For the week ending 30 January 2021 / 17 Shvat 5781

Parashat Beshalach

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Pharaoh finally sends the Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. With pillars of cloud and fire, G-d leads them toward Eretz Yisrael on a circuitous route, avoiding the Pelishtim (Philistines). Pharaoh regrets the loss of so many slaves, and chases after the Jews with his army. The Jews are very afraid as the Egyptians draw close, but G-d protects them. Moshe raises his staff, and G-d splits the sea, enabling the Jews to cross safely. Pharaoh, his heart hardened by G-d, commands his army to pursue, whereupon the waters crash down upon the Egyptian army. Moshe and Miriam lead the men and women, respectively, in a song of thanks.

After three days' travel, only to find bitter waters at Marah, the people complain. Moshe miraculously produces potable water. In Marah they receive certain mitzvahs. The people complain that they ate better food in Egypt. Hashem sends quail for meat and provides manna, miraculous bread that falls from the sky every day except Shabbat. On Friday, a double portion descends to supply the Shabbat needs. No one is able to obtain more than his daily portion, but manna collected on Friday suffices for two days so the Jews can rest on Shabbat. Some manna is set aside as a memorial for future generations.

When the Jews again complain about a lack of water, Moshe miraculously produces water from a rock. Then Amalek attacks. Joshua leads the Jews in battle, and Moshe prays for their welfare.


The Bridge to Change

"G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer…" (13:17)

It's very difficult to change things we don’t like about ourselves. We are creatures of habit.

One of the hardest aspects of modifying negative behavior is breaking the patterns we weave for ourselves. How long do our "New Year’s resolutions" last? A day? A week? Not through lack of resolution, but because resolution is no match for habit.

Resolution is not the solution. To succeed, we must do something much more fundamental.

When Hashem took the Jewish People out of Egypt, He did not take them on the quickest and easiest and most direct route from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael — northeast, along the coast of the Mediterranean, through what is today Gaza. Rather, He took them on a long, difficult and tortuous path across a sea and through a major desert. Why?

As the saying goes, “Easy come, easy go.” When the Jewish People left Egypt, they had not entirely freed themselves from the clutches of the negative drive, the yetzer hara. If Hashem had brought them on the easy way, they would have been in danger of being lured back to the constricting but comfortable life of slavery in the fleshpots of Egypt. Hashem, as it were, burned their bridges. He made it virtually impossible to return to Egypt — which was just as well. For, as we see, when the going got tough in the wilderness, the Jews were more than willing to return to Egypt. Had that been an easy option, the history of the Jewish People might have been very different.

Ostensibly, then, when faced with trying to escape the clutches of our negative drive, we must burn our bridges. If we want to separate from bad company, we must be prepared to leave and move to a different neighborhood. If we have a serious weight problem, we must put a lock on the fridge and entrust the key to our spouse (unless he’s/she’s trying to lose weight as well).

However, in Parshat Vaera (8:23), the Torah presents an apparent contradiction to this logic. When Moshe tells Pharaoh that the Jews are leaving, he talks of "only a three-day journey." Moshe knew full well that once they were out, they were not coming back, so why did he tell Pharaoh it was for only three days?

Part of Moshe’s intention was to appease the latent negative drive still lingering in the hearts of the Jewish People. Leaving for three days is a far less daunting prospect than leaving forever. The Jews thus felt they had a “get-out clause,” if they needed it, and were prepared to go along with Moshe. For three days, at least.

But was this bridge-burning?

The Exodus was effected then both though a bribe to the negative drive, the lure of a three-day round-trip ticket on the one hand, and on the other, an iron-fisted scorched earth policy of no return.

When we wish to leave our own personal “Egypts” — our personal prisons that the negative drive constructs for us — which is the correct course to follow?

The answer is that we need both. For someone who smokes forty cigarettes a day, the idea of going cold turkey is horrendous. But tell him that if after two weeks he’s not happy, he can go back to smoking like a chimney, you will see a different picture.

Seduction and bribery are our opening guns against the negative drive. Afterwards we have to follow up by burning our bridges. It was the lure of a round-trip ticket that got the Jewish People as far as the edge of the water, but it was only Nachson ben Amiadav’s jumping headlong into the sea, showing there was no turning back, that made the waters divide.

  • Sources: based on Rabbi E. E. Dessler and Lekach Tov

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