WHAT MAKES VICTORY – “B’shalakh” – Ex.13:17-17:16 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week we will read a section full of climactic events. First, Moses faces the danger of leading his people on a roundabout route through desert country, following a pillar of cloud to the west shore of the Red Sea. Then, arriving at the brink, the people revolt: “Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us here to die in the desert?” Moses cries to G-d for help, and gets the Divine retort: Mah titz’ak ey-lai? (We can almost hear Jewish parents asking the same question in Yiddish: Vos shry’stu af mir?) “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on!” Moses lifts his staff, but the people hesitate on the shore, until one man, Nahshon by name, steps forward into the water, and walks in until the water reaches his throat, as the Or haHayyim commentary describes it. Then the east wind blows, and parts the sea. G-d helps those who help themselves.
So the Israelites walk to freedom, with the water forming a wall to their right and to their left.
Then, of course, come the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh’s army, and we will read of their fate. Maybe the wind dried the surface of the sea-floor enough to walk on, but the weight of the chariots reaches the deep mud below. “G-d removed the wheels from their chariots and made them drive heavily.” As the water came down and submerged them, the Egyptians abandoned their chariots…and drowned. Fiction, you say? Did you miss the news story last year about the oceanographers who discovered the gold rims of Pharaoh’s chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea? Chariots and wooden wheels long since decomposed, but the metal rims remained. Let’s not doubt our miracles.
Moses and his people sang about those miracles, as will we, in the classic Shirah, the Song of the Sea that colors this week’s reading with its special melody and its poetic spacing on the Torah’s parchment, and gives this Sabbath its calendar name “Sabbath of Song,” an occasion to add special musical celebration to our ritual.
Of course the story goes on, as the 40-year trek through the desert is just starting. In fact, at the end of this section we see the cowardly tribe of Amalek – the jihadists of their day – attack Israel, striking from the rear, and a fierce battle ensues. We will read how Moses climbs a hill and holds his sacred staff up high, with Aaron and Hur flanking him, while on the plain below Joshua leads the fight against Amalek. As the day goes on, Moses’ arms tire and Aaron and Hur have to hold them up so the fighters can see the symbol. As long as they can look up, they prevail. Only when they look down do they risk losing. A symbolic tale of courage and confidence as keys to victory, if there ever was one.
Among the symbolic stories in this section, one word that gets very little mention – and even gets an inexact translation – appears in Chapter 14 verse 30. The standard English translation reads: “The Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” But that’s not what the Hebrew text says. The word for Egyptians would be mitzrim, but the Hebrew says mitzra-yim, which would translate: “Israel saw EGYPT dead.” Not some soldiers floating in the water, but the death of the Egyptian empire. After defying destiny and denying freedom, Pharoah succeeded only in leading his nation to defeat. Indeed the ancient power of Egypt never recovered. King Tut’s fame and the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam are all the work of foreigners. Even the population changed when civilized Egyptians were overrun by Mohamed’s primitive tribesmen. Truly Israel saw Egypt dead.
We can well express joy and gratitude that our ancestors were liberated so many centuries ago.