Torah reading: B’shallach

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.

FORCING THE HOUR

The departure of the Israelites from Egypt began the long saga of Jewish history. A people that had endured common suffering and shared a common dream of salvation were finally able to leave Egypt and weld themselves into the People of God as they crossed the Red Sea, reached Mount Sinai, moved through the wilderness and finally reached the Promised Land.

A remarkable story of growing unity – but with one exception. The tribe of Ephraim simply couldn’t wait and on their own initiative left Egypt thirty years before everyone else. A disaster. When the rest of the Israelites departed from the “house of bondage”, they came across the bones of the impatient Ephraimites piled up in the sand. They had been killed by the Philistines: according to the M’chilta (Shirata chapter 9), because they “kept not the covenant” (Psalm 78:9-10) and did not wait for God’s signal to leave.

The tribe of Ephraim symbolises people who “force the hour”. No-one denies their genuine yearning for freedom, but in life there is a moment when the time is ripe for action and one has to wait for it. An athlete who is not ready for a sporting contest, a musician who has not rehearsed enough, a surgeon whose training is incomplete – all are eager to go, but going too soon can bring catastrophe.

WHERE DOES THE SHIRAH END?

“Shirat HaYam”, the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15), is part of the daily Shacharit service. It shows that God’s miracles protected our ancestors in days of old: it assures us that He will be with us as we move through the day and through history.

There are several views as to where the passage ends. Some say it goes up to verse 27 of Ex. 15, “For I the Lord am your Healer”. Some say it ends at verse 18, “The Lord will reign for ever and ever”. Others prefer verse 19. The most common tradition opts for verse 18, which is underscored by repeating the words “HaShem yimloch l’olam va’ed”.

The justification for this view is not simply that it is a literary crescendo. Rashi and the other commentators tell us that the God whom we worship will eventually be acknowledged by the whole world.  This is of course the kernel of the Jewish messianic hope, which we not only proclaim but must help along by our own efforts for civilisation.

Ramban says that the God who showed Israel His saving power at the Red Sea will always protect the righteous and punish the wicked. To those who say, “But hasn’t God often let you down?” we reply, “There are better and worse moments in history, but in the end God’s word will prevail.”

That’s where the Shirah ends in a metaphorical sense, with the advent of the long awaited messianic redemption of Israel and mankind.

LONG CUTS & SHORT CUTS

From Egypt to the Promised Land is not a great distance. The obvious route to take is the coastal road – a ten-day march, according to Ibn Ezra. Yet that was davka the route the Israelites did not take.

“It came to pass, when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them through the way of the land of the Philistines… But God made the people take a roundabout way, the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” (Ex. 13:17-18).

Why avoid the shorter route? The Torah says, “ki karov hu”, “Because it was near”. The very nearness, convenience and appeal of the route was what disqualified it!

The problem was that once Pharaoh changed his mind he and his chariots would easily have overtaken the Israelites and they would have no chance of resisting the Egyptian might. In the long run, the long route was better than the short.

A short cut is not always a good thing. Taking longer over a task is often preferable. There is for example no short cut to the formation of a nation. Many new nations have suffered because they lacked training in the skills of government. There is no short cut to the formation of a congregation. It takes time for a small group to find each other and become a chevra.

In personal life too self-development takes time and patience. And one’s place in the World to Come, though already reserved (“All Israel have a share in the World to Come”), takes a lifetime of care to be earned and confirmed.

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple. Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia's highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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The departure of the Israelites from Egypt began the long saga of Jewish history.