> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Tragedy of Lessons Not Learned

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As the Children of Israel begin their journey from Egypt, they must surely feel on top of the world. But the question on their lips must also be: "What comes next?" They know that something momentous is about to happen, as God has already revealed to Moses:

"When you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve the Lord on this mountain." [Exodus 3:12]

The Jews are meant to return to Sinai, where the Torah will be revealed. There, they will receive their mandate, which will instruct, inspire, and guide them throughout history.

From Sinai the Jews are to enter the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- the Land of Israel.

But something unplanned will happen on the way to Israel, and the Jews will take a detour which will cause them to wander in the desert for 40 years.


* * *



This detour has its origins in this week’s Torah portion. In the very first verse we are told that the Jews are but a short distance from Israel, near the land of the Philistines, but despite this proximity, a different path is chosen.

And it came to pass that when Pharaoh sent the people, God would not let them travel via the route of the land of the Philistines, for it was quite close, for the Lord said: 'Lest the people have second thoughts, if they see war, and return to Egypt.' [Exodus 13:17]

Ironically, by the end of this week’s Torah portion the Jews do find themselves engaged in a different battle, after they are attacked by the Amalakites.

This detour, then, is one of the great tragedies of Jewish history.


* * *



The Jews were quite close to Israel, but not ready to enter.

The quickest route to Israel was through Sinai, a fifty-day trip, but their actual sojourn would take another forty years.

God wanted the people to enter Israel, but He knew that they were simply not prepared psychologically to do what it would take.

At all times, God desires that man's potential be fulfilled, but sometimes man is unable, or not ready to respond to God's call.

God desires that man's potential be fulfilled, but sometimes man is unable, or not ready to respond to God's call.

Thus the task fell on Moses to lead this young, fragile nation to Sinai, and then, eventually -- after much wandering and many travails -- on to Israel.

Of course, Moses never does lead the people into the Promised Land; he dies on the east side of the Jordan River as the nation is at last poised to take this final step.

We will analyze this Torah portion and try to discern from it the educational philosophy which would transform the Jews from slaves to Pharaoh into partners with God.


* * *



Upon exiting Egypt, the Jews had witnessed the greatest display of God's power the world had ever seen. It awed them and it frightened them at the same time. On the one hand, it provided the Jews with an awesome lesson in monotheism. On the other hand, it set standards of a relationship with God which could not, for man's sake, be sustained.

Thus henceforth, obvious miracles would have to be replaced with a different way of appreciating, understanding, and connecting to God.

For this transformation to occur one last glorious miracle would take place -- the splitting of the sea. The response of the Jews to this last, great miracle is stronger than to any of the ten plagues:


  • here, they break into song;
  • here, they finally realize that the hated Egyptians are truly a thing of the past;
  • here, we are told that the Jews truly believed in God and Moses.


Why was their response so strong?

We may answer this question by posing a different question: What possessed the Egyptians to chase the Jews into the water?

To see the Egyptians die in the water confirmed God's utter superiority -- it was like seeing the god of Egypt die.

Earlier we learned that the Pharaoh saw himself as god of the Nile. Perhaps the Egyptians rationalized that on dry land the "Jewish" God has success but that the water is the domain of Egypt. Perhaps this mode of thought had made inroads into the Jewish community as well.

To see the Egyptians die in the water confirmed God’s utter superiority to one and all. In a sense it was like seeing the god of Egypt die. The splitting of the sea completed the theological lesson. For this reason, this miracle is considered so momentous.

In the words of Rashi:

There was a revelation of God. A maid saw on the sea that which eluded the Prophets. [Rashi 15:2]

Only one problem remained -- what do you do for an encore?

The supernatural relationship is wonderful -- God attacks all who wish to do us harm. But such a relationship is also unnatural. Man needs independence from such astounding miracles in order for his free will to become operational.


* * *




The splitting of the sea marks the point of departure from the ten plagues. The method differs:

'Lift your staff and stretch out you arm over the sea and divide it … 'And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea … And God said to Moses, 'Stretch out your hand on the sea, and the water will return on the Egyptians, on their chariots and horsemen." [Exodus 14:16,21,26]

Moses is told to take his staff, the same staff which has performed so many miracles, and to hold it up, but to use his arm, not the staff! The Zohar notes that the staff is held in one hand while the other hand performs the splitting of the sea.

Another important element is that the splitting of the sea takes place as the wind blows the entire night. The result is not immediate. The hand replaces the staff and the wind replaces the "instant miracles" which happened time and again in Egypt.

Nonetheless, the people experienced God. In their minds, the revelation is specifically identified with the sea, for here the glory of God was fully experienced.


* * *



After crossing the sea, the Jews continue their march to the desert. After three days "they find no water." [Exodus 15:22] Nowhere does the text say that they were, in fact, seeking water nor that they were thirsty, just that they did not find water.

When they arrive at Marrah they do find water there, but it is bitter. How strange -- had they been truly thirsty, even bitter water should have quenched their thirst. They had wanted the water for a different reason -- to experience God again, as they did at the sea.

In this light we can understand God’s message to Moses:

He (Moses) prayed to God, and God instructed (Moses concerning) a tree which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet. There He gave him rituals and laws. [Exodus 15:25]

While the second part of the verse may seem completely disconnected from the first, a profound educational philosophy is embedded therein.

The people thought that it was water which they wanted, while their real desire was to experience God again. The response was to give them Torah.

This would be the new way that the people would relate to and experience God.


* * *



If this is the case, what is the nature of this tree which is placed in the water?

The Sages teach us that the tree is the Tree of Life, which is identified with Torah. [See Michilta, Bahir and the sources cited by Rav Kasher, in Torah Shlema.]

The Sages teach us that the tree which turns bitter water sweet is the Tree of Life, which is identified with Torah.

The people think they want water, but God knows what they really need. God turns their complaining into a positive educational experience, which sets the stage for the next episode.

When the people complain about the scarcity of food in the desert, God responds by giving the people mann, "manna."

On the surface it appears that the purpose of the manna was simply to provide the people with nourishment. The Torah, however, informs us of an ulterior motive. The manna falls for five days, and on the sixth it falls in double measure. On the seventh day, Shabbat, no manna is forthcoming.

When the double measure falls on the sixth day, the people question Moses as to the meaning of this phenomenon. His answer is:

'This is what God spoke of. A day of rest, a Shabbat sanctified to God, will take place tomorrow." [Exodus 16:23]

The people think they want food, but God gives the people what they really need: Shabbat. Once again, a positive educational response.


* * *



We see that the former slaves, who are moving toward Mount Sinai, are being primed by God, prepared for the type of spiritual experiences which will become part and parcel of Jewish life.

The staff, the symbol of God’s miracles, is no longer employed. Even at Marrah, the tree is utilized, the tree being the "natural" form of the staff.

The Ramban notes that the tree turned the water sweet "in a natural way." [Ramban 15:25] This is the new agenda: A free nation will become dedicated to the teachings of a supernatural God in the most natural way.

After all, we are taught that God "looked into the Torah and thereby created the world."

Nature can lead to a deep understanding of God, and, alternatively, the teachings of God are meant for this world, the natural world. As it says in Deuteronomy: "It is not in heaven."

Nature can lead to a deep understanding of God, and the teachings of God are meant for the natural world.

The manna was supposed to be a tangible lesson. The desire for food is obviously quite real, and cannot be ignored, but the purpose of food is not simply to fill our stomachs. Rather, it facilitates our relationship with God.

The purpose of Judaism is to take the mundane and sanctify it. We must take the food from heaven and process it into a relationship with God. This is our role on earth.

The best example of this lesson is Shabbat, when God ceased creating, as it were, and made the seventh day holy. That was the lesson of the manna: food can be used in the service of God, or, that this entire world may be used as a catalyst to allow us to relate to God.


* * *



The next stage, though, is a reversal. This time the Jews are thirsty, and they fight with Moses. Worst of all, they question God.


* * *


They tested God, saying, 'Is God among us or not?' [Exodus 17:7]

The people seem to be going in the wrong direction, suffering a relapse. Theoretically, they should have already learned a lesson at Marrah, the lesson of Torah as their connection to God. In response, God tells Moses:

'Take the staff that you struck the (Nile) River with …' [Exodus 17:5]

The staff is employed again. The people, who were supposed to be moving away from the miracles of the plagues toward Sinai and Torah, are now taking a step backward toward Egypt. Therefore, God's response is taken from the repertoire of the plagues.

But even worse, here the Jews question the existence of a living God among them.

The response to such questioning is the appearance of Amalek.

Amalek represents the philosophy which rejects a living God, and instead ascribes everything to coincidence and happenstance. In Deuteronomy, we are commanded to remember Amalek:

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the road when you left Egypt. How they happened upon you … [Deuteronomy 25:17,18]

One of the great Hassidic masters, Rav Zaddok Hacohen, explains:

Amalek believes that everything in this world is coincidence, that there is no providence in the world, or, in other words, that nature is god. The Jews became vulnerable to the attack of Amalek when they questioned if God was really with them. They needed a different lesson. The battle which was avoided with the Phillistines, became a reality with Amalek. The Jews needed yet another lesson in the power of God. Now, during the battle we are told that Moses took the staff of the Almighty with him. [17:9]

"When Moses lifted his hands, Israel was victorious, when he brought his hands down Amalek overpowered them. [Exodus 17:11]

The Mishna asks rhetorically: "Did the hands of Moses bring victory or defeat?" [Rosh Hashana 29a] Rather the hands of Moses helped focus the Israelites on their Father in Heaven.


* * *




In a sense the battle with Amalek is similar to the splitting of the Sea, for there, too, Moses brought the staff but used his hands. In this case the relationship between the hands of Moses and the victory is even more clear -- the function of Moses hands was to bring people in touch with the fact that there is a God in heaven who sees all and is all-powerful.

The reason Amalek was able to attack was that the Jews seemed to have forgotten about God's continued presence and protection. They did not learn each lesson in its proper time, and some lessons needed repetition.

That was the tragedy in Parshat B’Shalach -- lessons had to be repeated, and opportunities were not realized.

The battle of Amalek was not in God's plan, or at least not in "Plan A." Had the Jews internalized the lesson at Marrah and succeeded in maintaining their relationship with God via Torah, Amalek and the philosophy they represent would have been powerless.

Had the Jews succeeded in maintaining their relationship with God via Torah, Amalek would have been powerless.

But the behavior of the Jews in the desert created the necessity for a "Plan B." Other lessons not properly learned will soon bring upon them "Plan C" and "Plan D."

While God provides the lessons and allows for the growth needed at each stage, it has been our task throughout history to learn the lessons, to internalize them and utilize them. This is the message of Parshat B’Shalach.


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