Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 8 February 2020 / 13 Shevat 5780

Parshat Beshalach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Weapons of Faith

With their matzahs in one hand and weapons to defend themselves in the other, the newly-freed slaves were led out of Egypt. Their destination, of course, was the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. But G-d purposely chose not to take them on the direct route to Israel. That was too straightforward and close — and G-d suspected they would flee back to Egypt — home base — at the first sight of war, even though they were outfitted with weapons. Instead, He would lead them through the desert, in a roundabout way.

We see here that the people possessed no trace of the power and courage with which they could have attained their own freedom, and not even enough courage to retain that freedom. Both the attainment and retainment was through the work of G-d alone. If it had been up to them, then, upon seeing war on the road to independence and freedom they would returned to the slavery of Egypt — this despite the fact that they were fully armed!

Aside from lacking courage in their hearts, they were lacking something even more fundamental. They still lacked trust in G-d — the quality that itself gives a person determination and courage, no matter what the task and under any circumstance. They needed this not only for their own courage and success, but also because it was an essential aspect of the Jewish mission. The Jewish nation was to be the single nation fully aware of G-d as the source of all success and failure, triumph and defeat, prosperity and ruin.

The Land they were being led to does not, by its nature, provide material prosperity and political independence. Quite the contrary — it is unpredictable in its yield and vulnerable to invaders. And, in furtherance of the nation’s mission, precisely for this reason it was chosen.

Peace and prosperity in this Land will be granted or withheld directly by Hashem. It is situated at the crossroads where Europe, Asia and Africa meet, ensuring it will be caught in the crosshairs of conflict and war between other nations. Only by devotion to G-d and His Torah can the Jew hope to find peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel.

However, the Jewish People were not yet ready for this way of life. Only extraordinary experiences would educate them to the awareness that G-d’s Providence not only saves His adherents from destruction but also sustains them, day by day, in all conditions and in all situations.

This was the meaning of the detour through the desert. Within their first few days they were to experience the miraculous salvation of the sea splitting and then drowning their Egyptian pursuers, and learn of G-d’s special closeness at extraordinary moments. Then, through the provision of the manna, they will learn that one can — indeed must — place his trust in G-d under all circumstances, and for the provision of everyday necessities. When they will see that their attempts to secure tomorrow’s sustenance in contravention of G-d’s instruction results in the manna’s spoilage, they will learn that hoarding one’s storehouse against G-d’s Will never yields the desired prosperity or security.

By the time their detour is complete, the people will be armed with a different sort of weapon — allegiance to and trust in the Almighty.

  • Sources: Commentary, Shemot 13:17-8, 16:20; Bereishet 14:1

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