Determination and Redemption

Beshallah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jan 8, 2014 / 5774 | Israel

Parashat Beshallah witnesses triumphant redemption. Freed by the wonders of God and the leadership of Moses, the Israelites leave their Egyptian surroundings en route to the Promised Land of Israel. And while one would expect God to have mercy on these newly liberated children, guiding them along the shortest route possible, the parashah opens with a curious statement: 

And it came to pass that when Pharaoh sent the people on their way, God did not lead them through the land of Philistines because that is near, for God said, “the people might change their minds when they see war in front of them, and then they will turn back to Egypt.” So God made the people take a round-about way, the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. (Exod. 13:17–18)

How are we to understand God’s strategy? To what extent did God’s plan benefit the newly freed Israelites? What was God’s fear and great concern?

Rashi illuminates the phrase, “the people might change their minds.” He explains, “[God was concerned] lest the people begin to harbor thoughts about their departure, and they let their hearts be swayed and regret their decision.” Masterfully, Rashi places himself in the sandals of the newly freed Israelites. Human nature is at once capricious and predictable. When one sets out on a life-changing experience or journey, it is natural to second-guess oneself. This was no different for the Israelites. Faced with the prospect of battling their way to the Land of Israel, in all likelihood the Israelites would run, not walk, back to their Egyptian taskmasters. Amos Hakham, the Israeli Bible scholar, complements Rashi’s explanation by elaborating on the divine psychology behind God’s strategy. Hakham points out in his commentary, Da’at HaMiqra, that the reason Torah tells us that the Children of Israel were “armed” as they came up from Egypt is “to show that God’s fear concerning the people changing their minds at the sight of war was a result of their depressed emotional and physical state.” Hakham explains that the Israelites were a people enslaved, used to a life of oppression. And so, the people did not fear war because of a dearth of arms; rather, it was a lack of gumption and bravery. Accordingly, God lengthened the journey through to Israel so as to embolden their spirit as a free people (Amos Hakham, Da’at HaMiqra, 238).

Human nature and divine care work in harmony. God realizes the fragile state of these former slaves. Thinking back to liminal moments in one’s life, the biblical narrative suddenly resonates in the heart. We often become enslaved to routine patterns in our lives; and we often crave solely that which we know. We long for our comfort zones. One need only think back to making a decision as to which college to attend, deciding on an appropriate career path after university, or choosing a life partner to summon feelings of anxiety and unease. We often second-guess ourselves. Such second-guessing typically makes us weak kneed, and compels us to return to the safety of the known. Yet, the lesson taught in this week’s parashah is one of trusting ourselves and God. We must journey forward. And it is often the journey that is the longest and most difficult that strengthens us and allows us to ultimately reach the Promised Land.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.