Parashat B'shalah

God And The Angel: Leaders And Protectors

The images of the angel of God and the pillar of cloud accompanying the Israelites in the desert raise questions about effective leadership.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • The Children of Israel escape across the Sea of Reeds from Pharaoh and his army, who drown when God drives back the sea. (Exodus 13:17-14:31)

  • Moses and the Israelites sing a song praising Adonai. (Exodus 15:1-21)

  • In the wilderness, God provides the grumbling Israelites with quails and manna. God instructs the Israelites to gather and prepare on the sixth day food needed for Shabbat. (Exodus 15:22-16:36)

  • The people complain about the lack of water. Moses hits a rock with his rod and brings forth water. (Exodus 17:1-7)

  • Israel defeats Amalek, Israel's eternal enemy. God vows to blot out the memory of Amalek from the world. (Exodus 17:8-16)

Focal Point

The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud and the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. (Exodus 14:19-20).

Your Guide

Why were the Israelites led by both the angel of God and the pillar of cloud (God)? How do the roles of God and the angel differ?

In order to be effective, must a leader position himself/herself in the front? Why or why not?

What kind of spell do you think God and the angel cast?

It is interesting to note that the text reads, "so that the one could not come near the other all through the night." Was there concern that the Israelites might visit the Egyptian camp? Why?

From what might God and the angel have been protecting the Israelites?

By the Way…

Rabbi Judah said [the following about the Israelites as they stood, afraid, at the shores of the Sea of Reeds]: One said, "I will not be the first to go down into the sea." The other said, "I will not be the first to go down into the sea." Whilst they were debating with each other, Nachshon ben Aminadav [of the tribe of Judah] plunged with his tribe after him into the waves of the sea. For this reason, Judah was granted dominion in Israel. (Talmud, Tractate Sotah 36b)

Leadership has inherent power because effecting a change in relationship systems is facilitated more fundamentally by how leaders function within their families than by the quantity of their experience. What is vital to changing any kind of "family" is not knowledge of technique or even of pathology but, rather, the capacity of the family leader to define his/her own goals and values while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence within the system. (Edward Friedman, Generation to Generation)

"And it cast a spell upon the night:” And he gave light to the night. This refers to the angel in the pillar of fire, for he removed the dark of night and there was no cloud separating them [the Israelites] and the illuminating fire, as there was on the Egyptian side. (Sforno)

The light of God is the soul of man. (Talmud)

I lift my eyes to the mountains;
What is the source of my help?
My help comes from Adonai,
Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot give way;
Your Protector will not slumber.
See, the Protector of Israel neither
Slumbers nor sleeps!
God is your Guardian,
God is your protection
At your right hand.
(Psalms 121)

For having more faith in us than we had in ourselves, for being brave when required and rude when appropriate and tender without being trite, for not sleeping and not quitting and not shrinking from the pain all around him, Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of the World, is Time's 2001 Person of the Year. (Time, December 13, 2001, p. 36)

Your Guide

Can you think of a time when we, the Jewish people, had aggressors coming at us from the front and the back? Did we, collectively, feel God carry us?

Do you think that the Israelites could not move without a leader in front? Why or why not? If Nachshon hadn't raced to the front and jumped fearlessly into the water, would the Israelites still be standing at the shores of the Sea of Reeds?

Do we demand too much from our leaders, expecting them, like God, to be present for us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? What does this say about our community and culture? Name a few individuals who you think demonstrate the twenty-four-hour-a-day work ethic, for example, the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.

D'var Torah

These two verses of Torah (Exodus 14:19-20) teach that leading and protecting a population are not easy tasks. There is not one right way to act, make decisions, relate to the community, and envision the future. At times, God and the angel need to be in the front. At other times, they need to be in the back.

We know that throughout the Israelites' desert wanderings, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a symbol of God's leadership, was borne in the midst of the people. We surmise, therefore, that leadership does not depend on the position from which one governs. True leadership is defined by the possession of a strong character, a clear vision, flexibility, and an ability to react to a crisis at a moment's notice.

In our day, it is also important for a leader to show the characteristic of humanity. However, we should remember that human leaders are not God: They are not omnipotent, infallible, and omniscient, as God is, nor can we expect them to be.

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Rabbi Deborah Pipe-Mazo is the director of rabbinic services for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.