02/03/2012 01:19 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

Parshat Beshalach: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained

Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Beshalach with interlinear Hebrew/English.

The land of Canaan is 11 days away from Egypt, but God doesn't send the Israelites straight there. "Too soon," God thinks. "They are not ready. I'll send them on a roundabout route."

The Children of Israel are armed with the bones of their forefather Joseph when they leave Egypt. Moses carries these bones, as Joseph's brothers swore.

God travels with the Israelites -- by day as a pillar of cloud to guide them, by night as a pillar of fire to give them light. God tells Moses to confound Pharaoh by turning back toward Egypt, so the Hebrews camp by the sea, opposite Baal-zephon, an Egyptian god.

Pharaoh falls for it.

"They're trapped! They can't get out," he says to his advisors. "What were we thinking letting them go?" He rallies his troops. Hearts hardened, they mount all the chariots in the land and pursue the freed slaves.

Saved By The Sea

Triumphantly camped by the sea, the Israelites lift their eyes and see Egypt coming for them. Pharaoh's army moves in unison. The Children of Israel are terrified and cry out to God, cry out to Moses: "You took us out of slavery so that we should die in the desert?"

"Wait," Moses says. "Have no fear. Stand your ground. You will see God's salvation today and tomorrow and forever after. The Egyptians? You will not see them again." But Moses can't resist praying for help.

"Why are you praying, Moses?" God asks. "Lift your hand above the sea and it will split. The Children of Israel should walk into the sea as if it is dry land and there will be dry land. The Egyptians will know who I am by what I do to Pharaoh and his army, but only after I harden their hearts and send them after you."

An angel of God moves behind the Israelites, protecting them from Egyptian arrows. At nightfall, the pillar of cloud moves behind them as well. And while the pillar of fire lights the Israelites' way, the Egyptians are stopped by darkness. And now, Moses stretches his hand over the sea, raising a strong east wind, splitting the sea into 12 paths, drying the seabed, hardening the water and crafting tunnels of transparent stone, which gush fresh, sweet water for the nation to drink. The Children of Israel pass easily onto this newly dry land.

Pharaoh's army pursues them, but the dry seabed turns to mud and the mud begins to boil. The Egyptians are confused. Moses raises his hand and turns the sea back to its old self.

God stirs this Egyptian soup. Not a single soldier survives.

In heaven, the angels rejoice, singing songs of celebration. But God rebukes them: "My creation drowns, and you sing?"

On earth, the Hebrews see the bodies on the seashore. They believe Moses now. Of God, they are in awe.

Song Of The Sea

Moses leads the Children of Israel in song. His sister, Miriam, the prophetess, leads the women in rhythm and dance by tambourine:

I will sing to God so exalted,

hoof and foot cast into sea,

God's strength and vengeance,

my salvation, my God, my father's God,

of exaltation. God is the master of war.

God's name is the key that cast Pharaoh

into the sea, where the mightiest warriors

sank into the reeds and the waters

returned and into the depths sank

the infantry.

God, your love is the most powerful

God, your majesty devastates the dissent

God your wrath consumes the wicked,

with your breath the waters rose

and formed walls like stone.

And in the heart of the sea,

the deepest waters cleave.

Said the enemy, "I will chase

I will overtake, I will plunder,

I will unsheathe, I will impoverish

with glee. But the sea heard your word

and covered them, and sank them.

Who is like you in strength?

Who is like you in holiness?

Performer of Wonders,

you are too awesome for praise.

You lift a finger and the earth

swallows them whole. You open

your heart and lead the redeemed.

With might, you lead them to your holy home.

They hear. They tremble. They shudder and seize.

Edom is confounded. Moab cannot breathe.

Canaan is melted. Dread and fear, far and near.

Your arm makes them still and silent,

until your people cross the river,

until your people are home.

You shall bring them. You shall plant them

to a foundation stone made by your hands,

the sanctuary that your hands founded,

and God will reign for all eternity.

Heavenly Bread

Israel doesn't want to leave the sea. Too much abandoned treasure. Too much miraculous memory. But Moses leads them out. They travel for three days, and finally reach a nameless place and find water. But it is bitter and they cannot drink. They name the place Bitter, and to Moses they complain. So the intermediary relays the message, and God instructs him to place a certain kind of wood into the water to make it sweet. And the water is sweet. And the people drink.

Here, God gives them some commandments and laws -- about the Sabbath, the Red Heifer, monetary claims -- and promises to remove sickness from them if they observe the precepts.

The Children of Israel find an oasis of 12 fountains and 70 palms. The camp out. They leave. They get bored or agitated or thirsty. They complain to and about Moses and Aaron: "Our bread has run out! If only God had killed us in Egypt, when we had food! You've brought us here to starve to death!"

Already, God is whispering to Moses: "It will rain bread from heaven. The people will gather this every day. But they must only gather enough for that day. This is a test. On Friday, they will gather the same amount but will find that it is doubled."

Moses and Aaron speak to the people: "Tonight, you will know God brought you out of Egypt, not us. God will send quails for you to eat. And in the morning, heaven will rain bread. You will know God has heard your prayers. You will know that we are not significant. God will give meat in the evening and bread in the morning. What significance are we? Know that you complain against God."

Now, Moses whispers to Aaron: "Tell the people to draw near because their complaints have been heard and God will appear as a cloud of glory."

Aaron instructs the people. They turn toward the desert and see the glorious cloud. And God speaks to Moses: "I've heard their complaints. Tell them about the bread in the morning and the meat in the evening. Tell them they will know that I am God."

In the evening, quails come. In the morning, a layer of dew is around the camp. The dew evaporates and on every surface is a substance as fine as frost.

"This is prepared food!" the people cry out, though the do not know its true name.

"This is bread from God," Moses says, and relays the commandment that the people gather only what they need for the day. This portion is an omer. Take exactly one omer for each person. Do not keep leftovers."

Morning by morning, the people gather the substance. Any excess on the ground is melted by the sun. Some gather too much. Some gather too little. All return to their tents and find that they have the exact right amount.

On that first day, Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, do not listen. They keep leftovers. The next morning, their extra becomes spoiled with worms.

Moses is angry.

On Friday, the people gather double portions. The heads of each community report this Moses. Moses says, "Tomorrow is a rest day -- the holy Sabbath for God. Prepare whatever food you wish to prepare today. The leftovers, put aside for the morning." In the morning, the leftovers are not spoiled. Moses tells them: "Eat the leftovers today. You will not find more on the ground today. Six days you will gather, but on the seventh you will not."

Some people go out on the seventh day to gather, but find nothing.

"How long will you ignore my commandments," God says to Moses. "You can see I have given you enough. Everyone should remain where they are on the seventh day."

Finally, the people rest. They name the miraculous food manna. It tastes like honey-fried dough.

Moses says God has commanded a full omer be set aside for future generations as a reminder. (Later, Moses tells Aaron to set aside an omer to be preserved. He tells him to place the manna in a jar and put the jar in front of the ark of God. Aaron does this. The Children of Israel eat manna for just about 40 years. When they reach the plains of Moab, at the border of Canaan, the manna no longer falls and they eat the secret stash.)

Master Of War

The people journey according to God's instructions. They journey. They camp. They journey. They cannot find water. They complain to Moses, "Give us water to drink!"

"Why do you argue?" Moses responds. "Why do you test God?"

But they are thirsty and don't stop complaining: "Why have you brought us here to die in the desert?"

Moses turns to God: "What should I do? They will stone me."

"Pass before the people. They will not stone you. Bring some elders with you. Take your staff. I will stand before you. You will then strike the rock there and water will come out of it and the people will drink."

Moses does this.

Water, yes. But a punishment, too. The nation of Amalek comes to fight the Children of Israel.

Moses says to Joshua, "Choose strong, God-fearing men to fight Amalek. I will stand atop a hill with my staff while you fight."

Joshua does this. Moses -- with Aaron and Hur, his nephew -- ascend the hill. Everytime Moses raises the staff, Joshua's soldiers prevail. When he lowers it, Amalek succeeds. But hands grow heavy. Aaron and Hur place a stone beneath Moses so he can sit. They hold his hands up till sunset.

Joshua weakens Amalek with the edge of the sword.

God says to Moses, "Always remember how Amalek attacked you. Inscribe it in your memory, and whisper it to Joshua. I will obliterate Amalek one day."

Moses builds an altar, naming it Adonai-nissi -- God is my Miracle. He says: "There is a hand on the throne of God swearing that there will be war against Amalek from generation to generation."

Questions for Reflection

What does it mean that the Israelites arm themselves with Joseph's bones?

Why is the section about God providing food in the morning and evening so repetitive?

Why does God continue to answer the Israelites' complaints?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

  • Commentary: /" target="_hplink">When the Woods Meet the Water (Canfei Nesharim)
  • Commentary: Rashi on Parshat Beshalach (Chabad)
  • Commentary: Stepping Into Your Dream (IYYUN)
  • Commentary: Regime Change (Sixth St. Synagogue)