Commentary on Parashat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
(10) As Pharaoh drew near, the Children of Israel lifted up their eyes: Here, Egypt marching after them! They were exceedingly afraid. And the Children of Israel cried out to YHWH, (11) they said to Moses: Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? (12) Is this not the very word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve Egypt! Indeed, better for us serving Egypt than our dying in the wilderness!
(13) Moses said to the people: Do not be afraid! Stand fast and see YHWH’s deliverance which he will work for you today, for as you see Egypt today, you will never see it again for the ages! (14) YHWH will make war for you, and you be still!
(15) YHWH said to Moses: Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel, and let-them-march-forward!
Your Torah Navigator
In this week’s Parashah, we find a hysterical, ever-pessimistic group of Jews watching Pharaoh’s army advance with only the sea in front of them. From them, we learn that ‘dying free’–as opposed to living as slaves–is not an attractive option. In fact, Egypt is looking better all the time. No one seems to offer platitudes of “Let us die fighting.” Or, “at least let us die as free men.” On the contrary, what you get is:
“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness? Is this not what we told you back in Egypt? Leave us alone so that we may serve Egypt.” (Exodus 14:11-12)
Moses promises them a great salvation, and then tells them to shut up. And then there seems to be a hole in the Torah’s narrative:
God says, “Why are you crying to me, take the children of Israel and get going!”
The problem is that according to the text, Moses doesn’t cry out to God. God’s complaint is totally unprovoked. So, who–and what– is God responding to? Is God responding to Moses? Or is God backing Moses up by also yelling at the children of Israel?
Rashi, the major repository of traditional Jewish memory comments on the verse:
What are you yelling at Me for? We learn that Moses was standing in prayer. The Holy One said to him, “This is not the time for lengthy prayers when Israel is in major trouble.” Another way of looking at it is: Why are you crying out, this episode depends on me, as it is written: “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, ‘Ask me of things to come concerning My sons, and concerning the work of My hands command Me.'” (Isaiah 45:11)
Your Rashi Navigator
1. Rashi gives two opinions. Do they complement or contradict each other?
2. What is wrong with Moses praying here?
3. According to Rashi’s first interpretation, what is Moses supposed to do?
4. According to his second interpretation, what should have Moses known?
5. What’s the difference between praying and asking for instructions?
If Moses was crying to God, what was he asking for? We can assume that he wasn’t asking for instructions, because God tells him, in so many words, to “Quit crying and get going.” One medieval commentator, the Seforno, says that Moses was afraid that this group would not follow his instructions and that he would not be able to get THEM to do THEIR PART in the miracle. So, Moses was crying to God, asking for guidance on how to handle the people.
According to this interpretation, God is rebuking Moses for not seeing that the children of Israel are merely venting their fears and that Moses is not hearing the voice of rebellion but the voice of fear.
God is rebuking Moses for not being able to tell the difference between the two. God says, so to speak, “I can split the sea, but you, Moses, have to bring them across and in order to do that, you must know your people. This is not something that I will do for you.”
The Seforno says that Moses wrongfully suspected them of not wishing to do God’s will, instead of realizing that “it was only the fear talking.” Remember, Moses never knew slavery. He has yet to become part of the people he is required to lead. At this moment, God tells him, if you wish for this people to do what I, God, tell them, then you have to know not only their words, but their hearts as well. This was Moses’ challenge throughout his time in the desert and this was the criterion by which he was ultimately judged.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.