Thursday, February 2, 2023

Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’shalach – Sh’mot (Exodus): 13:17 – 17:16

The peculiarities characterizing the relationship of a graceful, sustaining, and forgiving Elohim with a people marked by vacillation and unbelief are very evident in Parashat B’shalach. This makes the current Parasha a most suitable introduction to this relationship, foreshadowing what will continue to transpire for many generations to come. The opening words, referring to Par’oh's release of the Israelites, without attributing it to YHVH, have been called into question. However, because in the process of negotiating with Par’oh the term "let go" ("", literally to “send or send off") is used time and again (seven, to be exact) and to no avail, the opening words of this Parasha point out that (ultimately) the ruling king is compelled, "willy nilly", to do just that.1. This is especially so, since we noticed last week that it was incumbent (legally) on Par’oh to let the Hebrews go, in an act which signified a divorce-like separation. Right after the "sending" it says that, "Elohim did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines" (13:17 emphasis added). "Lead" here is "nacham", of the root (noon, chet, hey). The same verb is used again, in verse 21, where it says that "YHVH was going before them, in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them ["lan'chotam"] on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night". In Moshe’s Song (15:13) he specifies further, saying (literally), "by Your grace you led the people…" (using the same verb). This root is also used in “satisfaction” or “peace” (e.g. Pro. 29:9), while the root, which is a related root, means “rest”. Thus, YHVH’s guidance and leading of His people during the entire wilderness journey, including the events described here, promises to be marked by these qualities. Interestingly, a potential encounter with the Philistines caused YHVH to take Yisrael in a roundabout way, even though they “came up from the land of Egypt prepared for action [or] in a martial arraychamushim” (13:18b italics added). The root (chet, mem, shin) also serves the figure “five” – “chamesh” - which is thought to be the minimum number required for taking action.

The next phase wherein the Children of Yisrael find themselves 'between a rock and a hard place' (14:2, 3), forms an inseparable part of YHVH's plan for them. However, the names of the sites cannot be ignored. “Pi Hahirot (Ha’chirot) …. opposite Baal Zephon (Tz’fon)”, reads very closely to “Pi Ha’cherut” – which is the “mouth” or “opening” of liberty, while “tz’fon” can be easily read as Tzafon which is north. According to Isaiah 14:13b, Lucifer aspires to sit at the end of the north. Thus the “opening of liberty”, on one hand, and “Baal” and “north” on the other seem to point to spiritual warfare (see Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies”). Is this why we read above that the sons of Yisrael came out of Egypt “in martial array”? Yet, had they been told at that time, “…be strong in YHVH and in the power of His might.  Put on the whole armor of Elohim, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11), it would have been to no avail…

However, YHVH intended to be "honored – ve’eka’veda’ - through Pharaoh" (ref. 14:4). "Honor" (and "glory" too) here, and in most other places is "kavod", meaning "weightiness" or "heaviness". In verses 17 and 18 YHVH repeats the principle, "…then the Egyptians will know that I am YHVH, when I am honored - ve’eka’veda - through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen" (emphasis added). A little later YHVH "caused their chariot wheels to swerve, and He made them drive with difficulty…" literally "with heaviness" - "bich'vedoot" (v. 25, emphasis added). This is indeed an intriguing usage of the figurative and literal manifestation of the "glory" and "honor" of the Elohim of Yisrael, who was to be honored even through the heaviness of His enemies’ chariots! But the divine irony does not end there… In the past two Parashot we encountered quite a few times the term “Pharaoh hardened his heart”. Occasionally the verb used was “hach’bed” – made heavy (i.e., hardened), such as in Sh’mot (Exodus) 8:28. Thus, it was the very “heaviness” of Par’oh’s heart (and also, proverbially, of his chariots) which brought about “high esteem” – kavod – to the Elohim who used the enemy’s ploys for the sake of His name. Additionally, If we look back at the time when Moshe was first commissioned by YHVH, we discover that his initial response was that he “was slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10), which in Hebrew is (having) a “heavy mouth” and a “heavy tongue” (k’vad peh, k’vad lashon). Ultimately, YHVH in His wisdom used all of these "weighty resistances" to cause His Name to honored and glorified.

Much of the description of the scene of the mighty deliverance (chapter 14) is echoed in chapter 15, by what is typically known as the "Song of Moses", or in Hebrew “Shirat Ha’Yam” – the Song of the Sea, rendering this Shabbat’s title, the Shabbat of the Song - Shabbat Shira. The "six hundred select chariots" and the "officers in command" of 14:7 become in 15:4 "the choicest of his officers" (when describing their drowning). "Select" and "choicest" are denoted by the same word, the root being (bet, chet, resh), and the "officers" (in both references) are "shalishim", which is of the root "three" – shalosh - making them (possibly) "third in command". In 14:8 we are told that "the sons of Israel came out with a lofty arm" (literal translation), and in 15:1, "the horse and its rider was lifted into the sea" (literal translation, emphasis added). In both instances, the word is "rah'ma", which also means "high, exalted, lifted, lofty". This type of repetition lends a dual dimension to the description; thus, it is YHVH's "high and lifted arm" (ref. 14:8, emphasis added) which in this case raised high the waves and lifted off the riders and horses, casting them into the sea.

When the Israelites saw the Egyptians drawing close, they became very fearful ("vayir'u", root y.r.a – yod, resh, alef), and cried out to YHVH (ref. 14:10).  Moshe exhorts them: "Do not fear ("tir'oo", again y.r.a), stand and watch (literally: "see", "look at", “observe”) the salvation of YHVH" (v. 13). Moreover, while it is only the "midbar" (desert, v. 3) and the Egyptians that their eyes were looking at and seeing (v. 10), Moshe assured them that they would “never see the Egyptians again" (v. 13, emphasis added). "YHVH will fight for you while you keep silent" (v. 14 italics added) is stated in contradistinction to their "crying out" (v. 10, italics added). Likewise, YHVH responds to Moshe: "Why are you crying out to Me?" (v. 15, italics and emphasis added). Finally, after crossing the sea and walking on dry land, the "seeing" and the "fear" are transformed - "Israel saw the great power which YHVH had used against the Egyptians, and the people feared YHVH, and they believed in YHVH and in His servant Moses" (14:31, emphases added).

When Moshe addressed the people in 14:13, he referred to "the salvation – ‘yeshu-ah’ - of YHVH", whereas in the song (in 15;2) YHVH Himself is the (epitome of) salvation, as well as the very strength and the song itself, with the “song” being called zimrah. The latter refers to the song is reminiscent of the word used by Ya'acov in B’resheet (Genesis) 43:11, where the "produce of the land" was described. Although "zemer" is “song” and the verb "le'za'mer" is to sing, another form of this verb is "lizmor", denoting "cutting" or "pruning" (ref. Lev. 25:3). This led some of the commentators to explain that "zimrah" is used here not as a song, but rather as a "cutting off" (of the enemy).2

The Song does not only employ words which echo and amplify the narrative that precedes it, some terms are also repeated, or contrasted within the poem itself, thus underscoring them as for example, in "this is my Elohim and I will glorify Him…" (15:2), "I will glorify" is "an'vehu" of the root n.v.h. (noon, vav, hey), which means "beautiful" or "adorn". In verse 13 we read "…You guided them [the People] to Your holy abode" - "n'veh kodshecha". This is seen as either a reference to Mount Sinai, the land of Yisrael, the future Temple in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) - or to possibly all three of them together – the principal resting places of His Shekina Glory. 3 The combined usage of the root n.v.h in the poem creates a collage of the Present Presence of the Presence and the indwelling of the One Who is guiding and leading His People as a Shepherd to a resting place where He will continue to reside (among them). In 15:17 there is also a reference to the settling of the Nation in Elohim's dwelling place and sanctuary, "mikdash", echoing “neveh kodshecha” of verse 13 (“Your holy habitation”).

The enemies of Yisrael, Egypt, as well as Philistia, the "chiefs of Edom", "heads of Mo'ab", and the “inhabitants of Canaan” are likened to "lead" and "stone" sinking into the depths, and also to a "still stone" (15: 5, 10, 16). In verse 10, “they [sink] like lead in the mighty waters”. “Mighty” is “adirim” (plural for “adir”) of the root a.d.r (alef, dalet, resh) which also stands for "majestic". It is repeated two more times here, both of them in connection with YHVH: "Your right hand YHVH is majestic in power" (v. 6), and "who is like You, majestic in holiness" (v.11). It is the majesty and might of YHVH which lends these very properties to the “waters” (of the sea) when used by Him for His purposes (although there are those that ascribe the "adirim", majestic, to those who sunk in the waters). 

In 15:1 Moshe and Yisrael sing, "I will sing to YHVH because He is exaltedga'o - ga'a". Verse 7 also mentions "Your exaltedness” - ge'on'cha”, again of the root g.a.h (gimel, alef, hey).  Verse 7 continues: "You send forth Your wrath and it consumes them [the enemy] like stubble" (emphasis added). YHVH's wrath is compared to a consuming fire, while the next verse says: "With the blast of your nostrils the waters were heaped up… the depths froze up" (emphasis added). According to the Daat Mikrah commentary, this text may be interpreted as two opposite actions performed by the wind at YHVH’s command: burning on one hand and freezing on the other.4

In the course of the brief time covered by our Parasha, the Children of Yisrael find four occasions to complain. We are told that at Mara (“mahr” is “bitter”), after the act of causing the water to become sweet by casting a tree or a stick, which YHVH pointed out to Moshe, "He made a statute and an ordinance and there He tried them" (15: 25b). But whereas the Israelites are tried at Mara, in Refidim they "try YHVH" and are also quarreling with Him, when "there was no water" (17:7). Hence the place is named Masa (of "nisayon" - "to try"), and Meriva (from "riv" which is "quarrel"). In between these two episodes, they demand food and thus obtain the quail meat for the evening meal and "manna" for the morning (ref. chapter 16). Since the shape and texture of the manna were unfamiliar to them, "they asked each other: 'mah'n hu?'" or "what is it?" (16:15). Mah'n is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew "mah", meaning "what".

Although at the beginning of the Parasha YHVH averts the Israelites from the path of war, by the end of the narrative they find themselves in a battle with Amalek, a descendant of Esav (Gen. 36:12). Again, YHVH's miraculous intervention on their behalf is evident, coupled with faith (ref. Hebrews 4:2), symbolized by Moshe's "steadily" held arms. The Hebrew word for steady here is "emuna", literally "faith" (17:12), in this way causing Yehoshua (Joshua) to "weaken Amalek" (v. 13). Moshe’s arms are denoted by the word “yad” (also “hand”). In the final verse of our Parasha, Moshe makes a proclamation about another “yad” - a “yad” which is “on Yah’s throne”, pointing to YHVH’s oath regarding His “war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).5. We have just encountered the “yad” of YHVH (“hand” as distinct from “arm” – z’roah – and from “right hand or arm” – yamin) in the process of emerging from Egypt (e.g. 14:8, “yad ramah” – a lifted up hand; 14:31 – “yad g’dola” – “great/mighty hand”; 15:17 “kone’nu yade’cha” – “your hands have established us”). If YHVH places His hand on His throne (as in a gesture of making an oath), He will surely carry out that which He set out to perform.

Our Parasha is characterized by the contrast between the manifest Presence and Glory of YHVH and the Israelites' total focus on their immediate needs and fears, blinding them to the greatness and might displayed before them - so much so that even at the end (just before the battle with Amalek) they dare ponder, “Is YHVH among us, or not?" (17:7b).


1. New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans.

Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah

Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,

Brooklyn, N.Y.

2. The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah,

Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

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