Parashat Beshalah-Shabbat Shirah

Hazzan Marcia Lane

Although the most distinctive aspect of this week’s parashah is the magnificent crossing of the Sea of Reeds, this parashah is full of fascinating detail, and precursors of other episodes to come. At times it appears that the Torah is talking to itself. This inter-textuality is both a challenge and a joy. It keeps the investigation of Biblical language fresh and it feeds the art of interpretation. For example, this week we have the following familiar scene of complaining:

The Israelites said to them (Moshe and Aharon): If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by stewpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death! (Exodus 16:3)

When the people grumble — as they will repeatedly throughout their journey — God tells Moshe:

I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say, ‘By evening you shall eat meat, and by morning you shall have your fill of bread…
(Exodus 16:12)

And sure enough:

In the evening, quail descended and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it they said to one another, “What is it?”‘ for they did not know what it was. And Moshe said to them, “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:13-15)

The voice of the biblical narrator comes in to add information:

Moshe said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Let one omer of it be kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness…And the Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a settled land; they ate the manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. An omer is a tenth of an ephah. (Exodus 16:32-36)

Clearly, the narrator is telling the story from the perspective of someone who knows the entire journey. Our narrator knows his audience. This story is being told to an audience that isn’t familiar with the measurements of the ancient world but already knows that the Israelites will eventually settle the land of Canaan because they, themselves are in the land. Not only that, but the narrator will tell us a very similar story in the book of Numbers, but with a not-so-subtle twist.

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and the Israelites wept and said, “If we only had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks and onions and garlic! Now our souls are dried up. There is nothing at all! Nothing to eat but this manna! (Numbers 11:4-6)

Moshe, who by this time — remember, it’s more than two years after leaving Egypt — has heard more than his fair share of moaning and complaining, is exasperated:

Why have You (Lord) dealt ill with your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Where am I to get meat to feed all these people when they whine before me…?!
(Numbers 11:11, 13)

And God gives them the same kind of meat as in Exodus, but with a difference.

Then the Lord said to Moshe…”Say to the people, ‘Purify yourselves, for tomorrow you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the Lord…the lord will give you meat and you shall eat! You shall eat not for one day or two, or even five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month until it comes out your nostrils!'”…A wind from the Lord swept up quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and that… (Numbers 11:16-20, 31)

So what are we to make of these two incidents? In Exodus, the gift of quail isn’t excessive. It ‘covers the camp’ but there’s no indication that people were drowning in quail, as they are in Numbers. In the Exodus segment the gift of manna is a novelty, not taken for granted. The two sequences have a very different tone, and it may be because both God and Moshe are pretty exhausted by the time the Numbers episode happens! Like tired parents, they are each ready to disown the kids. Or perhaps our narrator, talented storyteller that he is, has crafted both the earlier story and the later one, building dramatic tension and even comic relief into the telling as he goes.

(By the way, if you are interested in reading my drash on the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, it can be found here.)


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.