Gathering Sources: Beshalach

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the portion Beshalach — also spelled Beshalah or Beshallach — Exodus 13:17-17:16. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Language and Translation: shift of numbers
Something to Notice: Water and Complaint
A Path to Follow: Endings and Beginnings
Great Source(s): Shabbat Shirah and the Birds

See also Beshalach and Bobby McGee

Beshalach is next read in the Diaspora, mincha Feb 1 through Shabbat, February 8.

Beshalach: Language and Translation

There are several significant shifts of number in this week’s portion. One occurs earlier in the portion, when “Egypt” and “the Egyptians” chase the Israelites.

In Shemot/Exodus 14:9, the Egyptians are plural and take a plural verb:

Va-yirdefu Mitzrayim achareihem [The Egyptians set out after them]

In the next verse, however, the Israelites view “Egypt” as a singular entity traveling — nosea [singular] — after them.

Alan Lew writes in Be Still and Get Going:*

Why does the Torah shift number so cavalierly here? According to Rashi, it is because the Torah wishes to emphasize what it was the Israelites saw when they raised their eyes to the horizon. They saw not the Egyptians themselves, in the plural, but the spirit of Egypt, in the singular. They saw their idea of Egypt. They saw the Egypt in which they had cowered as slaves for four hundred years, in which they were abused and outnumbered. In other words, they saw their fear of Egypt. They saw a mental construct, or in Rebbe Nachman’s words, something that they were afraid of but didn’t have to be.

The biblical text takes pains to make the same point. This text is ambiguous about exactly how many chariots there were in the army that had pinned the Israelites down at the sea….

…Why would such a tremendous throng be afraid of 1,800, or even 180,000, charioteers? The answer is that they were not responding to what was really there, nor even to what they saw. Rather they were responding to a phantom. They were responding to a fear-inducing product of their own imagination.

Later, at the Song of the Sea — when Moses and then Miriam sing to the LORD — there is another shift:

Ashira L’YHVH — I will sing to the LORD (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
Shiru L’YHVH — Sing [plural] to the LORD (15:21)

*For complete citation and other information, please see Source Materials.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Beshalach and Bobby McGee

“Together, Today, with a Desert to Roam”

A Lyrical Commentary on Parashat Beshalach,
to the tune of “Me and Bobby McGee” —
with apologies and thanks to authors Fred Foster and Kris Kristoferson,
and to Janis Joplin on whose rendition this is based.
(c) V. Spatz, 2003.

[composed for the occasion of a Fabrangen bat mitzvah]
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Beshalach: A Path to Follow

In a recent dvar Torah, Mimi Feigelson discusses what she calls “bracketed reading,” a technique focusing on first and last words of a passage under consideration, and applies it to the books of the Torah:

There is an extreme form of this method that I’ve developed and that is to look at the last words of a corpus of writing and ask, ‘Why has the author left us here / lead us to here?’ If you do this with exercise when looking at the five chumashim you will find that God leaves us exactly where we need to be at that moment:

The last two words of Breishit/Genesis are “ba’aron b’Mitzrayim/in a coffin in Egypt.” The entire book of B’reishit, from creation through the establishment of the household of our patriarchs and matriarchs is to lead us to the most constricted, limited, confined place – a coffin in Egypt.

The last two words of Sh’mot/Exodus is “b’chol mas’e’hem /on all of their journeys.” The book of Sh’mot constitutes our journey out of Mitzrayim and toward establishing our identity as we journey through the dessert.

The book of Vayikra/Leviticus ends with “b’har Sinai/at Mount Sinai.” The book of Vayikra teaches us the content of our covenant with God, what standing at Mount Sinai really meant.

The book of Bamidbar/Numbers concludes with “Yarden Yericho / Jordan Jericho” – this book brings us to the border of the Land of Israel. We are not there yet, but we have almost made it, we can see it from afar.

And the last book in the chumash brings us to “kol Yisrael/all of Israel” – it is here that we have all come together, finally united.

One path to follow in reading Beshalach is to consider the last words of the portion (Shemot/Exodus 17:16) — midor dor [generation to generation] — to see where they have left us and where they lead. The final words, alone, might be interpreted in one light, in terms of this portion and its connection to the Passover seder. Another path is suggested by considering the entire verse or paragraph (about eternal war with Amalek).

Reb Mimi’s dvar Torah, “To be a Temporary Resident of Mitzrayim,” was written for parashat Bo (last week’s portion). (Here’s the original posting, through the WayBack Machine.) The remainder centers around a teaching of R. Mordechai Joseph Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, who is also known by the title of his Torah commentary, Mei HaShiloach [Living Waters] (see Commentators page for more information). Avivah Zornberg often quotes the Ishbitzer Rebbe, and noticing those citations presents another path to follow. The original dvar torah can be found

Finally, I learned with Reb Mimi when she was offering a course on Mei HaShiloach and other Hasidic teachers at Drisha Institute. I recommend both teacher and institute — additional “paths” to follow, should the opportunity arise.

More on Reb Mimi at Schechter in Jerusalem and at Jewish Women’s Archives

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Beshalach: Great Source(s)

One day in 1948 an old man carrying many huge packages arrived at the port of Haifa. He stood in a long line of people who had come from Europe. They all looked tired and worn from their long journey and from the terrible events that had brought them to the new State of Israel. But they all looked forward to becoming citizens of the new Jewish state.

“…So, Rabbi, what’s in all these packages?” [the customs official asked]

“They are cages, filled with birds,” he stated.

“Birds?” The officer was even more surprised. “You brought birds all the way from Europe….I can assure you we have plenty of birds–”

“No, you don’t understand. When the Nazis came, they took everyone….By some miracle I survived. I was liberated from the concentration camp. And after I was liberated, I went back to my village….But there was no one. Not one other person from Chelm had survived. I found myself alone. I stood in the burned-out shell of our synagogue, and I was alone.

“And suddenly I realized what day it was — it was Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath when we read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. And the birds came, all the birds, as they had come every year* to eat the children’s crumbs and to sing with us! But there were no children, and there were no crumbs for the birds….I couldn’t save the children, and I couldn’t save the song, but perhaps I could save the birds….Here there is a future for the birds and for Jewish children. So here the birds will live again.”

The astonished officer stamped the rabbi’s passport and said with reverence,” Welcome to Israel, Rabbi Elimelech son of Shlomo of Chelm. Here you will find Jewish children. Here you will find Jewish people who sing. Here you and your birds will find life again. Welcome to Israel, Rabbi.” — E. Feinstein

Shabbat Shira and Birds

This story is excerpted from “The Last Story of the Wise Men of Chelm,” from the collection, Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales retold by Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein. (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 2008). This offers the gist, but the full story is worth checking out — as are others in this volume.

I first heard this story at Temple Micah, where Shabbat Shirah is occasion for much music-making each year. (Thanks to Rabbi Zemel for sharing his copy.)
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