Beshalach (Shemot 13:17-17:16)
The rabbis teach that Israel entered into the covenant with God by three rites; Circumcision, Immersion, and Sacrifice. In this week’s Parashah we are going to explore Israel’s Mikveh (immersion). With the incident of the final plague and all the events of Passover, Israel had now experienced redemption; they had left Egypt. As they approached the Reed Sea, God was about to take them through the symbolic event that would demonstrate that reality.
In I Cor 10 Rav Sha’ul discusses this mikveh. He said that “Our forefathers were all under the cloud and they all passed through the sea. They were all immersed into Moshe in the cloud and in the sea”. The mikveh in the Torah always symbolizes a change in status. When a leper was cleansed, he was mikvehed. An unclean individual immersed himself as part of the cleansing process. Israel had undergone the greatest change of status there is, they had changed from being a powerless group of slaves to the holy, unique people of Almighty God. Under the renewed covenant, the mikveh has much the same meaning, it symbolizes our change in status from sinful, unredeemed individuals to co-heirs with the Messiah, part of the holy nation and the royal priesthood, and included among the righteous remnant of Israel.
So how does the mikveh, Torah, the Messiah and our redemption fit together? The Messiah’s mikveh was to fulfill all righteousness. What does this mean? Righteousness is ‘doing what is right’, and in our context, doing what is right in the eyes of God. Torah was given to show us what God thinks is right so part of the reason Yahushua was mikvehed was in obedience to God’s commands, fulfilling His duty under Torah. Even moreso, however, is that the mikveh symbolizes the covenant of Torah. Back to Rav Sha’ul’s exposition. He says that they were immersed into Moshe. Moshe, in the writings of the Talmidim and in the words of Yahushua Himself is often used to symbolize Torah (i.e. Moshe and the prophets). Therefore, part of what Sha’ul is saying is that Israel was mikvehed as a symbol of their taking on the ‘yoke of the Mitzvot’, now that they had taken on the ‘Yoke of Heaven’ through their experience of redemption. Because they are ’our forefathers’ (for Jew and Gentile alike in the renewed covenant) and these things happened to provide us an example, our mikveh experience includes this as well. It is symbolic of our entrance into the redeemed community of God (Israel) with all the privileges (salvation, covenant blessings, etc.) and responsibilities (mitzvot).
Rav Sha’ul’s midrash not only provides us an example but also a warning. The mikveh is symbolic of a redemption experience and entrance into the redeemed community and is to be taken very seriously. Sha’ul warns us not to be like some of them (the Israelites who came out of Egypt) who grumbled and rebelled and experienced God’s judgement. They may have come through the Reed Sea but they had not experienced circumcision of the heart. For them, mikveh was just getting wet. We need to constantly be on our guard to make sure our mikveh experience is not just a dunk in a river but a truly life changing experience, an experience of death and life. The mikveh is symbolic of our entrance into God’s unique coevenant community. If we do not uphold our end of that covenant, we can expect to be judged and judged severely. We do not want God’s Name to be blasphemed before the world on account of us, He does not look on the smearing of His Name very kindly. But Rav Sha’ul ends with a promise. It may be difficult to live as the redeemed people of God and adhere to the covenant. But God is faithful and does not command or allow things that are impossible for us and will always provide us the way and the strength to stand for Truth and righteousness and thus make Abba proud.
This week’s parasha chronicles the early weeks of the exodus, and unfortunately describes the unfolding of as pattern that would continually by Israel’s downfall. They left Egypt rejoicing and headed to the promised land. They camped by the sea of Reeds and when they saw the Egyptians they began to complain and lose faith. They rejoice over the destruction of the Egyptian army and then complain about the lack of water. Their need is met and then they complain about the food. They had seen with thier own eyes the miraculous power and provision of the G-d who delivered them yet they continually complained and lacked even the most basic faith.
After Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea, they sang a wonderful song of victory, including the phrase “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.” What does it mean to glorify G-d? Abba Sha’ul, one of the Talmudic sages, said that glorifying G-d was to emulate Him, just as He is compassionate and merciful, so we also should be (Shabbat 133b). As G-d is steadfast and firm, so should we. When we emulate G-d we are really acting and living as we were created to, because we were created in His image, we are ‘programmed’ to be godly. Rav Sha’ul told us to follow his example as he followed that of Yahushua, who was, of course, the perfect image of G-d Himself. Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
It is important that we strive for this because Israel suffered grave consequences for not seeking it. They were not steadfast and consistent, they did not glorify G-d through their complaining or their behavior. When they first came through the Reed Sea, the fear of G-d was upon all the nations on Canaan. (Ex 15:14-15) When the power of G-d upon this people was made known, they trembled in fear. They had just destroyed the most powerful army in the world. They could have marched north and the armies of Canaan would have lost the heart for a fight. They had the exalted reputation in the world they were destined for. But they squandered it. Soon they were complaining and blaming their Deliverer for their troubles and difficulties. Things were backwards, the nations of Canaan feared the G-d of Israel but the people of Israel themselves did not have proper reverence and fear. They fell again and again and the next thing we see is the Amalakites have the courage to attack them and the other nations would soon cause them trouble as well.
Too often we do the same. When we are not consistent, we hurt our testimony and the ability of G-d to work through us for good in this world. Good reputations are hard earned and easily lost and bad reputations are easily earned and hard to lose. We need to understand the consequences of all our actions, there are no insignificant words or deeds, they all have impact even if we don’t see it at the moment. we all have responsibility for the way the world unfolds, how the community of G-d unfolds, how our family unfolds in this world. That is a heavy responsibility and we need to take it very seriously. We need to show ourselves faithful and emulate our Father. Then the foes of our G-d will tremble for we will be strong and growing stronger, and have the ability to do great things for Him.
The exodus has finally been accomplished, the salvation of the people of Israel has been achieved. It is just a few days walk to the promised land. Yet G-d did not take them on the short route. They went to the sea and then to the desert. It took them months before they even got close to the land G-d had promised to their fathers. Why did G-d take them in such a round about way. They had suffered so much and now they were free, why make them suffer in the desert for weeks? There are several clues in our parasha and an important spiritual lesson.
The reason given by YHVH Himself is found in verse 13:17. He was worried that they would see war too soon, become discouraged, and want to return to Egypt. These were people just released from slavery who knew nothing of the art of war. The Philistines have been a warlike nation since their inception and on a very physical level, Israel, even with their numbers, would have been massacred. Israel could well have become slaves to the Philistines after escaping Egypt. So it was a protective measure for Israel.
Second, we know G-d deliberately set them by the sea. Militarily, this was a horrendous tactic. Spiritually, it was about to give the people of Israel a victory to celebrate to the present day and would put an exclamation point on G-d’s judgement of Egypt. This victory would teach the people of Israel that their G-d was looking out for them and was not localized in Egypt. They would have a confidence in His power that would carry them through the rough times, a marker they could look back on to gain courage.
Finally, G-d knew the road that lay before Israel was not going to be an easy one. They had a lot to learn. They had been slaves who now had to adjust to freedom and the responsibility that goes with it. They had grown up amidst the idolatry of Egypt and now they were going to take on the responsibility of Torah. They were heading from the Nile which regularly supplied all their needs into the wilderness and years of uncertainty in which they would not know where their next meal was coming from. This is not an easy thing to adjust to. Any of us who have moved to a different state or changed careers or took a risk that substantially changed our lives know the feelings of trepidation that accompany such a transition. It is easy to second guess the decision when the road gets a bit rocky. Israel followed Moshe into the desert, in a sense, they had not made the decision themselves. Now when the going became rough it was easy to blame Moshe and want to return. Had Israel been on an easy road that would have returned them to Egypt quickly, they could have all deserted Moshe in the desert and walked back. By taking them deep into the wilderness, G-d prevented their easy return so they could learn to rely on Him and begin walking the road of holiness.
When we adopt the Torah lifestyle, giving our lives and destinies to G-d, we need to embark on a similar path. Too often we make it easy for ourselves to backslide because we have set up camp right outside the gate to Egypt. If we have not sufficiently removed ourselves from our sources of temptation, we will fall easily, get frustrated and find ourselves in a rut. Sometimes this means changing jobs, moving to a different location, or severing relationship that are detrimental. This puts our walk on the narrow, sometimes difficult road but that road is far from Egypt.
This week we conclude the story of the Exodus and begin the building of a nation. In order to conclude the emergence of Israel from Egypt, their interaction with Pharaoh and Egypt needs to be concluded. Our parasha describes Egypt's dramatic end under the waters of the Reed Sea. The question we may ask ourselves is what would possess Pharaoh to lead his people to such a horrible end? How could he see the hand of God against him and his people continually, sustaining even the death of his own firstborn son, and still pursue a course of oppressing Israel?
Our main clue is a phrase that has been a recurrent one, and is found in our parasha as well. “YHVH strengthened (hardened) the heart of Pharaoh” 14:8. The Hebrew word is ‘chazak’, a familiar one that is part of a phrase we read at the conclusion of every book of the Torah. It has a variety of meanings including; prevail, harden, lift up, seize, be firm or resolute, grow hard, rigid. There are several ways ‘chazak’ and the heart work together. The example of Pharaoh and also Psalm 64:5 show that an individual can strengthen his heart for evil intent or God can. Joshua 1:6 and Ps 27:14, 31:24 tell us that either we must strengthen our heart for good or God can do it. So a strong, firm heart can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the intent and outcome.
We can look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in this way. His intention was to keep Israel's services. His pride was at stake and it clouded his judgement. When he got relief, which may just have been his way of attempting to manipulate Moshe, he continued his pattern of behavior. Eventually, he was so far along that when his officials told him to let Israel go because Egypt was ruined, he would not relent even though it was leading to his own destruction. Looking at such stubbornness, we could conclude that it must have been God propping up and strengthening Pharaoh for any normal man would have given up long ago. He had chosen his course of action and every time he said no to Moshe and weathered a plague, it became harder to let Israel go.
Think of the hardening of the heart as a walk along a path, which our life truly is. There is a line before us which we will label ‘amoral’. When we make a moral choice we deviate from this centerline to the right or left. If we make a good choice, we step off to the right, a bad choice moves us to the left. When we are only a step or two off the line, it is easy to cross back over and most people go through life not straying very far from the line, being either good or evil. They help people, they lie, they give to a charity, they cheat, constantly wavering back and forth over the middle ground. Some people, however, start to make consistent choices. If each choice moves you farther from the centerline, let’s say a yard, a group of similar choices may put you a football field away from that amoral line. Now it is not so easy to go back to the center. If you continue to make consistent choices, you will move farther and farther from the line, miles away perhaps. If you have been making good choices your righteousness will be habitual and it will be very difficult to fall away. The same is true for bad choices. Once wickedness has become habitual, it is very difficult to change. The heart will have become hardened in that way.
Since we know that we, or God, can harden our hearts, another analogy may be helpful. The scriptures constantly talk of a potter and the clay, the potter being God and we, the clay. The object of a potter is not to have constantly soft clay in his hands but to form it into a useful vessel that will be fired in a kiln and hardened to a permanent shape for a purpose. By making consistently righteous choices, we allow the master to form us into that shape and we become hardened in righteousness, we reflect his Image and purpose at all times. If we choose evil, we become hardened in an evil and grotesque shape that is useless and such pottery can no longer be molded or manipulated and is thrown down and broken.
The object of a person on the path of righteousness then, is not to remain soft and malleable forever. That would be to be like Ya’akov’s ship tossed about by every wave without direction or goal. Nor do we want to harden our hearts into patterns of thinking or behaviors that are not consistent with scripture. We would no longer hear the Master’s voice or heed the potters hands. We must, through study, prayer and meditation with a reliance on the ruach, adapt to the Master’s touch, allowing each bit of truth and righteous behavior to become hard until we are a strong vessel the Master can use.
This is a parasha of problems. One difficulty after another. One solution after the other. Yet the people didn’t learn. They had just seen Egypt brought to it’s knees and Pharaoh’s pursuit frightens them. They see the miraculous defeat of Pharaoh when the Red Sea parts and they say they want to go back to Egypt where there is plenty of food. The Manna comes and they grumble about water. The water is miraculously provided from the rock and Amalek attacks them and they need Moshe to raise his hands above the battle to give them victory. The people seem to never learn.
Why did the people want to go back to Egypt, back to slavery? To us it seems pure foolishness. It was because that was comfortable and familiar. They had been conditioned to accept their lives as they were as the best they could expect. Who needs freedom when all one’s needs are provided for? They had food, water and shelter in Egypt. They had been taught to accept a particular view of reality and most of them could not conceive of life outside of that reality. For them reality was a slave’s life in Egypt. They could not conceive of providing for themselves or making their own decisions. They couldn’t understand a God that had no form. We limit ourselves in the same way. We are slaves to the view of reality we impose on ourselves. Because we don’t ‘know God’ the way they did in the Bible, we create a theological structure that allows us to be comfortable where we are. If we do these things; Torah, good deeds, pray, we ‘know God’ even though we know the relationship only goes one way. If we experience some ‘touch from God’, some transcendent event, we may welcome it but we don’t expect it to continue or we don’t know how to make it last. If someone else has such an experience they are either gifted, if their experience agrees with our theology, or they are possessed if it doesn’t.
We put everything that happens into our view of reality, reality created only in our minds. If something abnormal happens; the red sea parts. water comes out of a rock. we are faced with a choice. In our normal view of reality, such things don’t happen. So we must dismiss it somehow. Moshe is a magician or has some trick. Or there must be some reasonable explanation but we are too ignorant or lazy to know what it is. But because either Moshe has some trick or special ability or it is a fluke, if a problem arises again we cannot look to what happened before and expect it to happen again. We see the problem and within our view of reality there is no reasonable solution so we panic or give up or try to return to where we were before the problem arose.
An example of this in Y’shua’s time was the feeding of the five thousand. Philip could not conceive of things beyond his reality. They didn’t have the money and even if they did, it wouldn’t be enough. His thinking was one dimensional. His mind only operated on a plane where what we perceive as miracles only happen intermittently, one certainly can’t depend on them or conjure them up at will. Andrew, however, took steps to solve the problem. He could see that a solution outside of his view of reality would be necessary but the magnitude of it still had him focusing on what couldn’t be done.
Y’shua was not bound by such conventions of reality. He could see that all the bread of the world was at his disposal and that all the bread was the same as the five loaves presented to him, there was no difference. Reality, to Y’shua, was undifferentiated, it was echad. Once this is understood, feeding five or five thousand is no different, numbers belong to our limited view of the world, not to reality as it exists. Healing a sore shoulder and curing a cancer and restoring a withered hand are the same. We see things as limited, as separate. We believe what we have be taught, or what we grew up with or what we are comfortable with. We do not want to stand out too much, we continue to play the game on the same field as everyone else. And so even though we may play the game differently, we end up with the same results. The other choice we have is to adjust our view of reality, to change the field of play. We think that the way we see and perceive things is the way they are. We know that is not true. Everything we see is made up of atoms and energy and it is all connected, from the neuron in your brain to the most distant star. It is all made of the same stuff, it all utilizes the same energy. All is echad. Y’shua said ‘I and the father are one’, he was echad with the universe and he wanted all of us to experience and operate in the same oneness. When that happens, the knowledge and the power of the universe is at your disposal and, as Y’shua said, ‘greater things that this you will do’. But if we limit ourselves to our dualistic and earthly mindset, ‘how will you understand heavenly things?’