Weekly Torah Commentary — Beshalach January 22, 2016

Exodus 13:17-17:16

In last week’s reading, we reviewed the first seven plagues and their effect on Egypt.  The saga continues into this week’s reading with the last three plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of every Egyptian household, from the palace of Pharaoh to the hut of the lowliest Egyptian.  Even the firstborn of the Egyptians’ animals died. But in Goshen, where the Hebrews lived, not one firstborn died because of the obedience of the people to swab the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, as instructed by God through Moses.  This story is re-told in full every Passover.

Studying the passage this year, I was suddenly struck by a thought that had never entered my mind in all the years I’ve been studying the scriptures.  Could it be that in fact there were, in a manner of speaking, eleven plagues? Not just ten, as we commonly think?  Let me explain.

The process of getting Pharaoh to finally agree to release his army of slave laborers, the children of Israel, was a lengthy and painful one for the Egyptian people.  The water turned to blood, their homes were infested with frogs, the very dust turned into swarms and swarms of lice and on and on it continued until the final devastating plague: the death of every firstborn in Egypt.  Finally Pharaoh relented and in fact, commanded Moses to take the people and go.

However, though the children of Israel walked out of Egypt into the desert, Pharaoh still had the option of harassing them.  We see it happen when shortly after their departure, Pharaoh says to his advisers, ‘What have we done, letting all those Israelite slaves get away?’  They decide to take action.

‘So Pharaoh harnessed his chariot and called up his troops.  He took with him 600 of Egypt’s best chariots, along with the rest of the chariots of Egypt, each with its commander.  The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, so he chased after the people of Israel…’  Exodus 14:6-8

Was their freedom to be so short-lived?  Would a brief taste of freedom disintegrate into ever deeper slavery? Were they to be dragged back to Egypt in chains and subjected to harsh punishment?

By this time, seven days after they left Egypt, the Hebrews were camped by the shores of the sea. Terrified as they saw Pharaoh’s vast army approaching from the distance, the people cried and Moses prayed. At God’s instruction, Moses extended his staff over the waters and God made a way through the sea for His people.

Pharaoh and his army plunged after them, galloping into the sea as the last of the Israelites climbed up on the opposite shore. Moses lifted his staff again and the text relates that all of Egypt’s army was destroyed, its chariots, its armor and its soldiers. Is it any wonder that the people burst forth into a song of praise as they witnessed the victory of God on their behalf?  This, I propose, could be considered the 11th plague.

The mighty Hand of God had purchased their redemption in Egypt, but at the Red Sea that redemption was secured.  Not only were they free men, but the very oppressor who had enslaved them was now stripped of his ability to inflict any further harm upon them or to drag them back into slavery again.  No wonder Miriam led the women in a song of celebration as they danced for joy.

Devoted to God and His Torah, we seek to live our life within the parameters of His will. Yet in this life we encounter “harassment” in the form of trials, disappointments, setbacks and outright temptations.  We may be out of Egypt but we stand by the sea of this world pursued by an old ‘master’ every bit as real as Pharaoh of old.

Yet we have this precious hope: at the coming of the Messiah, the redeemed of the Lord will no longer have to struggle with the harassment of a former ‘master’.

In Tune with Torah this week = earlier generations had a keen sense of anticipation regarding the appearance of the promised Messiah.  Maimonides said, ‘Though the Messiah tarry, I will await him every day.’ Have we in this generation become so entangled in the pursuits of this life that our desire for His appearing is dulled?  Do we really want him to come?  Does the reality of eternal life in the presence of God impact the way we live? Are we eager to see the final ‘securing’ of our Redemption?

Shabbat Shalom

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