Parashat B'shalah

Beyond Victors and Victims

The image of God as a nurturer, working with people to bring forth food, allows us to move beyond the violence of the Red Sea crossing.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com. Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

There's a joke that's been making the Internet rounds for a couple of years that captures the essence of Jewish holidays: "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." No holiday is better described this way than Passover, which might be summarized as "Pharaoh enslaved us, we got free, let's eat."

Parshat B'shalah describes "getting free" in all its frightening, liberating, gory, whining detail. Pharaoh sends the people of Israel, his slaves, out of Egypt as they have requested, only to change his mind and chase after them to return them to slavery.

A Struggle From the Beginning

The people, frightened, flee to the shores of the Red Sea, where God miraculously parts the waters, and they walk free to the other side, only to see their pursuers drowned in the Sea. The people sing and dance in their joy at this hard-won freedom, and begin the long, hard walk home, complaining from step one about the lack of food and water. They are attacked by Amalek, who will become the quintessential enemy, but thanks to Moses, Aaron, and Hur, they prevail, and journey on.

The joy of liberation is palpable here; we can almost hear their voices singing, see them dancing a wild ecstatic dance. The people of Israel is born here, brought through the birth canal of the parted sea, born in joy and singing. But war is born here, too, inextricably intertwined with our people's birth; the pursuing Egyptians and the attacking Amalekites are as much a part of this birth as are Moses's song and Miriam's dance.

From the beginning of our life as a people, in part rooted in this Torah reading, we have understood that "they tried--are trying, will try--to kill us" and that it is our job, among many, to try to win. Later history will show that we often don't win, and we become not dancing victors, but frequent victims, taking on that identity as strongly as--if not more strongly than--that of victor.

God's Role in Battle

But we live in complex times, and these well-worn identities no longer suffice. Jews in America and Israel are no longer simple victims, notwithstanding the violence in Israel and the evidence of anti-Semitism in America and elsewhere. And the victor's role comes at a high price. We need new images and new visions to guide us. A new look at where it all started will enable us to expand see new possibilities and have new hope.

A core question emerging from this week's Torah reading is that of God's role: Does God want the people to be warriors, and to be the Warrior among them, to always lead them to victory in battle, as the Song of Deborah in this week's Haftarah (prophetic reading) would have it?

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Rabbi Ellen Lippmann

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann is founder and rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives. Rabbi Lippmann is the former East Coast Director OF MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and former director of the Jewish Women's Program at the New 14th Street Y in Manhattan.