B’shalakh Sh’mot/Exodus 13.17–17.16 Summary & Commentary through a Social Justice & Reflective Lens
B’shalakh is the fourth parashah of Sh’mot and the 16th of the Torah. It begins with Pharaoh banishing us from Egypt. Of course, The Eternal forced him to do so. It’s mistaken to think that he “let us go.” In any case, we have Yoseif’s coffin, his bones; something the Egyptians knew we would not leave without. They tried to hide the coffin by reburying it into the silt of the Nile. However, Serakh bat Asher never lost sight of her responsibility and knew where to find it. She took Moshe to the spot, and they called to The Eternal Who raised it from the Nile’s sticky mud.
As we gather to leave, an elder begins to recite the story of the death and lamenting of Yaakov preceding his funeral march to Canaan. So, we begin our walk to freedom, connecting ourselves to a distant past to create a funeral march and a freedom march. Though we do not know why “the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night” is taking us on this circular route to wherever it is we are going, we follow. Whatever is ahead of us has to be better than what we leave behind. (13.17–20)
Unbeknownst to us, The Eternal decides to confront Pharaoh one more time. Shortly after we arrive and begin to “encamp before Pi HaKhirot between Migdol and the sea,” word reaches us that Pharaoh and his chariots are behind us and moving fast. Terrified, we cry to The Eternal. Many complain to Moshe. “Have no fear,” he declares. “Stand by and witness the deliverance with which יהוה will work for you today…יהוה will battle for you.” (14.1–14) Mal’akh HaElohim (an angel of God) moves to the rear between us and Pharaoh’s army, creating a darkness that shields us from the Egyptians and freezes them in place. With Moshe’s arms raised, The Eternal creates a strong east wind that, and overnight, divides the water into two high walls and dries a seabed path wide enough and long enough for all of us to make it to the other shore. (14.19–22)
Mir’yam, the prophet, (Moshe and) Aharon’s sister, picks up a tof
After the mal’akh HaElohim joins us on the distant shore, “all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and riders” enter the sea, chasing us with all they have. We watch as the last of Pharaoh’s army lands the seabed. Suddenly, it appears as if something is happening with the chariots. The horses are struggling to move forward. Some are turning around. Moshe raises his arms. The sea waters fall on most of the Egyptians and those trying to escape appear to be hurled into the sea. Nothing of Pharaoh’s army remains. All that is left on the other shore is Pharaoh on his horse. (14.23–29)
We roar with thanks and praise as we realize the miracle performed on our behalf. We are laughing and hugging and crying. If we had not witnessed with our own eyes the wondrous power wielded against the Egyptians, we would not have believed. We would not be in awe/fear of our Mighty God. We would not trust Moshe and Aharon. (14.30–15.19) Mir’yam, the prophet, (Moshe and) Aharon’s sister, picks up a tof (hand-drum), and all of us women follow her with our tupim. We dance and sing a song of praise to The Eternal, recounting God’s glorious triumph over the Egyptians and their gods! (15.20–21)
After the celebration, we resume our journey, traveling away from the Sea of Reeds into the Shur wilderness. We travel for three days and have yet to find water. The bliss and joy of escape wear off We are following, and we are in a place of unknowing, longing for the security of knowing. We are in a place of unknowing, longing for the security of knowing. Within our families, we speak of feeling bad and not knowing why. There is water when we arrive at Marah, but it is as bitter as we feel! The complaining begins. The Eternal shows Moshe a tree. He pushes it into the water, causing it to become sweet. Yet, it doesn’t sweeten our mood.
We hunger for something and complain about being hungry for food.
What does cause a mood change is our first post escape rule from The Eternal. We agree to follow the ways of The Eternal, though it’s hard to conceive of what that means. Yes, this is the God, the Might, that brought us out of Egypt. Most of us only hear “l, The Eternal, am your Healer.” Hearing that causes us to know another portion of what we need. (15.22–16) Eilim, our next stop, offers beauty and nourishment with its 12 springs of water, 70 palm trees, and great aromas. We camp beside and around the waters, soaking in the peace and beauty. It mutes our stress, mistrust, and fear. We leave Eilim, returning to the spaciousness of the wilderness.
We hunger for something and complain about being hungry for food. We have plenty of provisions and animals to slaughter. We long for something we did not know we would miss: routine and certainty. Some speak dramatically about our former life, embellishing it with goodness that did not exist. (15.27–16.3)
The Healer sends quail to the camp in the evening. In the morning, as the morning dew disperses, there is a fine, flaky substance covering the ground. We ask, הוא? מה (mah hu( What is it? Bread, we are told. We gather and cook enough מן הואand quail for two days as we prepare to observe Shabbat. The quail are delicious. The bread tastes like coriander seed, wafers, and honey. Or, whatever you are missing! Soon, we begin to call it, מה והוא (mah v’hu), literally whatandit; making it the original whatchamacallit. We rest, enjoying the company of family and neighbors for Shabbat. Among us, there is no recent memory of experiencing Shabbat. More healing. (16.426)
Our next encampment is R’fidim and there is no water. Moshe makes a point of passing through us and gathering some of our elders, and we follow until he stops at a rock. He strikes the rock and water issues out. We call the place Massah uM’rivah (Test and Quarrel) because we were tested by and quarreled with The Eternal. (17.1–7) Amaleik fights us at R’fidim. Hoshua picks men to go with him to battle Amaleik. With Aharon and Khur supporting his arms, Moshe holds his rod high to aid our men in defeating Amaleik. After which, The Eternal promises to “utterly blot out the memory of Amaleik from under heaven!” (17.8–16)
We will hear a repetition of this curse in just a few weeks on Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembrance, for which there is a special maftir from the end of Ki Teitze that includes the second curse, D’varim 25.17–19. Amaleik is singled out for the special honor of us being charged to remember to forget him because he is the grandson of Eisav (Genesis 36.11–12), making him an eternal internal enemy. He and his people attack us from the rear and kill the weakest of our kin. Doing so demonstrates his lack of fear or awe for, and complete disregard of, The Eternal.
Shining Light on Our Time
While the three i’s — insurrection, impeachment, and inauguration — are in the history books, the aftermath is still very present. Among the many fascinating reveals are the number of former members of the military involved in the insurrection as well the various militia movements. I’m not surprised. It’s been an open secret since 1948. Yes, I am saying that the military has had a problem with some percentage of discharged and retiring members, including former Marines, involved in unsavory anti-government activities since the military marched toward integration.
It would be so easy to fall into the rabbit hole of anger over how long it’s taken the United States government to see White Supremacists as serious threats to public safety instead of lone-wolves… However, that would be one more path away from all the shades of my grief: painful grief, howling sadness grief, raging grief… After cycling through those more than once, I usually reluctantly arrive at acceptance grief. Not this time. This time I am meeting a new grief: the grief of release and releasing. The way-to-heavy burden is a little lighter. People all kinds of people, including some with authority, who had previously been willing to ignore, explain away, or reinterpret what they were seeing, can no longer pretend “there’s nothing to worry about.”
Reading about the grumpiness of our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion with my own state of mind, caused me to pay more attention to Eilim, the oasis in the wilderness with 12 springs, and 70 palm trees. I fully imagined a place with such beauty, such splendor, and abundant pleasures, a welcome fragrance soothing my soul and the souls of those with me. How easy it would be to rest alone and with a partner, family, extended family… and allow the natural abundance to heal all that I know needs healing, and invite the healing of hurts I am yet to know need healing. In preparing to leave this muting, meditative space I suddenly understand the 12 springs as the promise of the 12 tribes on their way to become a nation and the 70 palm trees as the 70 faces of The Divine. I move out of this place of meditative restoration to embrace my comforting constant companion grief. AND, though the stress volume is so very low, I cannot hear my tinnitus. Could that, too, be healed?! Even if temporary, it’s a blessing.
I’ve always been fascinated by the number of commentators who criticize our ancestors for not trusting The Eternal. It can be difficult to trust anything as one moves through the aftermath of trauma. Our ancestors were just not prepared for the melting and stripping away of all the internal masks and defenses — the ones built up generationally and individually — the further and further away from the narrow life from which they were redeemed/freed. In the context of trauma, especially generational trauma, their behavior makes complete sense. They, like me, are in the midspace: They know what they left behind. Leaving room for the few exceptions, most of them do not want to go back and they have — literally and actually — have no idea what the future holds. How scary is that!? No more highly structured, exhausting life with little to no room to image different, and now, they are living different.
I, too, am now living different. I am not worrying about what’s next. Whatever it may be, when it arrives, I have the space to welcome it.
This Week’s Lessons, Reflections, and Practices When Bitterness Catches Us
Rabbi Shefa Gold discusses bitterness as the Spiritual Challenge for this parshah. Think about your last week-long retreat (and if you’ve never been on one, imagine what it might be like, and follow along with me). If you’re like me, somewhere within the span of day three, I am more in my body, which feels great! I feel great! Breathing is easier and movement is so wonderful. Still, discomforts and dissatisfactions arise. If I’m not careful, I will mistake them as real: breakfast still doesn’t have what I need; I’m not really connecting with the teacher; or that person is annoying me. My hips and lower back will not stop aching. Why did I think this was a good idea … The misery inducing statements are a masque.
“Beshallach sends us to our own bitterness that we might be healed. In order for this healing to occur, we must acknowledge bitter murmurings and compassionately yet firmly set them aside, making room for (Moshe), our capacity for wisdom, to act.” R. Gold connects the tree that Moshe casts in the water to the Tree of Life, with its “roots in Heaven and its branches spread out into our lives.” As beautiful as the metaphor is, I think it is more likely a tree that bares a bitter fruit, or its wood, when burned smells bad. In the ancient world, cures tended to be similar to the issue being addressed. Practice 1: Bitterness comes in many forms: regrets, slow burns, disappointments, grudges, mean wishes… We can carry one or more daily, hiding it in the discomforts, dissatisfactions, and irritations we experience. In the coming week, when you find yourself irritated or dissatisfied, pause. Note the quality of the feeling and its location in your body. Do so for a full week before going to the next step. Week two: continue the practice of week one. Once you have located the irritation within your body, ask it what it has to say to you? Teach you? Practice 2: You are part of the Tree of Life and it is part of you. If this concept is new to you, live into it and discover what, if any, meaning it has for you. If you know this, take note and assess how alive it is for you. Need a refresher? It’s readily available.
While the Torah writes as if all the people complained, if we look at our own lives, we know there are private realities when it comes to shared events. People go through the same event and none of the participants will tell the same story because the experience is individual and the event is collective.
My first conscious experience of this phenomena occurred on July 17, 1981 when I was living in Kansas City, MO. The downtown Hyatt Regency held a Tea Dance with live music featuring amazing KC artists every Friday night. That night, having heard an unusual number of sirens, my partner and I turned on the TV to hear the local news announcer telling us that walkways had collapsed at the Hyatt Regency. We immediately thought about our neighbors, co-workers, and friends who might have been there. One hundred people were killed and over 200 people were injured. The number of people we knew who were injured or killed (directly affected) and their families (adjacent to the event) stunned us. Yet, it took us months for us to realize we, too, experienced trauma, transition, and change as a result of the shared experience. Reflection A: With changes in media, there have been many events witnessed directly (on site or during a live broadcast) or adjacent (post event newscast or online video). As you read this, what comes to your mind/heart? There’s nothing to force; it’s either there or not. Sometimes, what arises is strong emotion. Other times sweetness. If something arises, let it have room wherever it lands in your body. Witness/experience it, allowing it to dissipate and leave at its pace. If something strong arises and you are not ready, change your body position and say aloud: Not now. Note: changing your body position can be as simple as opening or closing your eyes, bowing… or as complex getting up and going for a walk or a run.
מנא — M’na (manna), Miracles
I am a night owl who loves mornings. I love sunrises and sunsets, any non-stagnant body of water; winds from the North that cool on a summer’s day and breezes from the South warm on a winter’s day. I love my children and my grandchildren; my family, including the ones that drive me crazy, and my friends who are closer than family.
I feel great wonder watching a hawk or an eagle or a buzzard riding wind currents; circling down, and winging back up. I am bemused when I miss a bus or a turn or meander as I walk, and end-up being of unexpected assistance to someone I do not know, or run into someone who’s been on my heart. I’m still awed by rainbows, cloud formations from the ground to the air sky, the power and scary magnificence of storms, and the secrets that deciduous forests reveal in winter and hide in summer. All of this and more is how m’na — Heaven’s abundance manifested — gives me what I need; and the miracles of Creation that never fail to awe. The thought, experience of any one of these brings me to Life’s fullness and fragility; the blessed paradox of being alive. Practice 3: Take the opportunity to renew your relationship to Creation. Spend less time with gadgets and more time being and beings. Be on your drive or walk or bike… drink in the sky, trees, buildings, people, animals… If you are walking or driving with someone, notice them. I mean, really notice them. Drink them in, as if you are seeing them for the first time. What’s new or different? What feeling do you experience as you notice them? Are you outside? Is Life calling you to look? Notice? See? Experience? Release yourself from your already knowing gaze and deeply see. Practice 4: For the next two Shabbats, notice your relationship to Shabbat from the moment you begin to prepare through how you close. What are the feelings, thoughts, experiences that arise as you create Shabbat? No judgement. Just notice, including noticing what arises.
 Rabbi Shefa Gold, Torah Journeys The Inner Path to the Promised Land. Teaneck: Ben Yehuda Press; 2006, p 75.  Ibid.
© Sabrina Sojourner 2021