B’Shalach – Stuck In the Middle With You

There is something very interesting about the composition of this week’s parasha. The third word of this portion b’shalach is Pharaoh and the third to last is Amalek. Pharaoh oppressed and enslaved Israel killed its first born and eventually attempted to slaughter them.  Amalek was the first to attack Israel with the sword.  These are the names of the two men who are the perpetual symbolic enemies of Israel. Though both have disappeared under heaven – yet both still spiritually walk the earth. The Hamans, the Hitlers, Hamas, and neo-Nazis– every enemy of the Jewish people are all represented in Pharaoh and Amalek.

This evoking of these names is a literary device called an inclusio. It is meant to draw your attention to the narrative between.  Of course, these great victories are of paramount importance since they are seminal examples of God’s deliverance and protection of Israel, but what is often lost is the long road to maturity that lies between these victories.

When appealing to a tough crowd

 What is most note worthy is how quickly our ancestors forgot the extraordinary redemption they received.  After the splitting of the Reed Sea, they quickly forgot the great miracle and turned back to griping and complaining. They complained about water shortage, the lack of favorite foods and they even complained about the loss of familiarity with good old Egypt. It is no wonder then that the Psalmist remarked “but they soon forgot His deeds; they would not wait to learn His plan.” (Psalm 106:13)

God cannot do enough for Israel.  He parts the Sea, rains down quail, gives them manna, makes polluted water potable and pure. The more God does the more the people behave like infants. They sing songs when things are going their way, but whine and moan whenever the going gets rough.

 The important lesson to here is not the unique obstinacy of Israel. Anti-Semites have wrongly pointed to this for millennia. Rather it is a defect of human character to grow in expectation and entitlement.  Group think and mob mentality only amplifies these character flaws. Self-protectionism, and endless demand of personal rights often hamper the desire for the communities greater good.   So to reform human character takes much more than “special effects,” no matter how Divine their origin. Sustained changes demand constant and consistent education, reinforcement, group sacrifice, discipline, and community standards.

Takin the Long road to Maturity

Perhaps this explains why the Holy One led Israel by such a circuitous route out of Egypt.

After Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them along the road to the land of the Philistines, although that was nearby, for God said, “The people might change their minds if they see war and return to Egypt.”  So, God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds, and Bnei-Yisrael went up out of the land of Egypt armed. (Shemot 13:17-18)

 It is on this road that Israel learns faith, endurance, and reliance upon the goodness and protection of their God. It also becomes the road toward Sinai, where Israel will be given Torah s an inheritance. It is also along this road that we the descendants of Israel adopt practice that allows us to grow into our legacy as a renewed humanity, image-bearers of the Holy Blessing One.

It may seem a bit grandiose to compare our experiences with the patriarchs, matriarchs, and great heroes of scripture. It is somewhat easier to compare ourselves to our malcontent ancestors in the wilderness. Just like them when we are wedged between the challenges both ahead and behind that we find the strength to be resolute. But we find our way forward by staying in relationship with God and each other and committing ourselves to the highest standards of Torah.

Earlier I mentioned the third and third-from-last words of the parasha being Pharaoh and Amalek. The Pharaohs in our lives are endlessly pursuing us and calling us back to an idolatrous reliance on the disfunction of the past. The Amalek’s ahead present snares and traps that keep us afraid to advance. But if we joint the first two and the last two words we get Vay’hee b’shalach meedor dor,  “ And it was that God sent them from generation to generation.” From Egypt we were sent to “sing a song of liberation” and I believe we are still be sent from this place with Adonai Nissi, God as our banner.  The path that we may be sent on might be somewhat different than we expect, and the going may get tough along the way, but if we are willing to continue stepping along boldly and holding up the banner of Messiah, we will surely sing a song of triumph.


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