14/15 Jan : Beshalach : Shabbat comes in 4:04 pm, ends 5:13pm
Parashat Beshalacḥ – Who Liberated the Israelites?
This week’s Torah portion begins the long story of the Israelites in the wilderness. The Hebrew slaves are saved from their bondage, walk through the miraculously split sea, and sing and dance over their liberation. It’s a beautiful scene. Then, after liberation has been handed to the Hebrews, the story quickly turned to a problem that will continue through to the end of the Torah: the Israelites don’t know how to be free.
The change in tone is almost comically severe. At the end of the Song of the Sea, we are given one verse to transition the Israelites from singing to travelling, and then the text turns immediately to the Israelites grumbling about the lack of water to drink. That situation is resolved with a miracle, and the people continue on for one whole verse before they begin complaining about food. Again, a miracle: bread falls from the sky. Some of the people try to take too much manna, to find that they somehow have only the prescribed amount. Some try to save manna for the morning, even though Moses has warned them against it; the leftover manna rots. The people are told not to collect manna on Shabbat, but some go out to gather anyway – but no manna appears.
The story of the generation of freed slaves is fascinating and frustrating. They have experienced great miracles, and yet they cannot trust that they will survive. Even though the Divine performed miracles in Egypt, they assume that they will die at the Sea of Reeds; even though they passed through the sea dry shod, they assume that they will die of thirst in the wilderness; even though the Holy One provides water to drink, they assume that they will starve. When bread is provided, they want to take extra, just in case. No matter how great the miracles, the Israelites are not ready to feel safe.
The difficulty that the Israelites face when encountering freedom tells us that they were not truly freed at the Sea of Reeds. The Divine could perform miracles, could bring the Hebrews from their bondage into the wilderness, but this is only the beginning of the story of liberation. To truly become free people, the Israelites have to learn to free themselves internally. That is the work that needs to be done before reaching the Promised Land.