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Parashat BeShallah

January 26, 2010

By Joan Lenowitz

“BaMayim Ro’im,” In the Water They See

It is the rainy season in Israel right now and the words of acknowledgement that we insert into the Amidah for God’s benevolence in bestowing life-preserving rains upon us during this season seem not to have not gone unheeded. It has been raining without pause for nearly a week here in Israel.

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) there is a story about Honi hame’agel, Honi the circle-maker; God seems to be especially receptive to Honi’s prayers for rain. So when the Rabbis are distressed about the lack of rain they come to Honi and ask him to implore God for rain. When his initial prayer does not succeed, Honi decides to play “hard ball” with God. He draws a circle around himself and tells the Holy One that he will not remove himself from within this circle until God sends rain. God obliges but sends only a sprinkling.

Honi then tells God that this is not sufficient; God responds by sending a deluge. Again, despite the fact that the Rabbis have taught that it is inappropriate to ask God to hold back too much of a good thing, and despite the fears of his students that Honi will bring death upon himself with this stand-off with God, Honi faithfully turns to God and asks him to send appropriate rains for the people. God accommodates him.

In the water, we might say, Honi sees God’s Presence.

Few people have the consistent faith of Honi. In fact our Parashah, Beshallah, finds the people wavering between faith and serious skepticism, though God sets an example of constancy with them throughout. In Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea, they express an abundance of faith in God. God has withheld the waters to allow the people to pass through on dry land, and then has brought those same waters down full force upon the Egyptians, drowning them.

In the water, we might say, the people see God’s Presence.

But God also begins to change direction, ever so slightly in this Parashah, offering the people an opportunity to grow; they are clearly not ready. Nevertheless an opportunity is extended. The cloud that has led them shifts to the rear. This appears to be a tactical maneuver, but another way to look at it is that God has repositioned Himself to the rear to provide support, but not direct leadership in the future, preparing the people to take on more responsibility.

It continues this way throughout; the people continue to complain about their needs and God accommodates them each time, as he acted for the people at Honi’s insistence. God takes them by the hand and the people gain faith in God as He provides continuing direction, protection, food and water for bare sustenance, and even food for their enjoyment, just as a parent would provide for his children, and the people are like children.

God then demonstrates that the ability to lead themselves will demand that they support one another. When the people are forced to fight with Amalek, God’s assistance in the battle, and the success of the military campaign, depends upon Moses’ holding up of his hand. Naturally Moses’ hands tire. Some of our commentators explain that Moses’ hands tire because of the sin of Moses in delegating Joshua to lead the fighting rather than leading himself, or because of the sins of the people which fall upon Moses. But another reading might be that God has set up this entire scenario so that it would become evident that support of one another is what is required, and, not coincidentally, Aaron and Hur are standing there right by Moses’ side and available to assist.

It will be a long, arduous journey for the people physically and spiritually but the need for mutual support will become even more apparent in the next Parashah through the words of Yitro.

In the Talmud, our story of Honi continues two generations later with the grandson of Honi , Abba Hilkiyah. He is no Honi , but he is a pious man, if a little more practical than his grandfather. He assumes the role of his grandfather as the one who will seek God’s benevolence concerning the rains, and a story is told that two Rabbis come to him, asking his help. He behaves rather strangely.

They find him working in the fields and as he returns with the Rabbis to his house, he carries his shoes until he arrives at a stream and only wears his shoes in the water, which seems odd to the Rabbis. He explains to the them that while he is walking along on the ground he can see the obstacles that might injure his feet, but in the water he cannot see; waters are often murky, and so he wears his shoes for protection.

As we progress as a people we learn that faith does not mean that God will transport us across every river; sometimes we have to ford the streams with our shoes on.


Joan Lenowitz is a rabbinic student at AJR and serves as the rabbinic intern at Congregation Ohev Shalom in York, Pennsylvania.