Reflections on Parshat Beshallach
by Rebecca Nadis
Close your eyes and imagine:
You are a member of בני ישראל, the People of Israel, a new nation of newly freed slaves. You are led out of Egypt into the wilderness, led only by a single man, Moses, and two miraculous pillars: one of cloud, the other of fire. Instead of marching directly to the Promised Land, you soon find yourself on a roundabout journey through the desert. Everything is new, every moment is uncertain. With every step you take, the world of slavery, the world of Egypt fades a little more into the background of your memory, leaving space for new aspirations and dreams to grow.
The next thing you know, you, and your family, and your nation are trapped between the sea and rapidly advancing Egyptian chariots. Those memories of slavery, of life in Egypt blaze back to life in your mind. Fear and doubt and confusion spread like wildfire through the mass of people around you, as the ground underneath your feet trembles with news of the approaching Egyptians. The hope and energy and possibility of יציאה, exodus, are consumed by the fire of fear and doubt. Angry voices begin to rise up from the all around you. Nearby, someone shouts:
!?הַֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר
Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?!
Another voice from behind you calls out:
?!?מַה־זֹּאת֙ עָשִׂ֣יתָ לָּ֔נוּ לְהוֹצִיאָ֖נוּ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?!
Shouts now erupt from all sides, faith and confidence faltering in the face of uncertainty and fear. But Moses’s voice rings out clear and strong, rallying the people:
אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ הִֽתְיַצְב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם
Do not fear! Stand firm, and witness the deliverance that God will do for you today!
A protective wall of cloud erupts. Moses holds out his staff. The sea splits. You cross on dry land. The Egyptians give chase. The waters collapse. A moment of silence.
And then, a joyous song of triumph. This song of power and confidence and faith and celebration, of thanks and praise, will endure for thousands of years in the mouths of your descendants. If this is what freedom feels like, if for this reason we were taken out of Egypt, then God must indeed be great.
But this is only the beginning of our story. Even before Parashat Beshallach ends, we know that the emotional high of קריעת ים סוף, the parting of the sea, is overshadowed by returning fears and creeping doubts about food, about water and about mortal enemies. Reading Beshallach is emotionally exhausting. Why does the Torah take us up so high, only to send us crashing back to earth?
Life at camp requires us to ask the same question. Life as a camper or a staff member at Ramah Wisconsin has its share of שירת הים ומסה ומריבה moments, highs and lows, just as our lives outside camp do. Many of us experience the high of a summer at camp, and are left feeling uncertain when we say goodbye to our friends at the end of the summer. Each of us has experienced moments of uncertainly, of letdown, of fear after moments of self confidence, certainty, and inspiration. Perhaps what Beshallach can teach us is that moments of triumph must be celebrated, even when we know those moments will pass. Moses was certainly aware that the journey through the desert would bring trials and challenges and test his resolve and the resolve of the people. Despite this, or perhaps, because of it, it is Moses himself who raises his voice in song. The fact that we will face trials in the future means that the triumphs must be celebrated all the more.
After the celebration, a seemingly mundane pasuk seems to say it all:
וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם׃
Then Moses led the people…
The excitement and energy of the celebration, the confidence of the people after witnessing the power of God, gives them and their leaders the push necessary to begin what will certainly be long and arduous journey.
You can almost see Moses bend down, tighten his sandals, pick up his staff and take the first steps of that journey, with the new nation following behind.