Parashat Beshalah – 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Beshalah
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)

The Book of Exodus starts with the heroism of the midwives, who refuse to abide by Pharaoh’s terrible decree to kill the newborn boys born to the Israelites.  This introduction provides an interesting lens through which to view our parashah of Beshalah. (Full disclaimer: my daughter-in-law is a midwife, and I am a loyal viewer of the PBS show “Call the Midwife.” And I am a mother).

In our parashah, the Israelites who have grown up in Egypt have left to begin their journey, but their way is blocked by the sea. At God’s command, Moses lifts up his arm over the sea, and God drove back the sea. The text tells us, “The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22). The Hebrew root for “split” ב-ק-ע can have the sense of tearing apart or ripping open, which reminds me of the tearing of the amniotic sac – the breaking of the waters that happen just before a child is born. And ‘the wall on their right and on their left’ that appears throughout this section has been compared to the walls of the narrow birth canal through which the Israelites must emerge before they can begin the process of becoming a free people. In this section of our story, the Israelite nation is born – midwifed by Moses, Aaron, and also by Miriam, who is prominently there at the completion of the birthing process, as she was there as her mother’s helper when Moses was a baby.

Immediately afterwards comes the story of the manna. The newly freed Israelites need to eat, just as a newborn babe needs to suckle. (Recall that at the beginning of the Exodus story, Miriam as mother’s helper concerned herself with Moses’ nutrition – “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew wet-nurse to suckle the child for you?”, she said to Pharaoh’s daughter (2:7))

There are many similarities between manna and mother’s milk. Both are miraculous, appearing when they are needed. Both adjust their quantity to the needs of the one who is eating it. “The Israelites did so [gathered the manna], some gathering much, some little. But when they measured it by the omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no deficiency: they had gathered as much as they needed to eat” (16:17-18).  Both require the development of faith on the part of the infant child or the infant nation that nutrition really will be provided, whenever they need it. Manna, like milk, is described as white, and like breast milk, it is sweet – “it tasted like wafers in honey” (16:31). Both spoil if put aside for later. Manna, like milk, is a complete meal, providing all the nutrients that are needed at this time in the life of the child and the nation.

Both milk and manna can be used to acculturate – the child or the nation. Gradually, the child must learn that there are times for sleeping and times for being awake, and its mother is content when the child is able to sleep through the night without a feeding. Likewise, the Israelites begin to learn, even before Mt. Sinai, how to adjust to the rhythm of a week that distinguishes Shabbat from the other six days. They learn that on erev Shabbat only they must gather a two-day supply of manna and put some aside for the next day, for “on the seventh day, Shabbat, there will be none” (16:26).

There is great comfort for me in finding a metaphor in the Torah that speaks so strongly to the experience of mothers. It is another way for me to find myself in Torah.  But I think there are insights there, also, for the rest of us.

When we read of the complaints and misbehavior of the Israelites during their trek in the wilderness it provides some context, so we can see this as a normal phase of development. The nascent nation of Israel must have space to make its own mistakes and find its own way. And this sets the stage for the rest of the Tanakh and beyond.

On an individual level, it reminds us that we are not born fully realized; we must develop into the person we are meant to be. Infancy is just the first stage; this development is the work of a lifetime. And we need midwives – parents, teachers, mentors, elders, along with God to help us achieve our full potential.

Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings, including as an adjunct faculty member at AJR.