Questions and Concepts for Parsha Beshalach
(Exodus 13:17-17:16)

This Parsha begins the next phase of Israel's redemptive process where they physically leave Egypt (Egypt = Mitzrayim = "place of confinement"). There is far more to this story that a basic moral issue of slaves being freed. One must recall the entirety of what Moses said to Pharaoh on several occasions:

Let my people go, that they may serve me.

Serving God may be accomlished in many ways, some involving a higher level of spiritual development than others. The children of Israel had a long way to go (spiritually) to become what God intended for them. The deliberately "roundabout" journey they take to get from Egypt to the land of Israel may thus be seen as more than their possibly being frightened by the prospect of having to do battle as the literal reading gives us in the opening verse. The route through the proverbial "wilderness" was part of God's plan and meant to test and refine them -- making them both worthy and capable of serving God at the highest level.

On a related note, another interpretation of 13:17 lies in Jewish tradition. It is said that there was an attempt to leave Egypt conducted at an earlier time, led by the tribe of Ephraim. They embarked taking with them weapons and money. This effort was a disaster. The Ephraimites attacked local farmers in order to procure food (who had no use for their money) and were then routed by the local inhabitants, with only a small number surviving and returning. This can be seen as an example of what can happen when one is unprepared to take on a spiritual battle. Physical strength (i.e., weapons and money) are no indication of spiritual status.

The spiritual inadequacy of the people grew the longer they remained as slaves in Egypt. It is said that Israel had reached the "49th of 50 gates" of spiritual impurity. Their immaturity is immediately revealed when they see the hosts of Egypt coming to attack them as they were encamped by the sea. In 14:11-12 they expect to be killed and chastise Moses for not leaving them in Egypt -- this after witnessing the miracles of the ten plagues. (Also keep in mind that only the 20 percent deemed worthy made it out of Egypt - so this is revealing the sad status of the best of the lot.)

Returning to Pharaoh, we see that once again he forfeits and opportunity to learn and grow. Having been reproved by the God of the Universe, he allows himself to be embittered to the point of self destruction. (Somehow he convinces himself and his soldiers that the parting of the waters is simply a quirk of nature.) We see the same situation repeating itself in the book of Revelation, where people even upon realizing the judgment befalling them is from God, refuse to repent.

There are several interesting (hidden) concepts found in 14:1-7. One is regarding the name "Baal-zeppphon." This is the name of an Egyptian deity, the only idol supposedly not destroyed during the plagues. This was all it took for Pharaoh to err, believing this last god had entrapped the Children of Israel. Baal-zephon was a god the Egyptians worshipped for wealth. Pharaoh had decided that this god would triumph as during the plague of darkness, the Hebrews had stripped Egpyt of much of its material wealth. Pharaoh may have sensed Egypt "deserved" the plagues at some point, but seeing no justification for what he thought was the "thievery" of the former slaves, he may have believed Baal'zephon would have power over them.

Another, even deeper teaching concerns the text of 14:7, which seems redundant at the literal level:

And he took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over every one of them.

If Pharaoh took ALL the chariots of Egypt, why does the text mention the six hundred "chosen ones" separately? At the sod (hidden) level these are not physical chariots but an assemblage of spiritual powers that supported Egypt, which Pharaoh called upon.

This is commented on in the Hebrew Zohar which states that God first restrained the power of the Egyptian spiritual forces above, which in turned weakend them below:

Soncino Zohar, Shemoth, 30b - These mighty deeds which the Almighty performed in Egypt were accomplished by the raising of one of his hands against them, both on high and below. It was then that the wisdom of Egypt perished, as Scripture says: “and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:14). Note further the pronouncement: “And I will confuse Egypt with Egypt” (Isaiah 19:2), that is to say, celestial Egypt with terrestrial Egypt. For the celestial legions are in charge of the terrestrial ones, and they both were altogether thrown in disorder. They were confused on high so that the Egyptians could not derive inspiration from the celestial sources as formerly.

Moving ahead to chapter 15, we come to the "Song by the Sea." This prayer was simultaneously spoken by Moses and all of the Children of Israel -- this of course being a miracle in itself. The definition of a "song" in Torah is "a profound and unusual spiritual phenomenon." At this moment in time, it is said that even the "lowest" of the Hebrews had I higher degree of revelation than that of Ezekiel with his heavenly vision. Everything that had occured to them was now seen as part of God's perfect plan.

The spiritual immaturity of the Israelites is reflected again at the Waters of Marah. We can all learn an important principle here -- we will be tested. Here it is taught that much of Israel was preoccupied with gathering the wealth of the Egytians that had washed up on the shore. Thus they delayed their receiving of God's Torah. As Torah is likened to water, the bitter waters of Marah were "measure for measure" punishment.

The sequence of events in 15:24-27 is notable:

  • 15:24 - the people as "what shall we drink?"
  • 15:25 - a tree (symbolic of Torah) is cast into the water, leading to what is then said
  • 15:26 - God tells them that His Torah will sustain them - His answer to 15:24

Lastly, we come to another verse with a deeper meaning at the sod (hidden) level:

Exodus 17:8 - Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.

Israel continued to show doubt in God and Moses as they journeyed away from Egypt. A direct result of this is the attack by Amalek. The gammatria (numerical value) for "doubt" (Hebrew: sufek) and "Amalek" are both 240.

Two commentaries on the role of Amalek follow:

Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XIX:20 - The Amalekites were ever a strap of chastisement for Israel. You find that as soon as they said, Is the Lord among us? (Deuteronomy 17:7), Came Amalek (ib. 8). When They said one to another: Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt (Num. XIV, 4), Then the Amalakite and the Canaanite... came down (ib. 45).

Soncino Zohar, Shemoth, Section 2, Page 65b-66a - When a young man who lives at ease in his father's house begins to make all sorts of complaints and demands, saying, “I want this, and I do not want that”, he attaches himself to that “sore evil”, and he will be punished both in this world and in the world to come. Concerning such a case, King Solomon said: “There is a sore evil... riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.” Such was the case of the Israelites: the Holy One, blessed be He, carried them on eagles’ wings, encircled them with the clouds of glory, made the Shekinah go before them, gave them manna to eat, and sweet water to drink, and yet they complained! Hence, “and Amalek came."

Though Israel defeats the Amalkites in this particular battle, the war with "doubt" continues through time, as we are told:

Exodus 17:16 - For he said, Because the Lord has sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.