirat Ha’Yam” – the Song of the Sea, rendering this Shabbat’s name, the Shabbat of the Song, Shabbat Shira. The "six hundred select chariots" and the "officers in command" of 14:7 become in 15:4… "the choicest of his officers" (when describing their drowning). "Select" and "choicest" are denoted by the same word "" (bet, chet, resh), and the "officers" (in both references) are "shalishim," which is of the root "three," "shalosh," making them (possibly) "third in command." In 14:8 we are told that "the sons of Israel came out with a lofty arm" (literal translation), and in 15:1, "the horse and its rider was lifted into the sea" (literal translation, emphasis added). In both instances, the word is "rah'ma," which also means "high, exalted, lifted, lofty." This type of repetition lends a dual dimension to the description; thus it is YHVH's "high and lifted arm" (ref. 14:8, emphasis added) which in this case raised high the waves and lifted off the riders and horses, casting them into the sea.

When the Israelites saw the Egyptians drawing close, they became very fearful ("vayir'u", root y.r.a – yod, resh, alef), and cried out to YHVH (ref. 14:10).  Moshe exhorted them: "Do not fear ("tir'oo", again y.r.a), stand and watch (literally: "see," "look at," “observe”) the salvation of YHVH" (v. 13). Moreover, while it is only the "midbar" (desert, v. 3) and the Egyptians that their eyes are looking at and seeing (v. 10), Moshe assures them that they would “never see the Egyptians again" (v. 13, emphasis added). "YHVH will fight for you while you keep silent" (v. 14 italics added) is stated in contradistinction to their "crying out" (v. 10, italics added). And thus YHVH responds to Moshe: "Why are you crying out to Me?" (v. 15, italics and emphasis added). Finally, after crossing the sea and walking on dry land, the "seeing" and the "fear" are transformed - "Israel saw the great power which YHVH had used against the Egyptians, and the people feared YHVH, and they believed in YHVH and in His servant Moses" (14:31, emphases added).

When Moshe addressed the people in 14:13, he referred to "the salvation – ‘yeshu-ah’ - of YHVH," while in his song YHVH Himself is the (epitome of) salvation, as well as the very strength and the song itself, while the “song” is called zimrah (15:2). The latter reference to the song is reminiscent of the word used by Ya'acov in B’resheet (Genesis) 43:11, where the "produce of the land" was described. Although "zemer" is “song” and the verb "le'za'mer" is to sing, another form of this verb is "lizmor," denoting "cutting" or "pruning" (ref. Lev. 25:3). This led some of the commentators to explain that "zimrah" is used here not as a song, but rather as a "cutting off" (of the enemy).2

The Song does not only employ words which echo and amplify the narrative that proceeds it, some terms are also repeated, or contrasted within the poem itself, with the purpose of underscoring them, as for example in "this is my Elohim and I will glorify Him…" (15:2), "I will glorify" is "an'vehu" of the root n.v.h. (noon, vav, hey), which means "beautiful" or "adorn." Hence if read literally, it would be: "I will beautify [or adorn] YHVH," presumably with praises. But since "naveh" also means "an abode and home" (e.g. Ps. 68:12) or "pasture" (e.g. Amos 1:2), this verse could also mean "I will become an abode for Him" (emphasis added). In verse 13 we read "…You guided them [the People] to Your holy abode" - "n'veh kodshecha." This is seen as either a reference to Mount Sinai, the land of Yisrael, the future Temple in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) - or to possibly all three of them together – the principal resting places of His Shekina Glory. 3 Thus, the combined usage of the root n.v.h in the poem creates a picture of the present of the 'Presence and the indwelling of He, Who is also guiding and leading His People as a Shepherd to a resting place where He continues to reside.' In verse 17, there is also a reference to the settling of the Nation in Elohim's holy dwelling place and sanctuary, "mikdash," echoing “kodshecha” of verse 13.

The enemies of Yisrael, Egypt, as well as Philistia, the "chiefs of Edom," "heads of Mo'ab" and the “inhabitants of Canaan” are likened to "lead" and "stone" sinking into the depths, and also to a "still stone" (15: 5, 10, 16). In verse 10, “they [sink] like lead in the mighty waters.” “Mighty” is “adirim,” plural for “adir” of the root a.d.r (alef, dalet, resh), which also stands for "majestic." It is repeated two more times here, both of them in connection with YHVH: "Your right hand YHVH is majestic in power" (v. 6); and, "who is like You, majestic in holiness" (v.11). It is the majesty and might of YHVH which lends these very properties to the “waters” (of the sea) when used by Him for His purposes. 

In 15:1 Moshe and Yisrael sing, "I will sing to YHVH because He is exalted… ‘ga'o ga'a." Verse 7 also mentions "Your exaltedness” - ge'on'cha.” again of the root g.a.h (gimel, alef, hey).  Verse 7 continues: "You send forth Your wrath and it consumes them [the enemy] like stubble" (emphasis added). YHVH's wrath is compared to a consuming fire, while the next verse says: "With the blast of your nostrils the waters were heaped up… the depths froze up" (emphasis added). According to the Daat Mikrah commentary, this text may be interpreted as two opposite actions performed by the wind at YHVH’s command: burning on one hand, and freezing on the other.4

In the course of the brief time covered by our Parasha, the Children of Yisrael find four occasions to complain. At Mara (from a word meaning “bitter”), we read that after the act of causing the water to become sweet by casting a tree or a stick, which YHVH pointed out to Moshe, "He made a statute and an ordinance and there He tried them" (15: 25b). But whereas the Israelites are tried at Mara, in Refidim they "try YHVH" and are also quarreling with Him, when "there was no water" (17:7). Hence, the place is named Masa (of "nisayon" - "to try") and Meriva (from "riv" which is "quarrel"). In between these two episodes, they demand food, and thus obtain the quail meat for the evening meal and "manna" for the morning (ref. chapter 16). Since the shape and texture of the manna was unfamiliar to them, "they asked each other: 'mah'n hu?'" or "what is it?" (16:15). Mah'n is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew "mah," meaning "what."

Although at the beginning of the Parasha YHVH averts the Israelites from the path of war, by the end of the narrative they find themselves in a battle with Amalek, a descendant of Esav (Gen. 36:12). Again, YHVH's miraculous intervention on their behalf is evident, coupled with faith (ref. Hebrews 4:2), symbolized by Moshe's "steadily" held arms. The Hebrew word for steady here is "emuna," literally "faith" (17:12), thus causing Yehoshua (Joshua) to "weaken Amalek" (v. 13). Moshe’s arms are denoted by the word “yad” (also “hand”). In the final verse of our Parasha Moshe makes a proclamation about another “yad,” a “yad” which is “on Yah’s throne,” pointing to YHVH’s oath, because He is at “war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).5. We have just encountered the “yad” of YHVH (“hand” as distinct from “arm” – z’roah – and from “right hand or arm” – yamin) in the process of emerging from Egypt (e.g. 14:8, “yad ramah” – a lifted up hand; 14:31 – “yad g’dola” – “great/mighty hand”; 15:17 “kone’nu yade’cha” – “your hands have established”). If YHVH places His hand on His throne (as in a gesture of making an oath), He will surely carry out that which He has set to do. 

Our Parasha is characterized by the contrast between the manifest Presence and Glory of YHVH and the Israelites' total focus on their immediate needs and fears, blinding them to the greatness and might displayed before them - so much so that even at the end (just before the battle with Amalek) they dare ponder…"Is YHVH among us, or not?" (17:7b).

1. New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner  
    Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed
    Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
2. The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm.  
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.