Parshat Beshalach: Perceptions and Reality

And Paroh approached. Bnai Yisrael lifted its eyes and the Egyptians were traveling after them. They were very fearful and Bnai Yisrael cried out to Hashem. Bnai Yisrael said to Moshe: Are there not enough graves in Egypt – that you took us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? (Sefer Shemot 14:10-11)

1. Bnai Yisrael’s panic at the Reed Sea

Bnai Yisrael leaves Egypt. However, Hashem again strengthens Paroh’s heart. Paroh amasses an army and pursues Bnai Yisrael into the wilderness. Bnai Yisrael see that Paroh and his army are approaching. They call out to Hashem. Then, they begin to sharply criticize Moshe. They confront and challenge him. They ask, “Why did you lead us out of Egypt if the sole outcome of our liberation will be our death in the wilderness?”

The commentaries note that the wording used by the nation in its criticism of Moshe is odd. They described their expected fate as “death in the wilderness”. This seems to be a rather vague description of the fate that they feared. Paroh and his army were closing in pursuit. They should have described their expected fate as “death at the hands of Paroh and his army”!

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers an explanation for the people’s phrasing of their fear. He suggests that the people were uncertain of Paroh’s plan. They did not know whether he planned to attack or to merely block their path. They reasoned that Paroh did not need to enter into a battle with them in order to vanquish them. He could use his army to block their path and isolate them in the wilderness. Without a path of escape from the wilderness, Bnai Yisrael would not be able to secure water and provision and would die.[1]

Rashbam offers a simpler explanation for Bnai Yisrael’s phrasing. He explains that Bnai Yisrael were protesting to Moshe that they were doomed regardless of the outcome of their confrontation with Paroh. Even if somehow they survived this impending conflict, they were destined to die in the wilderness from thirst and starvation.[2] According to Rashbam, the impending attack completely undermined any confidence that the people had achieved and it initiated an overwhelming panic. In their panic, the people foresaw inevitable doom. If Paroh and his army do not destroy them, then they will be annihilated by the harsh wilderness.

And Yisrael saw the great hand of Hashem at work in Egypt. And the nation feared Hashem. They believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant. (Sefer Shemot 14:31)

2. Bnai Yisrael regains it confidence

Hashem rescues Bnai Yisrael. He separates the waters of the Reed Sea before them. They descend into the dry seabed, cross the sea, and ascend onto its shore. The Egyptians follow Bnai Yisrael into the sea. The waters come crashing down upon them and they are destroyed. Bnai Yisrael see their adversary’s destruction. They are awed by the might of Hashem and they believe in Hashem and Moshe His servant.

Moshe then leads the nation in the Shirat HaYam – the Song of the Sea. In this song of praise, the nation acknowledges Hashem and gives thanks to Him for their salvation. They extol His praises. They express their confidence in the fulfillment of His promise that they will return to Cana’an and take possession of it.

Rashbam comments that with the destruction of the Egyptians, Bnai Yisrael not only recognized that they had been rescued from their adversary. Their confidence was also restored. Now, they were certain that they would survive their sojourn in the wilderness and enter the Land of Cana’an and take possession of it.[3] In other words, the intense panic that had overwhelmed the people subsided. In its place emerged a restored sense of confidence.

In summary, Rashbam’s position is that within a few hours time the people experienced a series of intense and ever-changing feeling. The impending attack of Paroh and his arm unleashed a sense of complete panic. The people lost all confidence and were certain of their impending death – either at the hands of their adversaries or through exposure to the harsh environment of the wilderness. With the destruction of the Egyptians, the nation embraced a renewed sense of confidence. They had been saved from their enemies. They would safely transverse the wilderness. They would conquer the mighty kings of Cana’an and take possession of the Promised Land.

This extreme swing in attitude and perception is not easily understood. In fact, it continues to characterize Bnai Yisrael’s conduct throughout the balance of the parasha. At times, the nation again questions whether it can survive the wilderness experience. However, with the passing and resolution of each challenge, their confidence is restored – but only until the next threat or challenge arises.

Hashem is the strength and the song of Bnai Yisrael. He was my salvation. This is my G-d and I beautify Him. He is the G-d of my forefathers and I will exalt Him. (Sefer Shemot 15:2)

3. The encounter with Hashem at the Reed Sea

The above passage is from the Song of the Sea. It is translated according to Rashbam’s understanding of its message. In his comments on the passage, Rashi quotes a famous teaching of the Sages. The people said, “This is my G-d!” Rashi comments that Hashem revealed Himself in His glory at the Reed Sea. The people pointed to Him with their finger and said, “This is our G-d.” Rashi continues and explains that the most humble and simple person at the Reed Sea encountered Hashem at a level not achieved even by some of the greatest prophets.[4]

Rashi’s comments are difficult on a number of levels. Hashem does not have a material form. He cannot be seen nor can one point at Him. Furthermore, the assertion that the most humble person at the Sea achieved some level of encounter with Hashem that exceeded the experiences of the greatest prophets seems remarkable. What is the basis for this contention?

Rashbam comments that the people did not actually see Hashem.[5] Apparently, Rashbam means that Hashem revealed Himself through His actions. He does not have a material form that can actually be observed. These comments reveal the meaning of the passage and Rashi’s insight. It is human nature to accept the perception of the senses as being real. We have a saying: Seeing is believing. We are most convinced of that which we can see. Other information – facts or knowledge that is not observable – has less of an impact upon us. Rashi’s understanding of the passage is that the revelation of Hashem at the Reed Sea was so powerful that those present felt that they had seen Hashem. That is not to say that they believed they had observed a form or figure that they identified as Hashem. But the experience was equal in impact to a sensual encounter. The comparison of this encounter to the prophetic experience of the greatest prophets is intended to convey this understanding of the passage. This encounter with Hashem was similar in its intensity to the prophet’s encounter with Hashem in the prophetic experience.

In this manner the righteous and the prophets appealed in their prayers to Hashem to help them in their pursuit of the truth. As David said, “Teach me Your way.” He meant to say, “My sins should not prevent me from finding the path of truth. I wish to know Your way and (understand) the unity of Your name”…. (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 6:4)

4. The forces that shape human perception

Based upon Rashi’s comments, Rashbam’s understanding of Bnai Yisrael’s shifting attitudes and beliefs can be understood. However, it will be helpful to first consider an interesting comment by Maimonides. In the above quotation, Maimonides explains that the righteous and Hashem’s prophets appealed to Hashem for His assistance in their search for truth. They believed that their shortcomings and sins could easily pervert their efforts and conceal the truth from them. This is an amazing statement. However, it reflects a remarkable humility. Essentially, Maimonides asserts that the success or failure of our quest for truth is not merely a consequence of our intelligence and commitment to the pursuit. We can easily be mislead or led down the wrong path by our own shortcomings and sins. These cloud our mind, obscure the truth, and pervert our intellectual vision. Even the most wise and righteous realized that their inevitable shortcomings created an imposing barrier between them and the truth they sought. They prayed to Hashem for His help in overcoming this barrier.

The fundamental premise of Maimonides’ comments is that our intellectual perceptions, our convictions, and our beliefs are as much a consequence of our moral and emotional state as our intellectual prowess. Our sins and wrongdoings influence and contribute to who we are. They help shape our personality and our moral state. These, in turn, strongly influence our intellectual perceptions and our conclusions regarding the truth.

Rashbam’s comments illustrate Maimonides’ contention. Bnai Yisrael was liberated from Egypt. They left with confidence and exultation. They did not flee bondage. They marched out of Egypt as free people. However, their confidence was a consequence of their understanding of their recent experiences and the emotionally liberating impact of observing their masters’ humiliation. These factors combined to engender their sense of buoyancy and confidence. They were not threatened by the prospect of crossing the wilderness and they were confident in their ability to conquer the Land of Cana’an.

Their mood changed when they saw their former masters in pursuit. Their confidence was shattered and their exaltation was replaced by fear and apprehension. Without their former confidence, their perceptions regarding their prospects changed radically. Now, they wondered how they had ever agreed to enter the wilderness. Why had they believed that they were freed of their oppressors or that they could cross the barren and hostile wilderness? Their understanding to reality changed – reshaped by fear and trepidation.

Then, they observed their adversary’s destruction. Hashem was revealed to them! They experienced an intense encounter with Hashem. At that moment, doubt and hesitation became impossible. The people joined Moshe in the Song of the Sea. They declared their confidence in their conquest of the Promised Land. Doubt had been completely replaced by assurance in achievement of their destiny.

Of course, as the parasha continues, the impact of the encounter at the Reed Sea fades. With the weakening of its impact, old doubts reassert themselves. The balance of the parasha describes these recurring doubts and the people’s internal battle to recapture the confidence they experienced as they marched forth from Egypt and encountered Hashem’s revelation at the Reed Sea.

[1] Sforno 14:11.

[2] Rashbam 14.11.

[3] Rashbam 14:31.

[4] Rashi 15:2

[5] Rashbam, Chorev edition, 15:2.

Relief for the Jewish Community of Houston - Donate Now