Double Mitzvah – Beshallach

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Check out last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Bo.

Rated PG

Just a few weeks ago, we bode farewell to Genesis and opened up the Book of Exodus. On the first chapters of the book, I commented that “what happens on a smaller scale in Genesis 12-50, in the form of journeys into and out of Egypt, and a family’s growing awareness of divinity and destiny, comes back around on a much larger scale in the book of Exodus, as an entire people now makes the same journey.” I went on to write about the midwives to the Hebrews, Shifra and Puah, who brought babies into the world, one by one, each a little world, each worthy of being saved from Pharaoh’s wicked decree. I suggested that it’s important to remember that “even the story of a People is the story of people: men, women, children, each one worthy of gallons of ink and miles of parchment.”

In this week’s parashah, Beshallach, themes introduced at the beginning of the book on a personal level (“the story of people”) come back around on a grand scale (“the story of a People”). In short, the human-sized birth canals of the Hebrew women which are the focus of Exodus 1-2 show up again, but super-sized this time around:

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen. At the morning watch, the Lord looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He locked the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.” Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the Lord hurled the Egyptians into the sea.

The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen — Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites had marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left (Exod 14:21-29).

Commentators across the ages with a literary bent have observed that the splitting of the sea is a sort of birthing. Waters are broken. A tiny and vulnerable being makes its way through a narrow, treacherous space (we are lucky to live at a time when “treacherous” is less associated with childbirth, but for our ancestors, infant mortality was not an unusual thing). It emerges on the other side, and there are cries of joy, shouts of exaltation. There is song:

Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea (Exod 15:21).

And after the songs have subsided, the hard work of parenting begins.

Parenting an infant People is like parenting infant people, but on a much larger scale. Like the little ones who come into our lives, the newly-birthed People of Israel cry, a lot. If it’s not one thing, it’s another: they want something to eat (Exod 16:3), they want something to drink (15:24), they don’t want to be here, they want to be there, they don’t want their Parent to be out of sight for even a moment (17:7). Having passed through the birth canal and lived to see the light of day, this People finds themselves in a dangerous world (17:8), dependent on its parents. Thus the last half of the parashah, in which Israel cries for water and food, and fights against Amalek, becomes particularly poignant if we imagine the people, collectively, as a newborn child. We feel a tenderness for them…as did their divine Parent (as it were), the Blessed Holy One, the Shekhinah.

From the actual babies of Exodus 1-2, to the metaphorical “baby-nation” of Exodus 14-17…to us. Each of us has our “Egypt,” a narrow place, a challenge. Each of us can imagine — when we set down fear and open our eyes — a Promised Land. Our own journeys recapitulate, on a human scale, the journey of Parashat Beshallach. To freedom!

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