February 1, 2012
Parashat Beshallah (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
Parashat Beshallah is a symphony beautifully played, until the orchestra flubs the finale. It is a prima donna nailing the high note of the aria, just to blow out her voice three bars before the close.
The parasha certainly starts with high grandeur and suspense. B’nai Yisrael are pinned by Pharoah’s army against the Sea of Reeds. Only a wall of fire — the presence of the Holy One — stands between them and certain death. Moses raises his staff, the sea splits, Egyptians are drowned, Israelites are saved. What resulted was the spontaneous singing of the Song of the Sea — a poem of gratitude, victory, exultation and thanks — that we recite every morning during davening. Miriam and the women break out timbrels; dancing and singing ensue.
It’s good, heady stuff, Charlton Heston-worthy.
But what immediately follows is as discordant as a narrative can be.
“[The Israelites] went into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. … And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink … .” (Exodus 15:22-24).
One is tempted to be frustrated with the Torah, for tacking the need to find a water fountain onto the grand splitting of the sea seems so, well, tacky.
However, like anything of worth, wisdom is to be found at second glance. The juxtaposition of magnificence and the pedestrian is intentional. This, for example, is how the legendary Abraham Joshua Heschel understood Parashat Beshallah in the context of civil rights:
“This episode seems shocking. What a comedown! Only three days earlier they had reached the highest peak of prophetic and spiritual exaltation, and now they complain about such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water. ... The Negroes of America behave just like the children of Israel. Only in 1963 they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history, the joy of finding millions of Americans involved in the struggle for civil rights, the exaltation of fellowship, the March to Washington. Now only a few months later they have the audacity to murmur: ‘What shall we drink? We want adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.’ How ordinary, how unpoetic, how annoying!”
To be fair to the reader, know that it took me a few times through to understand that Heschel is being sarcastic. Of course the demands by African-Americans in the ’60s were valid. Of course they should not have been content with the magnificence of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking his dream on the Mall, when real, practicable change had not been addressed. Of course it was appropriate for B’nai Yisrael to ask how they were to survive without clean water.
The blatting of the final notes of Beshallah is, then, a planned thing: The parashah is meant to flop at the end, and the purpose of this choreography is to remind us of the insufficiency of spectacle.
You and I know that human beings have a weakness for spectacle. All of us love a good show, and we are built such that it is possible to be convinced that real work has been accomplished if enough razzle-dazzle is pointed in our direction. The issue with fiery speeches, star-studded celebrity benefits (see Jon Stewart’s tongue-in-cheek “Night of Too Many Stars”), conferences to address social ills and political conventions is that they are only moments of promise and inspiration. They do not themselves effect change, address basic needs, change policy and lift oppression.
This is the Torah’s message: Even pure salvation, as we experienced at the Sea of Reeds, can be pure spectacle. We are to be suspicious of song and dance. We should judge our communal endeavors by the extent to which they affect real people, after the sound and fury have subsided.
Ultimately, I believe this is a lens we should turn on our own Jewish communities. It is upon us to ask ourselves, to what extent do we fulfill the ideals we state? If we believe in inspiring prayer, do we achieve it? If we want connection to Israel, do we pursue it? If we believe that Torah pushes us to help those who need help most, do we effect this sacred charge?
Once upon a time we were not content with miracles, and expected God’s word to help us make real life livable. May it always
Scott Perlo is the rabbi of Adat Shalom (adatshalomla.org), a Conservative congregation in West Los Angeles, and a founder of Ma’or, a new way for Jews of all backgrounds in Los Angeles to take hold of learning Torah.