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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Parashat Beshalach

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Parashat Beshalach

Shevat 13, 5980 – February 8, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Beshalach, which is Hebrew for “when [he] sent out.” Before diving into the commentary this week, I’d like to preface this essay by stressing the enormous potential for ecologically-based exegesis on this parashah. From the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, Miriam’s song of praise, the sweetening of the waters of Marah, the heavenly food of manna, the appearance of quails, the rock that Moshe strikes – and even the significance behind entering the wilderness – these are all events, and concepts, that one could write a dissertation on. I will add, that when conceptualizing the Deep Water Initiative – the non-profit that my wife and I both run – this parashah, and the themes that run throughout, were central to our vision and the work we sought to develop for ourselves. In case the name didn’t give it away, I am fascinated by the theological significance of water, as depicted throughout the Torah, and Parashat Beshalach certainly has some awesome moments. In (15:5), which is part of the Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam), the term “t’homot” (Heb: תְּהֹמֹ֖ת) appears – the plural form of the term “t’hom” (Heb: תְה֑וֹם). “Deep waters covered them; they descended in the depths like a stone,” the line reads. This is an echoing of the “deep waters” as described in Genesis 1:2, and represents the primordial waters of chaos.[1] The eruption into song that occurs by the sea is a poetic celebration of deliverance, and a lyric eternalization that marks Israel’s miraculous liberation from Egyptian slavery. It represents the collapse of chaos, and the introduction of a reality characterized by balance, correction, and the potential for order. It typifies a continuous spiritual progression that – I believe – the earth community needs to maintain as we work our way through various problems. Although water is a element within which destructive forces can be hidden, it also reveals the human responsibility to expose, transform, and then heal those forces, which is a central theme that is driving my work – and the work of the Deep Water Initiative. The scale of G-d’s disclosure, through nature, is representing a spiritual ideal about the culmination of religious understanding. It is a moment in history that links nature to the highest degree of human experience, and with the Torah’s message.

I took a few moments the other day to close my eyes and to have a few, deep breaths. I was sitting in a quiet place in my home, where I knew I could have some silence and wouldn’t be disturbed. I wanted to take a pause so that I could imagine, in my mind’s eye, what it would have been like. What did the air smell like? What did it sound like? How did it feel to be leaving? We are told that over 600,000 able-bodied men left with the Exodus (12:37), with a total population close to three-million people.[2] Can you even fathom what that would have looked like! How many footprints were there in the ground!? How many people were talking? What would I have been thinking as I observed G-d’s presence manifesting as pillars of cloud and fire? During my contemplation, I was also reflecting upon the power – and the potential – of having three-million people together (in one place) united by a singular cause. We are told that “G-d turned the [Jewish] people toward the way of the Wilderness” (13:19) in order to place them in a position where they needed to rely on miracles for survival. Rather than heading up coast of the Mediterranean sea, the Israelites were directed east – and then north – through the Sinai Desert. This was a bit of roundabout route to Eretz Yisrael, through a harsh environment, but would ultimately position them to enter Holy Land from the east bank of the Jordan River. But within a few days of crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites were confronted with two, universal issues of survival: how will they drink and how will they eat? The harsh and barren circumstances of the desert were meant to strip the Jewish people of all pretense, and lay the foundations of their faith as they are protected on their journey. Somehow, with a backdrop of nothingness, and with environmental adversity staring them straight in the face, the Children of Israel would have to place the entirety of their trust in G-d and rely on divine intervention for survival.

The journey into the Wilderness is premised with the notion that G-d will provide everything that is needed along the way. This is not to say that the Israelites entered the desert entirely unprepared, as evidenced by the verse: “The Children of Israel were armed when they went up from Egypt.” (13:18) Commentators note this is the Torah’s way of teaching that we should conduct ourselves naturally, and not jump into situations with reckless abandon.[3] If necessary, G-d will intervene, but otherwise we should carry on in a sane and rational way. Regarding the carrying of weapons, Rabbi Hirsch states: “It was not the sword at their side that was lacking, but the heart underneath that failed.” This comment was made within the context of a potential war with the Philistines, which may have occurred if the Israelites had traveled on the more direct route to the Land. But it is pointing to a process that the Jewish nation must undergo as they are preparing themselves for the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and it is a lesson that is repeated every year with the Counting of the Omer.[4] This process begins with a water crisis and a shortage of food, which are the most fundamental and basic prerequisites for survival. When bitter water is encountered, Moshe tosses in a piece of wood – which some say was magic, while others say was homeopathy.[5] Later, everyone complains and panics again when the Israelites encamp at Rephidim, where no water was found. Moshe is instructed to “take…some of the elders of Israel; and in your hand take your staff with which you struck the River…you shall strike the rock and water will come forth from it and the people will drink.” (17:5) Rephidim – this place name is from a verb meaning “to help, support,”[6] which is exactly what occurs when G-d produces manna that rains down from the heavens. In the morning, it’s collected and baked, and quails are eaten for the evening meal – with double portions collected before the Sabbath. But if you take more than you need, the food rots and becomes infested with worms. This is nature’s way, and G-d’s way, of telling us that we will be provided for, so long as we don’t take more than we need.

In the academic field of Religion and Ecology, there is a sub-discipline known as ecofeminism. To explain this field of study quite quickly, it is based upon the premise that – leading up to the Scientific Revolution – we transitioned from an organic to a mechanic philosophy of nature and that this was a dominating metaphor that comprehensively influenced many spheres of life. This is a phenomenon explored in great detail by Carolyn Merchant in her book The Death of Nature, which evaluates the association between cultural values and conceptions of nature. Most importantly, attitudes towards women and nature have historically been linked, through language and culture. We are all familiar with the term ‘mother earth’, and nature as a living organism is often associated with the idea of the feminine. Ecofeminism serves to bridge ecological concerns with our modern perceptions of gender, which have both been distorted and dominated by a male worldview. I mention this because many modern scholars conclude that the Song at the Sea was “created and performed by women.”[7] The Mekhilta (15:1), which is a compilation of scriptural exegesis that is classified as a form of halakhic midrash, teaches us that there “were only ten songs from the beginning of Creation to the end of the Scriptural period.”[8] The commentary continues:

“In the normal course of events, we fail to perceive the hand of G-d at work, and we often wonder how most of the daily, seemingly unrelated phenomena surrounding us could be part of a Divine, coherent plan…Rarely, however – very rarely – there is a flash of insight that makes people realize how all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. At such time we can understand how every note, instrument, and participant in G-d’s symphony of Creation plays its role. The result is song, for the Torah’s concept of song is the condition in which all the apparently unrelated and contradictory phenomena do indeed meld into a coherent, merciful, comprehensible whole."

In this respect, a song is a very unique and rare distillation of human experience into a melody, which preserves something very special. The women understood this, and took it upon themselves to carry instruments (small hand-drums) out of Egypt in anticipation of such a moment. I only wish to suggest that I think we should be talking about this more, that their insight into the symphony of Creation is of a rare order – distinct, but not separate from men. Songs are living history – an imprint of the highest expression of humanness – which is a reality that women nurture, carry, and preserve.[9] Somehow this is connected to an organic conception of nature, and a sensibility about the world that is always moving, always changing, always living. Somehow, in this poetic account of victory over the Egyptian army, there is a wisdom about how to combat a mechanistic view of the universe, but (at least for now) I don’t have the words. But, then again, that’s why we have a song.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: G-d’s disclosure through nature, time in the wilderness to lay the foundations of faith, ecofeminism and song.

Works Cited

Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, ed. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Merchant, Carolyn. "The death of nature." M. Zimmerman, J. Baird y G. Sessions. Environmental philosophy (1993): 268-283.

Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Beshalach.” Available at: Accessed on January 31, 2020

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.389

[2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.359 – And when you couple that statistic with an idea from the Midrash, that only one-fifth of the Jewish population left Egypt, then that number (3 million times 5) is astonishingly close to the core Jewish population that exists today! (p.367)

[3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.367

[4] The quantity of manna that was to be collected daily was one omer.

[5] Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.393

[6] Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.397

[7] Eskenazi, “The Torah: a women's commentary,” p.387

[8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.375

[9] The Kabbalists express that one of the reasons that The Song at the Sea begins with the word “then,” is because it encapsulates the entirety of the human being. From a Kabbalistic perspective, everything builds from the substrate of ten, and this is how we get ten sephirot. (Miller, “Torah in Ten”) In Hebrew “then” is spelled with the letters (א) and (ז), representing the numbers one and seven, respectively – the number one representing the higher, intellectual sephirot of Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at, and the number seven representing the seven, emotional sephirot. G-d’s symphony of creation incubates for nine months in a woman’s womb and – in this respect – we are born a song, new to the world yet carrying a living history.

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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