Parashat Beshalach Erev Shabbat 14 January 2022 (5782)
Week of 9-15 January 2022
Torah portion: Exodus 13:17-17:16   Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Theme: The Double Gifts of Shabbat and the Wilderness

In this week’s Parasha, we take note of the setting in which most of the scenes happen: the wilderness (Heb. midbar). In the miracles from the parting of the Sea of Reeds until the battle against Amalek, Israel has had to go through the motions in the wilderness.  The word “wilderness” appears at almost every beginning of every chapter in the Parasha, save for chapter 15, the Song of Jubilation.

Now the wilderness usually connotes a place of dearth, want, dryness, and emptiness. It also relates to testing and trials. No wonder the usual reaction to such a place is to flee or to shun it. The Israelites even went as far as to say to Moses: “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 14:12). In the wilderness too, Israel grumbled against G-d. They did so not just once or twice. When they were encamped near the sea and the Pharaoh and his people were closing in on them, they cried out to G-d and complained to Moses. At Marah, where the water was bitter, and at Meribah and Massah, where there was no water, they complained. While encamped in the wilderness of Sin, they grumbled against Moses and Aaron about not having to eat bread and meat as they did in Egypt.

However, the place of insecurity, want, dryness, and emptiness is where G-d leads Israel and where he performs his miracles for them, one after another. Why the penchant for the wilderness? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, quoting Maimonides, mentions, “It was the result of G-d’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness until they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the wilderness, deprived of bodily enjoyments like bathing, produces courage . . .” The emptiness of the wilderness paradoxically allows another thing to grow: desire. This desire for freedom, for liberation, even the desire for G-d cannot grow in the garden of plenty. G-d knows that it must be nurtured in the desert of dearth. So, all the while G-d was preparing Israel for the grand moment on Sinai, and eventually the Promised Land. G-d was also nurturing and preparing Israel’s desire to be faithful to the covenant all along, by leading them through the wilderness.

Interestingly, right in the middle of the Parasha, we find another occurrence of “emptiness.” Just as G-d would usually respond to his people’s grumbling by working a miracle for them, he “withdraws” and limits himself during what might be Israel’s first experience of Shabbat even before it was decreed on Sinai. He commands Israel to gather manna and quail for six days, and then purposefully stops his “rations” on the seventh day and requires Israel to stay in their tents and observe Shabbat. Avivah Zornberg says, “In itself, however, Shabbat is the very enactment of “vacancy” of “not-doing,” of an apparent lethargy. In the “empty time” of Shabbat, the question of the wilderness comes to its sharpest expression: “What does one want to do with one’s time?” In the silence and seeming emptiness of Shabbat, we too grow in our desire for G-d. Zornberg continues, “In all the complaints and quarrels of the Israelites, the problematic process of discovering desire is significant… G-d…must absent Himself, recede from the mode of miracles, to allow the people to discover their desire.” Such are the gifts of both Shabbat and the experience of the wilderness. Both are sacred gifts, both are sacred moments.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How have we nourished our desire for G-d in our moments of Shabbat and “wilderness”? Bibliography: Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb. The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Doubleday, 2001); Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. The Role of Time in Social Transformation. https://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5769-beshallach-the-role-of-time-in-social-transformation/. (February 6, 2009).

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
John Paul A. Bolano
, Philippines, Bat kol Alumnus 2017

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