Parshat B'shalach -
'Basic Training' in the Desert

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

Along their journey from Egypt towards Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael encounter frightening war and life-threatening shortages of food and water. Are they expected not to complain, to passively accept this fate and just sit back and wait patiently for God's salvation? Is God simply 'testing' their patience?

To answer these questions, this week's shiur analyzes the progressive nature of these events.

Part I - On the Way
to Har Sinai

Three Days or Seven Weeks?

According to God's 'original plan' (as promised to Moshe at the "sneh" - see 3:8,12,18), Bnei Yisrael were to travel from Egypt directly to Har Sinai (a three-day journey) and then continue on to Eretz Canaan. However, in Parshat B'shalach, events unfold quite differently.

Instead of leading Bnei Yisrael directly to Har Sinai, God reroutes their journey towards the Red Sea. Then, after crossing the Red Sea, Bnei Yisrael do embark on a 'three-day journey' into the desert, but only to arrive at Mara, rather than Har Sinai. Then, over the course of their five-week excursion from Mara to Har Sinai, they run out of food at Midbar Sin, run out of water at Rfidim and then face Amalek's unprovoked attack. Only after some seven weeks do they finally arrive at Har Sinai.

Are these events simply incidental, or are they all part of some Divine 'master plan?'

As you probably expect by now, in the following shiur we attempt to uncover God's master plan and its underlying purpose.

A Second Chance
Recall (from our shiur on Parshat Va'eyra) that God had called upon Bnei Yisrael to perform "teshuva" before the Exodus. [See Yechezkel 20:4-10.] Presumably, had Bnei Yisrael indeed obeyed that call, the redemption process would have proceeded as originally planned and Bnei Yisrael would have journeyed from Egypt directly to Har Sinai in three days. However, the nation did not repent. Although offering the "korban Pesach" rendered them worthy enough to survive the Tenth Plague, at the time of the Exodus Bnei Yisrael are far from spiritually prepared for Matan Torah. This background explains why God finds it necessary to 'change' His original plan.

The New Plan
Board #1 lists the key events that take place during Bnei Yisrael's 'round about' trek to Har Sinai. [Note the chiastic structure: war-water-food-water-war.]

Despite the distinctive nature of each of these events, they all share a common purpose - each incident helps prepare Bnei Yisrael for Matan Torah. In other words, God intentionally initiates these events in order to catalyze Bnei Yisrael's spiritual growth, to 'train' them to become His Nation!

To appreciate the specific purpose of each individual event, we must first consider why Bnei Yisrael had not performed proper "teshuva" in Egypt.

Breaking Slave Mentality
It is extremely difficult for a slave, even after having gained his freedom, to act or think like a free man. As we explained in Parshat Va'eyra, Bnei Yisrael do not listen to God's original call because of their 'crushed spirits and hard labor' - "v'lo sham'u el Moshe, mikotzer ruach u'mei'avodah kasha" (6:9). The strain of their prolonged bondage and the fatigue of their daily routine had drained them of all spirituality.

It is specifically because of their bondage that Bnei Yisrael grow instinctively dependent upon their Egyptian masters. Therefore, before they can become God's servants, they must transform their instinctive physical dependence on Egypt to a cognitive spiritual dependence on God.

We all know how difficult it is for an individual to change his character, all the more so for an entire nation. Therefore, the rebuilding of Am Yisrael's character becomes a very complex process.

A change of character usually occurs in one of two ways:

As we will see, God employs both approaches.

1) Kriyat Yam Suf: Splitting Old Ties
Kriyat Yam Suf [the splitting of the Red Sea] may be understood as a traumatic experience that helps Bnei Yisrael break their instinctive dependence on Mitzrayim.

At Kriyat Yam Suf, God inflicts His final punishment upon Pharaoh and his army (14:4). Were God's sole intention merely to punish the Egyptians, He could have done so during the Ten Plagues. The fact that Bnei Yisrael must witness Kriyat Yam Suf suggests that these events occur for their sake as well. This purpose becomes clearer in light of Bnei Yisrael's reaction to the imminent threat of the approaching Egyptian army:

"And they complained to Moshe saying ... What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt: Let us be and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the desert?!" (14:11-12)
[See Ibn Ezra on 14:13 where he explains why Bnei Yisrael did not even consider confronting the Egyptians in battle.]

God responds to Bnei Yisrael's complaint by commanding them to break away from this instinctive dependence:

"Do not fear, stand upright and watch God's salvation ... for the manner in which you see Mitzrayim today - you will never see them again - lo tosifu li'rotam od ad olam." (14:13)
Although God's reassurance appears to be a promise, Chazal interpret this statement as a commandment!

According to Ramban (14:13), Chazal interpret this pasuk as follows:

"In the manner by which you look at Mitzrayim today - do not look at them this way ever again."
God here does not promise His nation that they will never face an Egyptian army again. Rather, He commands them to never again look to Egypt for their salvation.

Although this interpretation of "Lo tosifu li'rotam" does not appear as the simple "pshat" of this pasuk, it does find support in a parallel reference in the "Tochacha" in Parshat Ki-tavo (Devarim 28:1-69). At the conclusion of that Tochacha, God warns Bnei Yisrael that should they disobey Him, they will be exiled and sold into slavery (see Devarim 28:62-67 - note "ki lo shamata b'kol Hashem..."). Their condition will deteriorate to such an extent, the Torah warns, that they will actually hope that someone will purchase them as slaves. To emphasize this point, the Torah employs the same phrase used at Kriyat Yam Suf:

"And God will return you to Egypt in ships, in the manner that I told you: 'Lo tosif od li'rota' [do not look at them this way again], and you will offer yourselves to your enemies for sale as slaves and maidservants, but no one will purchase you." (28:68)
[The word "ba'derech" - "in the manner" - should not be understood as a description of the ship-route to Egypt, but rather as a description of the crisis Am Yisrael will face as they are exiled to Egypt in those ships.]

Ironically, the last stage of the "tochacha" has Am Yisrael returning to the same state they were in before they left Egypt, where they yearn for total dependence on their human masters, in Egypt!

[See also Devarim 17:16 and Yeshayahu 31:1-3 to support this interpretation of lo tosifu.]

God's plan appears to succeed. Upon seeing the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea, Bnei Yisrael indeed reach the proper conclusion:

"...and Yisrael recognized His great Hand ... and the people feared God and believed in God and Moshe His servant." (Shmot 14:31)
Instinctively, Bnei Yisrael respond in a song of praise to God: "Az ya'shir Moshe u'bnei Yisrael..." (see 15:1)

2) Mara: A Desert Seminar
After crossing the Red Sea, Bnei Yisrael set out on their 'three-day journey' into the desert. However, instead of arriving at Har Sinai, they arrive at Mara, where the only water they could find is bitter and undrinkable. Having severed their ties with Egypt, B`nei Yisrael now have the perfect opportunity to accept God's commandments and 'cure' their attitude problem of "V'lo sham'u el Moshe" (6:9):

"And He said - iym shamo'a tishma l'kol Hashem Elokecha - Should you listen to the voice of God, and do what is proper in His eyes, and listen to His commandments, then the affliction that I put on the Egyptians I will not put on you, for I am God your Healer." (15:26; see shiur on Parshat Va'eyra.)
Now 'it's official' - Bnei Yisrael agree to obey God and follow His laws; the 'bitter' water of Mara becomes drinkable. By linking the sweetness of the water to Bnei Yisrael's willingness to obey Him and follow His laws, God teaches them an important lesson about spiritual dependence.

[The 'message' of the "eytz" that God instructs Moshe to cast into the water (see 15:23-25) may relate back to Gan Eden, the motif of an environment that demands obedience to God. The famous "drash" of "ein mayim ela Torah" (see Bava Kamma 17a), that the term "water" in Tanach actually refers to Torah, almost emerges as "pshat!" See also Mishlei 3:18 and its context ("etz chayim hi l'machazakim bah...").]

In the more ideal situation at Eylim (15:27), where there is plenty of water and food, no one complains. However, when the 'going gets tough' in Midbar Sin, one gets the impression that the short 'seminar' at Mara warranted a 'follow-up' program.

3) Midbar Sin: Basic Training
After arriving in Midbar Sin the food supply runs out, triggering yet another round of complaints (16:2-3). Even though Bnei Yisrael have the right to ask for food, the way in which they ask is inexcusable:

"If only we had died by the Hand of God in Egypt, when we had plenty of meat and bread to eat! Now you have brought us out into this desert to die of famine." (16:3)
The tone of this complaint indicates that Bnei Yisrael had retained their instinctive dependence upon Mitzrayim. They react to hunger by reminiscing about the 'good old days' in Egypt. The trauma they had experienced heretofore was not sufficient to totally change their character. They require a daily routine that will slowly change their instinctive behavior.

The manna served this very purpose. It provided a daily routine that transformed their physical dependence on Mitzrayim into a physical dependence on God. As explained in Sefer Devarim:

"And He tormented you and starved you, then gave you 'manna' to eat ... in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, rather, man lives by whatever God commands." (Devarim 8:3)
By allowing Bnei Yisrael to gather only enough food for one day at a time, God teaches Bnei Yisrael to become dependent solely on Him. To emphasize this point, their food falls directly from heaven. In describing this process, The Torah uses a key word - "nisayon" (a test):
"Behold I will rain down bread for you from the heavens, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day's portion - l'maan a'na'senu (="nisayon") - in order that I may test them, to see whether or not they will follow my instructions..." (16:4)
The word "nisayon" here should not be understood simply as a test to assess Bnei Yisrael's relationship with God. A Divine 'test' is not for God but rather for man - it serves to raise man to a higher level. The classic example is the story of the Akeyda ["v'Hashem nisa et Avraham..."], where God 'tests' Avraham (see Breishit 22:1) - not to find out if he is worthy, but rather to make him worthy.

The manna served a similar purpose. God is not testing Bnei Yisrael to find out if they will obey Him, rather He is training them in order that they learn how to obey Him.

4) Rfidim: Preparing for Har Sinai
Before actually arriving at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael stop at Rfidim, where they can't find any water to drink (17:1-3). Why does God lead them to such a location? Does He really expect Bnei Yisrael to survive without water?

Once again, God wants Bnei Yisrael to complain!

God's scheme at Rfidim prepares Bnei Yisrael both physically and spiritually for Har Sinai. Although He agrees to provide them with water, He does not supply the water there, at Rfidim! Instead, He instructs Moshe to gather some elders (17:5-6) and travel to the rock at Har Chorev (= Har Sinai - see 3:1,12 and Devarim 5:2). After Moshe hits the rock, the water gushes forth from Chorev and flows from Har Sinai into the desert. But to drink that water, Bnei Yisrael must travel from Rfidim to Har Sinai, their new source of water. [For proof that hitting the rock created a gushing river flowing down the mountain, see Devarim 9:21.]

Not only has heaven replaced earth as the source of bread (food), but Har Sinai has replaced the Nile as the constant source of water. Bnei Yisrael's total dependence on Mitzrayim has now been replaced by their total dependence on God.

Significantly, Har Sinai becomes a source of water for Bnei Yisrael before it becomes the source of Torah! In order for them to appreciate Har Sinai as the source of spiritual life, they must first identify the mountain as the source of physical life.

5) The War with Amalek:
    Looking Up to Har Sinai

While Bnei Yisrael begin to journey from Rfidim to Har Sinai (their new source of water), Amalek attacks the 'slow travelers' left behind at Rfidim (see Part II).

War breaks out, and God orders that Yehoshua lead Bnei Yisrael in battle. In contrast to Kriyat Yam Suf, here Bnei Yisrael themselves do the fighting.

In order for the people to recognize that God Himself brings them victory - despite their own military efforts - God instructs Moshe to climb the hill and raise his staff heavenward. Upon which hill does Moshe stand?

Based on the juxtaposition between this narrative and the incident at "masa u'mriva," Ibn Ezra explains that Moshe here stands on Har Sinai! Just as Har Sinai has become their source of water, it now becomes their source of military salvation, as well. For Yisrael to become victorious, Moshe must raise his hands (17:11) to show and teach the people to look to Hashem, to Har Sinai, for their salvation.

[See Midrash quoted by Rashi (17:11) and Rosh Hashana 29a.]

From Pesach to Shavuot
We have shown that during the seven weeks from the Exodus to Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael encounter several traumatic experiences and changes in daily routine that helped prepare them for Matan Torah. During this 'training period' they have also become more active in the process of their redemption. Now they are ready to take on the next stage of the redemption process: to receive the Torah in order to become God's special Nation in His land.

Clearly, it is not by chance that Chazal identify a similar purpose in the seven weeks of Sefirat ha'Omer, where we count from the celebration of our freedom from Egypt [on Pesach] in preparation for our commemoration of Matan Torah on Shavuot.

Continue to the next page for Part II.

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