Parashat B'shalah

Beyond Victors and Victims

The image of God as a nurturer, working with people to bring forth food, allows us to move beyond the violence of the Red Sea crossing.

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In Exodus 14:14, Moses tells the frightened people gathered at the shore of the sea, "YHVH will battle for you; [you] hold your peace." But what if we read it differently? The word for "[he] will battle" is yilcham in which we can see the letters of the word lechem--bread. One Hasidic commentary anthologized in the compilation Itturey Torah notes that "this God who battles is [also] the One who gives bread to all people."

Further, the word for "[you] hold your peace" builds on a root that can also mean "to plow" (as it does in Job 4:8, for instance). Together, these interpretations open the way to a radically different understanding.

Looking Towards A New Future

Rather than "God will battle for you; you keep silent," we can read the words of Moses this way: "God will give you bread; you will do the plowing." Only a short while later, God does give the people food, in the form of manna, and we might imagine that this represents for them the fulfillment of this earlier promise.

What a different vision of the future that promise presents! The violence of liberation may still be a necessity, but the future is no longer envisioned as one continuous battle, with the people of Israel as either triumphalist victors or ever-attacked victims. This reading allows us to look, with Moses and Miriam, into a future of tilling the soil, reaping the harvest, planting season after season.

A Partnership Between God and People

In this vision, Sukkot, or HeHag, "the festival"--one of its other names in our tradition--shares center stage, celebrating as it does a successful harvest and the ingathering of the people. Passover celebrates liberation, but liberation for a peaceful purpose. And God, the great Warrior, is also the ample Nurturer, Provider of food, Partner to the human plower.

This vision of a free people tilling the soil in its land was a mainstay of early Zionism. Together with a re-reading of our people's beginnings as a nation, this combined vision could re-emerge as the underpinning of a new Israeli future. This future, while it is not likely to include many literal plows, is not one in which every action must be weighed on the victor/victim scale.

Rather, it is a future seen through the eyes of the Nurturing, Providing God, who provides food for all who live on the land and engage as partners in this process: "God will give you bread; you do the plowing." This is the vision of the prophet Isaiah, who spoke to us with these well-known words: "You shall beat your swords into plowshares, and your spears into pruning hooks." Perhaps Isaiah's vision begins as the people Israel begins, crossing the Red Sea into a new freedom.

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Rabbi Ellen Lippmann

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann is founder and rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives. Rabbi Lippmann is the former East Coast Director OF MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and former director of the Jewish Women's Program at the New 14th Street Y in Manhattan.