Yom Shabbat, 23 Av 5779
Saturday, 24 August 2019
Parashat Beshallach 5776

Rabbi Danny Rich
22nd January 2016

Parashat B’Shallach (Exodus 13:17- 17:16) resumes the Egyptian slavery narrative which was interrupted by laws concerning Pesach. ·The plagues are done, Pharoah has conceded and the Israelites begin their march to freedom (hence the parashah’s second word: B’shallach: in the freeing of).

This section of Torah is best known for the legend of the dividing of the Reed Sea and the consequent Shirat HaYam: Song of the Sea, recorded in 15:1-21. ·Easy to spot because of its particular lay out, the poem (one of the earliest pieces of Torah) celebrates the power of the God of the Israelites who divides the waters, drowns the Egyptian troops and spreads fear amongst the local peoples.

Within three days of Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Aaron and Moses, completing the celebration in music, song and dance, the Biblical author opens a much repeated theme: the Israelites’ complaints against Moses in the face of physical hardship. ·The water is salty and food appears to be in short supply until the miracle of the manna and the quail.

Some of my readers may know that I have an aviary in my garden in which, in addition to zebra finches and rosa parakeets, I keep quail: Japanese and Chinese. ·It can be notoriously difficult to match biblical descriptions of wildlife to its modern equivalent but scholars agree that the quail in Exodus 16:13 (and repeated in Numbers 11: 31 and 32 and see also Josephus Jewish Antiquities 3:25) refer to the small member of the pheasant family which migrate in vast flocks from central Europe to Africa in the autumn. ·Large numbers rest on the journey in northern Sinai and Egypt even today.

It is, however, to the water rather than the food that I wish to return. ·Exodus 15: 22-25 reads:

They went into the wilderness of Shur; they travelled three days into the wilderness and found no water. ·They came to Marah, but they were not able to drink the water from Marah because they were bitter, and, therefore the place is called Marah. ·The people complained against Moses saying, ‘What are we going to drink?’ Moses called to God. ·God showed him a piece of wood and Moses threw the wood into the water and the waters sweetened.

The Sages made three observations. ·Why does it say ‘found no water’? ·There was a well-known oasis at Shur but it is also common knowledge that, whilst there is often little water in the desert, it is present and both creatures of the desert and indeed the local Bedouin people find water where it seems that none is to be found. ·Perhaps the Israelites were so intent on complaining that they failed to look hard enough or did not see what was in front of them.

Regarding the phrase ‘they were bitter’, in Hebrew ‘water’ is a plural noun and therefore the text is not unexpected. This has enabled commentators to suggest that it may have been the Israelites who had become embittered by the tough conditions and the nostalgia for life in Egypt.

Most powerful of all, the Midrash envisions Moses asking God, ‘Why did You create salty water in Your world, a liquid that serves no purpose?’ ·God replies, ‘Instead of asking philosophical questions, do something to make the bitter waters sweet!’

When we read the news headlines it is possible to feel that much of the world has been engulfed by religious hatred and it may be tempting to join the cynics and pessimists.

Judaism is a faith of hope and reminds its adherents to look for the best even in the face of the unideal, to approach life with optimism rather than its opposites, and, most importantly, when life gets tough, to ask yourself what you have done to ease its discomfort.

When I check my quail in the morning and at night I am confronted not only with a simple bird but with a part of the beauty of the natural world and in the moment I marvel and reflect on the world’s glory and not its turmoil. ·Most importantly of all, I then resolve to attempt to bring a little of my bounty to the lives of others, adding perhaps a little sweetness to the bitterness that many experience.