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Parashat Beshalah 5781

January 29, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Beshalah
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

We’re finally free! We have been released from the oppressive and heavy-hearted regime that not only oppressed our people, but wrought destruction on all of the inhabitants of the land. What was expected to be a long 400 years actually turned out to be even longer than anticipated. After so much suffering you’d think that we would like nothing better than to forget the whole incident and move forward. But, the trauma of our experience lingers with us and even overshadows our sense of the journey ahead.

Our parasha this week begins with the words “When Pharaoh let the people go” (Exod. 13:17). It is true that Pharaoh finally released the Israelites, but this masks the true major catalysts for the Exodus – the cry of the Israelites, the destruction of Egypt by the plagues, the power of God, the acts of Moses and Aaron, etc. After living under the tyranny of Pharaoh for so long, our narrative ostensibly cannot escape framing our egress in light of this one man’s action. The whim of a fickle Pharaoh is what we have come to know and, at the outset of our parasha, is what remains the frame of our reality.

The Israelites not only have yet to cast off the yoke of servitude, but also still seem to feel most safe in the land from which they are fleeing: “When Pharaoh let the people go God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt’” (Exod. 13:17). The prospect of war may be more frightening to the people than the known experience of task masters and even the supernatural plagues that they just left behind. Despite the hardships endured under Egyptian oppression, this first verse of our parasha suggests that the Israelites’ greatest concern is for the dangers that lie ahead. Moreover, perhaps the Israelites have imbibed some of the capriciousness of their former sovereign, who waffled over whether to let the people go in last week’s parasha – the slightest sign of a threat could prompt them to change their minds.

The verb that the Torah employs for the people having a change of heart about leaving Egypt (נ.ח.ם) carries multiple denotations. As it is used here, it can mean to be sorry or to regret; being stuck in the mistakes of the past. Yet, this Hebrew root can also mean to comfort or console; a feeling of coming to terms with the past and a willingness to move forward to the future. These dual meanings capture the present reality of, and the future hope for, the traumatized Israelites. Currently they are stuck in their past reality, framing even their new freedom as a gift from Pharaoh. But as they taste the freedom of the Exodus, perhaps they can be consoled and look to the opportunities of the future.

God seems appropriately attuned to the Israelite’s current psychological state. Leading them by a circuitous path to avoid violent triggers, God guides the people towards their future. The text draws upon the Hebrew root נ.ח.ה to describe God’s guiding action. In our parasha this verb appears with a direct object suffix, yielding the form נָחָם. The careful listener hears the resonance between the people’s regret, יִנָּחֵם, and God’s act of leading, נָחָם. This verbal consonance draws an intimate link between God’s actions and the inner state of the people – the strong leader knows the pulse of the people. God knows when the people are stuck in the aftershocks of their past servitude and recognizes how this might inform their future fears. But God also knows that there is the possibility for being comforted and consoled, for the Israelites to finally close the book on the expectations of the past and to embrace the promises of the future.

As we begin to move forward towards what will hopefully be the end of this enduring pandemic, we can hope that our leadership – in all of its forms and expressions across the world – acts with the wisdom to recognize the plight of the people and what we will need to move forward. And may we, as the latest descendants of the Israelites, have the strength to persist amidst the challenges that we still face and have the courage to proactively move forward to confront the challenges ahead.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.