Thursday, January 9, 2014

Parashat Beshallach: The murmuring motif

Exodus 13:17-17:16.
The Dvar Torah was published in the Washington Jewish Week on January 8, 2014
Parshat Beshallach contains one of the most profound Jewish stories — our ancestors pursuit by Pharoah and his troops out of Egypt into the desert, the splitting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptians and their horses. Moshe sang his song and then Miriam and the women took their tambourines and danced. We were free of slavery and on our way to becoming a nation. This is the exciting part of the parsha. We re-enact it on Pesach and are proud of it. Our people have faith in their leaders and have faith in their God.
But there is more to this parsha than the elation felt in the first half. There is a pattern of murmuring or complaint that is found throughout the chapters and is at counterpoint to the joy we just experienced. I’ve often described this phenomenon as the pattern of “our ancestors kvetching their way through the desert.” In this pattern, b’nai Yisrael (the children of Israel) complain about a real or perceived need, and they speak against/murmur/complain to Moshe, who in turn intercedes on their behalf with God. In the end, God listens to the complaints and fulfills whatever the particular need is of the moment. It is instructive that God never just ignored the children of Israel as they complained, especially as right after their need is met, they tend to start the complaint cycle anew.
This pattern occurs no less than four times in our parsha. The first time is actually right before the splitting of the sea (Exodus 14:11-14) as the children of Israel were “trapped” between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds. They begin what will become an all too familiar trope, crying to Moshe, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?” They had witnessed miracles but as soon as they encountered hardship or danger, God’s miracles were forgotten and the complaints began. Moshe responded with reassurance of God’s salvation and God delivered by splitting the sea.
We find out next “kvetch” just three days later when the people came to a place called Marah, which means bitter in Hebrew. The water there was too bitter to drink and the people murmered against Moshe, asking him “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). Again, Moshe cried out to God to rectify the situation, and God sweetened the waters for b’nai Yisrael to drink.
Our third “kvetch” happens in the Wilderness of Sin about one month after the Exodus. This time we find the people murmuring against Moshe and Aaron, because they had run out of food. They reminisced about Egypt where they “sat by the meat pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) Again, Moshe speaks to God and the story of themannah and the quail results.
The final “kvetch” of the parsha takes place on the next leg of the journey as the people, according to the commandment of God, encamped in Rephidim (Exodus 17:1-7). Once again they are at a place where there is no water. It becomes clear that Moshe takes these particular complaints seriously as he cries out to God that he is afraid the people will stone him if it escalates anymore. God responds by telling him to strike a rock and drinking water will flow from it. Moshe strikes the rock with his staff and water flows. The place where this incident occurred is named Massah u’Meribah. The Meribah, from the root form riv, meaning to quarrel, and Massah from the root form nasah, meaning to test or try God by saying “Is God in our midst or not?”
We start our story with receiving freedom in joy. The story continues with discontent and an inability to deal with the real life challenges of this journey. The murmuring motif in thisparsha is seen as representing b’nai Yisrael’s wilderness journey and their lack of faith in God in contrast to Moshe’s steadfast faith. I prefer to see it as representative of a people’s journey from a slave mentality to that of a free people and their nascent relationship with a God they are just beginning to understand and with whom they are forming an “adult” relationship.
As Jews we are constantly being tested — our beliefs, our morals, our values. It is a sign of maturity to be able to deal with challenging situations with a modicum of grace. It is a sign of faith to be willing to take on challenges and face the unknown. It is human to complain — just not too often.
Questions for discussion:
Look at the murmuring/kvetching incidents in the parsha and determine for yourself what motivated the Children of Israel.
What were their feelings towards Moshe? Towards God?
Why do you think Moshe and God acted the way they did?
How would you have acted had you been there?
Shabbat Shalom! 
Rabbah Arlene