Beshalach: Retracing Accomplishments
Oliver DeMille in his book Thomas Jefferson Education writes that "leaders perpetuate freedom, prepare people to know what freedom is, what is required to maintain it, and who exert the will to do what is required." Moshe understood human nature. The Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), tests us to become better. The pathway for us to change is within the wisdom of the Torah.
After B’nai Yisrael left Egypt, they headed towards Eretz Yisrael in Parashat Beshalach. However, G-d didn’t lead them the most direct way through the land of the Philistines (not to be confused with the modern-day Palestinians), instead, they took the longer route. G-d feared that B’nai Yisrael would want to return to Egypt. Some of our sages tell us that only 20% of B’nai Yisrael left Egypt. Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him. (Shemot 13:17-19).
וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֘ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹֽא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י | אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה
וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹהִ֧ים | אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַֽחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
וַיִּקַּ֥ח משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ כִּי֩ הַשְׁבֵּ֨עַ הִשְׁבִּ֜יעַ אֶת־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַֽעֲלִיתֶ֧ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֛י מִזֶּ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם
Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe explains that Moshe took the bones of Yosef, not only because Yosef asked B’nai Yisrael to remember to take him when they leave Egypt, also as an example for us to emulate him. Yosef, who became Viceroy in Egypt, never fully let Egypt into his bones. He stayed true to who he was. Yosef is an example for us to take what we accomplish and move it into our deepest selves; to bring it into our hearts.
The Midrash tells us that Avraham was tested ten times, corresponding to the ten miracles that G-d did for B’nai Yisrael in Egypt, corresponding to the ten plagues brought against the Egyptians, corresponding to the ten miracles B’nai Yisrael experienced at the Sea of Reeds, corresponding to the ten plagues the Egyptians experienced at the Sea of Reeds.
Our sages tell us that when we transgress and repeat it, the transgression commits to us; it becomes part of us. When we make a mistake once, we don’t realize a change, however, when we make that same mistake again, there is a different relationship with that mistake. The same is true when we aim to change something. We won’t change when we do something once, we must do it again to bring it into our hearts. When B’nai Yisrael witnessed the plagues and they left Egypt, the freedom wasn’t truly part of them. Later, when G-d split the sea, B’nai Yisrael danced and rejoiced, the freedom entered their hearts. The Ibn Ezra says that G-d took the good things in Egypt and made it bad with the plagues. The opposite was true for B’nai Yisrael, G-d took the bad with the waters of marah and made it good (sweet).
During B’nai Yisrael’s journey from Egypt, Hashem led them in a pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Once they arrived at the Sea of Reeds, they were suddenly frightened when they saw the Egyptians behind them. According to the Meshech Chachma, B’nai Yisrael displayed Achdut (love and unity) amongst each other. When there is Achdut it creates a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. It brings Rachamim (compassion) down from Shamayim (the heavens). Their Achdut disappeared and Chazal tell us B’nai Yisrael panicked and split into four groups. The first group wanted to commit suicide, the second wanted to surrender, the third wanted to fight, and the fourth wanted to appeal to the nations to save them.
Rabbi Breitowitz explains that when we emerged from Egypt, G-d changed nature. B’nai Yisrael still had remnants of Egypt within them, and Hashem used the miracles at the sea to show his love for them. He was giving them the opportunity to overcome their Yetzer Hara. We emulate G-d by learning to love others and see the world through their eyes. We also love and fear G-d by seeing the world through G-d’s eyes.
G-d told Moshe to hold up his staff, then we learn from the Midrash that Nachshon Ben Amminadav began walking into the sea. Suddenly, the sea split and B’nai Yisrael walked on dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to cross, the sea covered them. Once B’nai Yisrael saw what G-d did for them, they rejoiced in song. Eventually, they stopped at the waters of marah, which means bitter. Moshe threw the wood into it and the water became sweet. G-d sent the manna down from heaven, which they would gather each day, except Shabbat. They were required to take a double portion on Friday, for Shabbat. When they encamped at Refidim, they again needed water. G-d told Moshe to hit the rock and water came out from it.
At the end of the Parasha, Amalek attacked B’nai Yisrael from behind. We are required to remember what Amalek did to us every day. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks states “Rarely was a biblical message so relevant to the future of the West and of freedom itself. Peace is possible, implies Moses, even with an Egypt that enslaved and tried to destroy us. But peace is not possible with those who attack people they see as weak and who deny their own people the freedom for which they claim to be fighting. Freedom depends on our ability to remember and, whenever necessary, confront “the eternal gang of ruthless men,” the face of Amalek throughout history. Sometimes there may be no alternative but to fight evil and defeat it. This may be the only path to peace.”
Throughout our lives there is a continuous battle against the Yetzer Hara within us, however, there are also things outside of us that we battle. With G-d’s help we will develop the skills necessary to win both of these battles. Change within can only happen when we do something more than once and make a commitment to do better. Human nature shows that we have a tendency to stop when there’s conflict, but these are the times when we must be resolute and push forward!