Commentary for Beshalach

27 Jan

This week’s parshah contains many famous biblical stories, but the most famous of which is the crossing of the Red Sea. The crossing of the Red Sea is one of the most important events in Jewish history, and is referred to many times throughout our prayer services. The most detailed of these is in the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15:1- 18, which we recite daily at the end of the introductory P’seukei D’zimrah section of our service.


It is interesting to consider exactly why this event has become so prominent in our history. Obviously it’s a big, fancy miracle in which God’s great might is put on full display, showing God’s unmatched command of nature being used to save the Israelites from certain doom and destroy the mighty Egyptian army, but that sort of thing happens plenty of other times, too. The ten plagues, for example, would seem to be even more impressive, as that was God performing ten different miracles instead of just one. The book of Joshua contains stories of many miracles that helped the Israelites crush their foes in battle. So why is this moment so special?


Before we recite the Song of the Sea in our daily prayers, we first introduce it with the two verses that immediately precede it in the Torah: “On that day The Lord saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great hand that The Lord inflicted upon Egypt, and the nation revered The Lord and they had faith in The Lord and Moses His servant (Ex 14:30-31).” While these verses serve as a nice introduction, they also contain a more important message. For the first verse and a half, the Israelites are referred to in the singular form “Israel,” and the verbs in Hebrew are all written in the singular form. Then, in the middle of Ex. 14:31, the text switches, referring to the Israelites as “the nation,” with plural verb forms: “[they] revered,” “they had faith.”


Many midrashim (most prominently the Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael) tell stories of dissension within the Israelite camp at this time. Some wanted to go back to Egypt, some wanted to just drown themselves in the sea. Some wanted to try to fight the Egyptians. Some had faith that God would save them with another miracle, while others had no faith in God at all. Everyone had his or her own opinion about what they should do. After the crossing of the Red Sea, though, as everyone saw with his or her own eyes how God had once again saved them from the Egyptians, they all became believers who trusted not only in God, but also that Moses was carrying out God’s instructions correctly. The first person to refer to the Israelites as a “nation” is not an Israelite, but rather it is Pharaoh, way back in Exodus 1:9, but it is only now, after crossing the Red Sea, that the Israelites themselves have truly become a unified people. They entered the Red Sea as individual descendents of our forefather Israel, but they set out from there all as Israelites.

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