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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat B'shallah 5756
Exodus 13:17-17:16
February 3, 1996    13 Shvat 5756

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The end of a story often illuminates its beginning. The destruction of Pharaoh's army at the Sea of Reeds strips Egypt of the power to reverse the Exodus. Whatever fears the Israelites might have harbored that the Egyptians could somehow elude their watery fate and resume their attack from another quarter were stilled when they saw the Egyptians' bodies floating to the surface of the sea. This is the way the midrash understands the verse: "Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel [literally] saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea (Exodus 14:30)." More than four centuries of crushing bondage had been brought to a decisive and awesome end.

It is, however, the next verse that prompts my reflections this week. "And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord: they had faith in the Lord, and in His servant Moses (14:31)." For the first time the Torah calls Moses "the servant of God." Victory has deepened their confidence in one another.

More importantly, the Torah tells us that the people of Israel have at last come to regard Moses with trust and respect. Victory has also decidedly enhanced his stature in their eyes, and his leadership is finally accepted without reservation. Moses has repaired what he feared was his greatest deficiency: the lack of credibility.

The assertion of popular faith in Moses sheds some unexpected light on the reasons for his original resistance to God's call at the burning bush. Another look at that enigmatic dialogue makes it clear that Moses feared not Pharaoh's wrath as much as Israel's defiance. He could not shake the memory that the person who had put his life in danger in Egypt was not an Egyptian, but a fellow Israelite (Exodus 2:13-14).

So when God beckons, Moses demurs. As an utter stranger to his people, he expects that he will be greeted with suspicion and disdain (3:11). They will press him for knowledge of God's name (3:13) and evidence that he did, in fact, have a genuine experience of God's presence (4:1). Not heir to any of the tribal traditions, he hardly seems to be the long awaited redeemer. To make matters worse, he lacks the oratorical power to sway a crowd or inspire a nation (4:10).

Given these handicaps, Moses is not at all certain that he can bring his oppressed brethren to heed his leadership or sustain their morale in the rebellion ahead. And if Israel is riven by discord, Pharaoh will surely not take him seriously. Moses must conquer his own people before he can dare to confront Pharaoh. Yet the internal enemy is more formidable. Even after the intense exchange at the burning bush, Moses is still awash with doubts. Witness the tepidness of his remarks to his father-in-law when he explains to him why he wants to return to Egypt: "Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring (4:18)." Not a trace of God's intentions, because they were not yet his own. And for one demonic moment, God loses patience with Moses. The midrash senses in the phrase "at a night encampment on the way (4:24), a detour and delay. Moses continues to vacillate and "the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him (4:24)."

Nor do the elders of Israel accompany Moses on his first visit to the palace (5:11). Though Moses had assembled them to announce the proximity of redemption, and though they professed their faith (4:29-31), they still distanced themselves from its execution. Again the midrash brilliantly catches the caution in their behavior: "Whatever happened to the elders? For God had instructed Moses: then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt... (3:18). Indeed, they had set out with Moses, but dropped out one at a time, so that by the time the delegation reached the palace, no one was left but Moses and Aaron, as it is written: `Afterward Moses and Aaron [i.e. alone] went and said to Pharaoh... (5:1).'"

Hence the poignancy of the testimony at the Sea of Reeds. Israel now trusted Moses no less than God, accepting him as God's servant. He had overcome his sense of inadequacy to win their absolute confidence. God's unfathomable intervention had vindicated Moses' loyalty and fortitude, and he burst into a song jubilation that reverberates through the ages.

But strikingly, the Torah does not portray the Exodus as a transformative experience. Miracles may alter the course of nature, but they leave human nature essentially unaltered. The Torah is wary of sudden conversions. A nation of slaves is not refashioned in an instant by a display of divine power.

This is the reason, I suspect, why the rescue at the Sea of Reeds is immediately followed by three swift narratives of popular unrest. A faith not forged on the anvil of personal struggle founders at the first touch of adversity. Moses is no longer an outsider, but Israel is still very much an unruly horde of slaves conditioned to being dependent. Any deprivation leads to an outburst against Moses. Inconceivably, the imagination begins to recast the contours of slavery itself. As food supplies dwindle, does faith, and the people complain bitterly: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you [Moses] have brought us out into this wilderness to starve its whole congregation to death (16:3)!" There are not enough miracles in God's quiver to transform this mindset. It is only a matter of time until God will be forced to let this generation of former slaves perish hopelessly in the desert.

The career of Moses moves from outsider to artist, from self-doubt to doubts about what is humanly possible. The medium remains the same. Moses works his vision through human nature, an unpredictable medium as resistant as stone and as impermanent as soft clay. No shortcuts exist to forge a free and self-reliant people out of slaves. A durable faith is attained only by virtue of persistent effort.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat B'shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.