This is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Annette Alter (Chana Feiga bas Yosef Tzvi and Esther Bashkowitz) whose shloshim we will soon be observing. Born (in 1927) and raised in Brooklyn, she was married to Baruch Yaakov Alter for 21 years and was a devoted and loving wife and mother. Her professional life was dedicated to education: graduating with a BA from Brooklyn College and a MA from Hunter College; completing fellowships in Science; and teaching middle school for the New York City Board of Education for 36 years. At the same time, she took continuing education courses in her areas of interest (art, music, and sculpture). She was one of my mother’s closest friends and always had a witty and entertaining manner about her. She is survived by her husband of 46 years, Jacob Behar; by her sister Libbey Weiss; by her four children; and by her 25 grandchildren and over 70 great grandchildren.
May her memory be a blessing for us all.
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (older brother of Biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz) divides the Parsha into two equal parts:
I. The first deals with lofty themes of Divine intervention, miracles and soaring poetry.
II. The second describes the mundane: need for food and water in the desert:
Israelites boldly depart from Egypt and take a roundabout desert route
Divine manifestation of love and protection in a pillar-cloud to guide by day and a pillar of fire to provide light at night
Pharaoh has a change of heart and pursues Israelites, who cry out and complain to God
Reed Sea splitting and drowning of Egyptian forces
Moshe leads the Israelites in the epic Song at the Sea (Shirat Ha’Yam)
Miriam the prophetess leads the women in song and dance
Marah, where bitter waters become sweetened when a certain type of wood is thrown into the water; and where the nation was introduced to the laws of Shabbos, of the Red Heifer and of monetary claims
Israelites complain in the desert of Tzin that they were better off in Egypt and that Moshe and Aaron want to starve the entire congregation
God provides food: quails (one time?); and a type of divine prepared food called Manna (every morning except Sabbath day)
Manna omer-measure per person daily; none was to be left over for next day except double portion of Manna on Friday to be baked and cooked for Sabbath when no Manna would be provided
Israelites complain about lack of water when in Refidim
God directs Moshe to take his staff (the one used to cause the Nile to turn to blood); bring the Elders with him to Chorev (Sinai) where he is to (and does) strike and split the rock causing water to flow for the people to drink
Amalek nomads, though unprovoked, attack women, children and elderly Israelites who remained in Refidim
Moshe instructs Yehoshua to prepare to battle Amalek the next day
Moshe goes to the top of a hill with Aharon and Chur. When he raises his hands upwards to heaven in prayer for the people to see and have faith, the Israelites prevail. When he lowers his hands, Amalekites prevail
Yehoshua battles all day and weakens Amalek
o Instructs Moshe to record Amalek’s unethical behavior
o Tells him to “…recite it in the ears of Yehoshua” (who was to bring the nation into the land of Israel)
o Vows His eternal war against Amalek
Rebellion and Murmurings: A Preview of Things to Come
In the desert, the Israelites demonstrate time and again that they still were plagued by the slave mentality they experienced in Egypt. They did not yet feel fully liberated emotionally and lacked the independence to cope with challenges they faced. Perhaps it was because…
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trauma of slavery
They were too close to the events to see the bigger picture
They remained addicted to the unfettered idolatrous and sexual freedom they had in Egypt
It was part of a “normal” maturation process
Lack of being loved for so long created a void in their heart(emotion) that required constant filling with food, water, feelings of being special and of being loved
Rambam thinks that the desert wanderings were necessary to build the Israelites both physically and emotionally to become assertive and independent and to reverse their low self- esteem. Hardships would also prompt the Israelites to pray to God and build a relationship with Him. And death would serve as a reminder to the living about just how fortunate they were and provide a wakeup call to improve their lives.
Within a week of their liberation, when they are at the shore of the Sea of Reeds and see the attacking Egyptian army approaching, they immediately lose faith and complain to Moshe “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the desert. What have you done to us taking us out of Egypt?”
Three days after the miracle of the splitting of the sea, they come to the oasis of Marah and are unable to drink the water because it was bitter (Marah). Some maintain that the it was not the water that was bitter but their own unpleasantness that made everything taste bitter. The Israelites grumble against Moshe [crying “what shall we drink”], who then prays to God and is told to throw a piece of wood into the water to sweeten it.
When they arrive in the desert of Tzin in the middle of the following month their bread supplies run out. They again grumble: “If only we had died …in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread…” but make no mention of their liberation from backbreaking bondage and from the mandated death sentence on all new born baby boys.
Nechama Leibowitz cites several commentaries who deal with the question of whether this statement of sitting by the fleshpots and eating their fill of bread was an accurate portrayal of their life in Egypt:
• Rav Eliezer the Moda’ite accepts the statement of their enjoying an abundance of food at face value. But they were only able to obtain the food by stealing or by being permitted by the Egyptians to exploit those even more unfortunate than themselves.
• A Midrash points out that the text “when we sat” (not when we ate) means they smelled the aroma of the delicious meat but never tasted any.
• Another Midrash states that there was no truth to their words, but they felt compelled to paint an exaggerated, idealized picture to communicate how even though they were suffering slaves in Egypt they were free from the responsibility of having to make their own decisions. Now as freemen, they had the burden of responsibility for themselves.
• The Israelites may have been lying to themselves. Their rebellion was predicated on a return to the good old days, even though those times were imaginary.
In Refidim the Israelites again quarrel with Moshe, “Give us water to drink…Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our livestock and our children with thirst?”
Torah as Poetry
Poetry (from the ancient Greek word “to create”) is an art of rhythmical composition that through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language evokes pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts. Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differing interpretations, or to evoke emotive responses…
Assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm to achieve musical effects
Ambiguity, symbolism, irony to create multiple interpretations
Metaphor and simile to create a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived.
Shadal notes that the use of unusual and unused words, particularly those of ancient and remote origin, “for their lack of currency of wear and tear, adds to their tonic effect and charming appeal”.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin ("the Netziv," 1816-1893), dean of the eminent Volozhin yeshiva and author of Ha'amek Davar (A Matter Profound) thinks that the Torah possesses "both the nature and singularity of poetry[shira], which is to speak in lyrical language". Because the essential quality of poetry is its compressed nature and its allusiveness--a kind of symbolic language -- the so-called hidden meaning of the Biblical text is its real meaning!
Rabbi Leibtag on the Five Songs in Tanach
The following table summarizes these five songs and the important period that each one concludes:
Source Name Sung after…
Shmot 15:1 19 Shirat Ha'Yam Exodus
Devarim 32:1 43 Shirat Ha’azinu 40 years in the desert
Yehoshua 12:1 24 Shirat Yehoshua defeat of the 31 kings
Shoftim 5:1 31 Shirat Devorah complete conquest of north
Shm.II 22:1 51 Shirat David establishing the Monarchy
Shirat Ha'azinu and Yehoshua exhibit the pattern of two columns with an empty space down the middle:
Shirat Ha’Yam, Devorah, and David exhibit a brickwork-like pattern:
Rabbi Leibtag’s hypothesis is that songs following the first pattern (Shirat Ha'azinu and Yehoshua) mark the end of historical periods that fell short of their original expectations. The songs following the second brickwork-like pattern were used when expectations were fully realized:
• Ha'azinu -The people of the Exodus were destined to reach the Holy Land. But they and their offspring continuously angered God. What should have been an ideal situation --conquering the promised Land with Moshe as their leader--became a more realistic one with a pessimistic forecast that the Israelites would sin after entering the land. It seemed inevitable that the nation would fail in its Divine mission of establishing God’s model nation in the Land of Israel. Such a tragic conclusion necessitated the use of the first pattern for Ha’azinu.
• Yehoshua’s conquest was far from complete because only the Tribes of Yehudah and Yosef successfully conquered their lands. But the remaining ten tribes had not captured their respective areas. His song, therefore, is written utilizing the first pattern.
• The Song of the Sea marks not only the completion of the Exodus, but also our total independence from Egypt.
• During the time of Devorah, Emek Yizrael (the Jezreel Valley), which sat on the major trade route from Egypt to Mesopotamia, was finally conquered through the joint effort of the surrounding tribes. Barak and Devorah defeated Israel's enemies in the north, thereby geographically uniting the twelve tribes. Therefore, Devorah’s Song utilizes the second pattern
• Emek Yizrael, having been lost during the time of Judges, came back under control during King David’s time. David expanded his sphere of occupation to the north, east, and south, thus creating a stable monarchy and secure borders. He thanks God for His assistance in achieving the most complete conquest of Eretz Canaan in David’s Song.
Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz describes the Song as “notable for the poetic fire, vivid imagery and quick movement [that] gives remarkable expression to the mingled horror, triumph and gratitude” that the Israelites experienced.
This victory ode composed and led by Moshe on behalf of the nation [Ibn Ezra], inspired the people to raise their voices and sing “as one person”. Moshe would sing all the stanzas and the people would respond “I will sing to the Lord, Though He is gloriously glorified; Horse and its rider He hurled into the sea”.
According to Rav Dovid Hoffman, the hymn falls into two parts. The first part is a song of triumph, describing and praising God for being a hero warrior who defeats his enemy. The second part glorifies God as the One who bestows his country on His people. Others think the Song consists of three sections…
The first part, exalting God’s saving power…
Followed by a detailed description of the miracle itself…
Concluding with expectations about the future
The imagery of turbulent, chaotic waters from which emerged the Nation of Israel that God created is reminiscent of the original creation story when God crafted a new world order out of primeval chaos. Rabbi David Fohrman cites specific words and themes that appear here and in the creation saga…
Theme Here Creation story
winds “…and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind” a howling wind amidst the chaos preceded the creation
separation the waters of the sea part vertically and “the waters were a wall to them [the Israelites] on their right hand and on their left”
the rakeya horizontally separated the higher from the lower waters
Land and water the Israelites “went into the midst of the sea on dry land”.
the waters on earth were gathered to “let the dry land appear”
Darkness and light Pillar of fire for Israelites separates them from darkness “Let there be light”
Continued existence of life Dry land allows humans and animals to survive Dry land allows for vegetation
Professor Everett Fox notes that the vocabulary of the poem is extremely concentrated. Clusters of key words express major ideas…
Major idea Words
Military victory flung, hurled, plunged, smashed, consumed, and shattered
Divine leadership led, guided, and brought
Graphic representation of Egyptian fear shuddered, seized with writhing, melted away, terrified and grew dumb
Crippling Egyptian decline Dropped like stone and lead
Miriam Leads the Women in Chanting and Dancing
Immediately after the reporting of the singing of the song of the sea led by Moshe, Miriam gathers the women in joyful singing, musical accompaniment and dancing to praise God: “and Miriam the prophetess the sister of Aharon took a timbrel [hand drum] in her hand…” She is one of the few women in Tanach referred to as prophetess (the others being Devorah, Hulda and Noadiah).
Miriam is associated with water. Her name includes the word for sea, yam. She was the one who stood guard of her baby brother Moshe as he floated in the banks of the Nile. Here she leads on the other side of the Sea of Reeds. And during the Israelites desert wandering it was in her merit the people had a source of water (which ceased when she died).
The word prophet/prophetess in Hebrew is from a root word that means lips, indicating that they are charged with the responsibility to verbalize and transmit the Word of God. Perhaps Miriam had a unique ability to find the right words to calm the agitated listener, like the calming effect from watching a tranquil body of water. Watching the unnatural spectacle of a Sea splitting and then come cascading down and drowning the Egyptians combined with their anguished death cries may have traumatized the women of Israel. Because it was Miriam’s presence and leadership in mobilizing the women into joining the joyous national celebration that dispelled some of their gloom and brought them tranquility, she is identified here as a prophetess.
Referring to Miriam as the sister of Aharon and not mentioning that she was also the sister of Moshe highlights this personality trait that she shared with him. Aharon was “rodeph shalom v’ohav shalom” --finding the right words to tell each quarreling party to bring about reconciliation. So, too, Miriam had the unique ability to utter the right words to help individuals deal with their inner struggles.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that dancing was a normal aspect of worship in ancient Israel and in other cultures for both women and men (e.g., King David’s joyful dancing when the Ark of the Covenant was brought up to Yerushalayim). There were…
o Dances to express communal joy
o Victory dances
o Dances to gratefully celebrate the harvest
o Wooing and wedding dances
Koheleth views joyful dancing as the opposite of mourning: “there is a time to mourn and a time to dance”. The spontaneous response of the women at the Reed Sea reflected their religious joy.
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s reading of this incident, these women did not delegate their responsibility. Rather, each woman made a tambourine for herself. The Rebbe concludes that from this we can learn that it is “every single person’s obligation to inspire his or herself and all of the people that he or she comes into contact with”.
When the Israelites were in Refidim, they complained about the lack of water. God instructs Moshe to round up some of the Elders, take his staff, and go to Chorev (Mt. Sinai) where He would be. Moshe was to hit the rock and water would begin to flow.
Rabbi Leibtag points out that since the rock was not in Refidim (where they were encamped) but at Mt. Sinai, the entire nation would need to travel to Mt. Sinai to get the water. It’s likely than only those who still had the strength (even after suffering life-threatening thirst in the hot desert) to make the trip went to Mt. Sinai to bring back water to the weak and tired (women, children and aged) who could not make the trip and stayed in Refidim.
Though unprovoked, the nomadic Amalek people launch a surprise attack “…on the stragglers in your rear, while you were famished and weary…” Instead of abiding by accepted rules of combat as embodied in the modern-day Geneva Conventions combat rules (men fight men; armies fight armies) Amalek capitalized on the Israelites’ disadvantage and attacked the weak and unprotected who remained in Refidim. It was because of this unethical behavior (“v’lo yarey Elokim”), states Rabbi Leibtag, that God conducts an eternal battle with them and commands us to eradicate the remembrance of Amalek (zecher Amalek). [Note: the Hebrew letters for zecher can also be pronounced as zachar, a male. Then the meaning would be that we are obligated to destroy all the males of Amalek, i.e., to eradicate the primary doers of evil.]
Throughout Tanach, Amalek is presented as a nomadic tribe with no god and no land that roams the desert looking for easy prey. They were the first foes encountered by the Israelites after their liberation from Egypt and, as such, became the prototype for all future enemies of Israel. They set the precedent that encouraged others to hate and to attack Israel. “Their primary goal appears to be the denial of Israel’s right to exist. At any time of Israel’s weakness, they swoop in and attack.” Our obligation is to eradicate the remembrance of that nation and its descendants.
Others maintain that this commandment is broader: Amalek can also be viewed as the personification of Evil that needs to be defeated wherever it is found.
Rabbi Moshe Gottesman thinks that Amalek’s sin was in creating doubt in the mind of the Israelites. Interestingly, the gematria (numerical value) of Amalek is the same as that of safek, the Hebrew word for doubt.
When discussing Amalek in Sefer Devarim, the Torah commands us to remember what Amalek did and “how he met you (korcha) along the way…” The Hebrew word korcha can also be interpreted to mean “he cooled you off”. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Amalek represents coolness. It is the force within us that…
Cools off our excitement and enthusiasm
Deadens our sensitivity to the Divine influence in our lives
We are commanded to reject these internal negative leanings and to combat the external negative forces in our lives.