Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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

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 this Parasha a most suitable introduction to this relationship, which indeed foreshadows that which will continue to transpire for many generations to come. Because the opening words refer to Paroh's release of the Israelites, without attributing it to YHVH, these words have been called into question. However, since in the process of negotiating with Paroh, the term "let go" ("sh.l.ch", literally to “send or send off") is used time and again (seven, to be exact), and to no avail, the particular wording at the beginning of the Parasha is meant to point out that (in the end) Paroh is compelled, "willy nilly", to do just that.1. Right after this "sending", though, it is "God [who does] not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines" (13:17 emphasis added). "Being led" is "nacham", of the root n.ch.h (noon, chet, hey) (13:17). In verse 21, we read again 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 Moshe's song (15:13), he specifies further, saying (literally), "by Your grace you led the people…" It is this type of guidance and leading which sets the stage for the entire wilderness journey, including for the events described here.

In light of this, the next phase, wherein the Children of Yisrael find themselves 'between a rock and a hard place' (14:2,3), is none other than part of YHVH's plan for them. YHVH intends to be "honored through Pharaoh". "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 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). What a brilliant use of the figurative and literal manifestation of the "glory" and "honor" of the Elohim of Yisrael, who is indeed to be honored even through the heaviness of His enemies’ chariots!

Much of the description of this scene of mighty deliverance is echoed in chapter 15, by what is typically known as the "Song of Moshe". The "six hundred select chariots" and the "officers in command" of 14:7 become in 15:4… "the choicest of his officers" (referring to their drowning). "Select" and "choicest" are denoted by the same word "b.ch.r" (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 emphasis added), and in 15:1, "the horse and its rider was lifted into the sea" (literal translation again). In both cases the word is "rah'ma", which 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. 14:8,31a, emphasis added) which in this case raises high the waves and lifts off the riders and horses, casting them into the sea.

When the Israelites see that the Egyptians are drawing close, they become very fearful ("vayir'u", root y.r.a – yod, resh, alef) and cry out to YHVH (ref. 14:10). Moshe exhorts them: "Do not fear ("tir'oo", again y.r.a), stand and watch (literally: "see", "look at") 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 are 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 the "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. Thus… "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, emphasis added).

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

The Song of Moshe 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, for example, in "this is my God and I will glorify Him…" (v. 2), "I will glorify" is "an'vehu", of the root n.v.h. (noon, vav, hey), which means "beautiful" or "adorn". Hence, if literally read, it would be: "I will beautify or adorn YHVH", presumably with praises. But since "naveh" also means "an abode and home" (e.g. Ps. 68:13) 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 dwelling place and sanctuary, "mikdash", echoing “kodshecha” of verse 13.

The enemies of Yisrael, Egypt, as well as the "chiefs of Edom" and the "heads of Mo'av" are likened, respectively, 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 17:1 Moshe and Yisrael sing, "I will sing to YVHV 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). YVHV's wrath is alluded 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 the word meaning “bitter”), we read that after the act of causing the water to become sweet by casting a tree or a stick, which YVHV pointed out to Moshe, "He made a statute and an ordinance and there He tried them" (15: 25). 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 (from "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 is unfamiliar to them, "they asked each other,'mah'n hu?'", or "what is it?". 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 nevertheless 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 here by the word “yad” (also “hand”). In the final verse of our Parasha Moshe makes a proclamation about a another “yad”, which is “on Yah’s throne” – pointing to an oath: “war is to YHVH with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).5

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?" (17:7).

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. 1991.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.