Am Yisrael Grows Up

  • Rav Itiel Gold
*Rav Gold is a psychologist and teacher of Jewish philosophy.
 
 
The Exodus from Egypt ended successfully in the previous parasha. The people are headed toward the destination for which they left Egypt – receiving the Torah, as was already hinted to Moshe at the Burning Bush: “When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain” (Shemot 3:12).
 
In light of this, we might have expected that the revelation at Mount Sinai would take place immediately after the Exodus. As it turns out, however, we will have to wait the length of an entire parasha – Parashat Beshalach.
 
Apparently, the people of Israel must still undergo various mental processes in order to be able to receive the Torah.[1] In order to understand these processes, we must carefully follow the stories in our parasha that describe Israel's development from a slave nation to a people worthy of receiving the Torah.
 
The general structure of the stories throughout the parasha is uniform – each time the people of Israel face a challenge, they complain to Moshe, after which they are saved by God's intervention.[2]
 
We will briefly review the various challenges that Israel is forced to face and the way in which God saved them:
 
  1. The pursuit of the Egyptians – the splitting of the Sea of Suf (13:17-15:21)
  2. Mara, the lack of water – the water is made sweet after Moshe casts the tree into it (15:22-26)
  3. The lack of food – the sending down of the manna (Chapter 16)
  4. Refidim, the lack of water – drawing water from the rock (17:1-7)
  5. The war against Amalek – victory by way of a combination of the holding up of Moshe's hands and the battle led by Yehoshua (17:8-16)
 
It is plainly evident that the challenges in this parasha are arranged in a chiastic structure: dealing with an enemy (Egypt) – lack of water (Mara) – lack of food – lack of water (Refidim) – facing an enemy (Amalek). This literary design indicates that we are not dealing here with separate events, which perchance occurred one after the other. It is clear that there is one set of challenges here, which the people of Israel have to overcome.
 
Time for Challenges?
 
First, however, we must ask several general questions regarding the challenges facing Israel. The parasha opens with an explanation as to why it was precisely the longer route to the land of Israel that was chosen:
 
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: “Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.” (13:17) 
 
God thinks it is better that the nation of slaves not be required to contend with an immediate war-related event. In our parasha, however, there are two such events, Israel's confrontation with the Egyptians at the Sea of Suf, and the war with Amalek.
 
Next come the challenges involving water and food. If, indeed, the people are weak-spirited and unprepared for the challenges of war, why present them with challenges no less difficult, like the lack of water and food?
 
And in general, why must the people of Israel complain and demand water and food? Did God not plan in advance how the needs of the people would be satisfied in the wilderness? After all, the most basic thing to do when embarking on such a journey is to stock up on water and food. The stories in the parasha make it appear as if God had not prepared for this. Each time the people arrive in a new place, they are surprised to discover that they have no water or food. In response, they complain. Only then does God deal with the issue and provide a solution. Would it not have made more sense to explain to the people in advance that they would eat manna and that they would receive water in miraculous ways?
 
First Signs of Maturation
 
It seems that in order to understand the meaning of the stories in the parasha, we must go back a little to the Exodus from Egypt. As we explained in Parashat Bo, Israel did not leave Egypt of their own free will, but rather they were chased out. Israel's mental-developmental state was similar to that of an infant. They were almost entirely passive – both throughout the plagues in Egypt and during the Exodus itself. They were taken away abruptly and reluctantly. In this state of mind, they could not have received the Torah.
 
The basic idea of the Torah is the recognition that benefit and abundance come as a result of proper conduct and action. A person is required to assume responsibility and act in such a way that he merits good; otherwise, he will not just happen to arrive upon it.
 
But this recognition requires maturity. In a normal developmental process, it is possible to discern the gradual transition from passivity to activity, from the external satisfaction of a person's needs to his assumption of responsibility for his life, so that he might take care of oneself. An infant is provided with his needs in a natural manner by his parents, without anything being asked of him. However, as the child grows up, he is required to take upon himself greater responsibility and act in such a way that he merits the good that the world has to offer. Things are expected from him and demands are made upon him. This is a delicate process that needs to be accomplished gradually. An overly-hasty transfer of responsibility to the child can be experienced as traumatic. On the other hand, parents who continue to provide all the needs of the child while he remains passive impair his development as an independent person, and prevent him from maturing.
 
Only adults are obligated by the commandments. The Torah cannot be given to those whose mature consciousness is not developed, because the Torah involves assuming responsibility. It cannot be given without the awareness that a person's actions will determine the amount of abundance that he will merit in his life.
 
The consciousness of a free adult is very far from the consciousness of a slave. In a certain sense, a slave is similar to an infant. While it is true that he works hard in a physical sense, he is not required to assume responsibility for his life. This apparently is the source of God's concern regarding taking the people of Israel directly to their land. Many developmental processes are required before this can happen. Similarly, gradual processes of taking responsibility are also required before receiving the Torah. This is the role of the challenges in our parasha. God did not "forget" to arrange for water and food for the journey. But unlike what happened in Egypt, now a certain effort on the part of Israel is required. They must abandon their infantile state and move toward a more mature place. In our parasha, the people make great strides in this direction. A lot of "parental" intervention is still needed, but certain responsibilities and demands are already transferred to them. We will follow this development.
 
The Sea of Suf
 
The parting of the Sea of Suf takes place by way of an orderly Divine plan, in which a mistake in Israel's wandering in the wilderness is staged in order to lure the Egyptians into a trap:
 
And Pharaoh will say of the Children of Israel: They are entangled in the land, the wilderness has shut them in. And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he shall follow after them. (Shemot 14:3-4)
 
But why is this necessary? The people of Israel have already left Egypt and moved on. Why artificially create another confrontation with the Egyptians? Were not all the great miracles associated with the Exodus from Egypt enough to demonstrate God's greatness?
 
We might be able to understand this in light of the developmental process described above. Without the parting of the Sea of Suf, the people of Israel would have remained in the consciousness of slavery-infancy vis-a-vis the Egyptians. As mentioned, the people were completely passive in the face of the Egyptians, even at the time of the Exodus itself. If the story had ended like this, the collective memory towards them would have been "like the eyes of slaves directed toward the hand of their master" (Tehillim 123:2).The best way to change this is to re-expose them to the Egyptians, and ensure that this time they act differently. Unlike what happened on their way out of Egypt, they are now required to participate more actively in their struggle.
 
At first, God puts the people in a state of tension with the Egyptians. Moshe knows that this is only a trap for Egypt, but the people seem to be unaware of this, as they enter into a state of great anxiety: "And they were very afraid; and the Children of Israel cried out to the Lord" (14:10).
 
Thus, the people once again undergo the experience of a slave who stands before his master. An effective treatment for anxiety places the patient back in the anxiety-provoking situation, but helps him respond differently than he has. This is what is happening now. This time there will be no passive expulsion, the people must march proudly – into the sea:
 
And the Lord said to Moshe: “Why do you cry to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel, that they go forward …” And the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground. (14:15-22)
 
God requires that the people advance beyond their infantility, where they only cry out to receive what they want. Now they must take active steps and go forward into the sea. This demand involves two challenges: one vis-à-vis the Egyptian threat behind them, and a second vis-à-vis the threat of the sea before them.
 
As for the first challenge, the people of Israel can surrender and fall back into the hands of the Egyptians, and in that way finish the story. The yearning to return to Egypt, which will appear later in the Torah, presumably flooded them here as well. But the people choose to move forward – into the sea. At this point, the inner liberation from the consciousness of bondage, lacking when they left Egypt, comes into being. God seems to hint to this in the words that He sounds before parting the sea: "For whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more forever" (14:13) – you shall not see the Egyptians as you saw them previously. Your attitude toward them will change forever.[3]  
 
The second challenge is no less heroic – entering the sea. The people of Israel must take the first step forward; only then will the miracle occur: “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they go forward. And lift you up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it."[4] (14:15-16)
 
It seems that the Torah intentionally uses a somewhat confusing formulation: "And the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon dry ground [emphasis added]" (v. 22). This walking is not as simple as it appears. It is walking on dry ground, but also requires entering the sea. Let us try to imagine the experience of walking when "the walls were a wall to them on their right and on their left" (ibid.). I am not at all sure that this was an easy experience. At every moment, there is the fear that the water will return to its original nature. This walking requires inner strength, which was not required before the Exodus from Egypt.
 
The final step in this process is undoubtedly the Song of the Sea. For the first time, the people thank God in a moving and spontaneous song. This stands in contrast to the silence that surrounded the people throughout the entire process of the Exodus until this point. The people of Israel are growing up.
 
Mara
 
After the parting of the sea, we witness another miraculous event. The bitter water becomes sweet when Moshe throws a tree into it (15:25). Ostensibly, we have returned to the passive model of rescue familiar to us from the Exodus. However, a closer examination of the events leading up to the miracle reveals a different picture.
 
The miracle of the sweetening of the water comes after a three-day journey, in which the people do not find water (15:22). After these three difficult days, they finally see water on the horizon. They eagerly run toward it with the hope of quenching their thirst, but to their great disappointment, they discover that the water is unfit for drinking. Only then do the people turn to Moshe, with the obvious question, "What shall we drink?" (15: 24) There is no anger or opposition, just an innocent question of a people suffering from thirst.
 
Indeed, God does not become angry about the complaint relating to the water, but rather He immediately offers a solution in the form of a tree that sweetens the water. From here we see that God fully understands the request and responds to it. God's response to the people's predictable request only reinforces the question we posed above. Why not take care of the water issue in advance? Why stretch the people to the limit of their capacity and then in the end have them encounter the bitter water? The answer to this question is implied at the end of the following verse: “There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them” (15: 25).
 
We already encountered the Divine educational tool known as nisayon, "test," in the past, with respect to the patriarch Avraham (Bereishit 22:1). But it has never yet been applied to the people of Israel as a whole. Now, however, the people have evolved somewhat and are capable of withstanding trials. Maturation takes place when frustrations, which are not overly severe, present themselves and force coping strategies. Had the water been given immediately, the people of Israel would have remained as a nursing infant. Instead, the water does come, but it first requires effort and frustration – searching for water for three days, and then finding water that turns out to be bitter. The people withstand the test, and despite the disappointment, they cope by appealing to Moshe for water, without rancor or criticism. In contrast to their absolute passivity in Egypt, where they did not even have to ask for salvation, here the people turn and speak to Moshe. For the first time, healthy communication develops between the people and Moshe, which is another necessary component in their maturation.
 
Passing the test prepares the ground for the giving of laws (15:25). One can already begin to sense Israel's receiving of the Torah. The people have begun to internalize the central principle of the Torah – that Divine good is conditioned on walking in the right path, as God tells them as a summation of the test:
 
And He said: “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you.” (15:26)
 
The Story of the Manna
 
After a few more journeys, which last exactly one month (Shemot 16:1), the people begin to complain about a lack of food. The complaint here is more biting than at Mara and awakens the slave element in them, the yearning to return to dependency:
 
Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (16:3)
 
But even here, we do not find Divine criticism despite the harsh words cast by the people. Instead, we find an immediate response to the request in the form of a new Divine miracle – the manna (16:4). One again we are witness to another test like the one in Mara. Israel's needs will be provided, but they will not be given automatically as they were in the infantile stage. The satisfaction of their needs is delayed until they appeal to God in a mature manner, just as parents wait a bit until their child comes and asks for help. The rudeness of the appeal is forgiven. After all, the people have progressed and made an appeal for help.[5]
 
Now, however, it is time for another developmental step. The test expresses itself not only in the request for help, but also in the manner in which Israel's needs are provided:
 
Then said the Lord to Moshe: ”Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law, or not.” (16:4)
 
For the first time, the principle that the good is accompanied by demands begins to materialize in reality. The bread will come down from heaven, but it comes with a test and with Torah. The bread may be collected only for that day and it may not be collected on Shabbat.
 
Hitting the Rock
 
The people of Israel arrive in Refidim and once again they are subjected to a test connected to the lack of water. But as opposed to what happened in Mara, here things get complicated and an argument erupts between the people and Moshe: “Therefore the people strove with Moshe, and said: ‘Give us water that we may drink.’” (17:2)
 
In order to experience difficulty and scarcity as a "test," it must be seen as stemming from the good will of the tester. When, for example, a child understands the educational approach of his parents, which at times does not answer all of his desires, he experiences it as a developmental challenge. If he does not understand their actions in this way, he is liable to understand it as a step deliberately taken against him. In such a case, he is liable to accumulate anger at his parents and desire revenge.
 
This is also true of our relationship with God. The understanding that the difficulty is meant as a test leads to seeing it as an opportunity for growth. It seems, however, that now the people lose this vision. The tests begin to seem like harmful actions directed at them. They decide to test God in return as an act of revenge: “And Moshe said to them: ‘Why do you strive with me? Why do you test the Lord?’” (17:2) Their step was so blunt and dramatic that it gave the place its name:
 
And the name of the place was called Masa and Meriva, because of the striving of the Children of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”[6] (17:7)
 
            It seems that the difficulties were a bit too much for the people. The frustration was too great for their slave-infant mentality. As stated, the developmental process must be slow and gradual. But even setbacks like these are part of normal development. Despite the severity of the matter, we do not find explicit anger with the people because of their striving with and testing of God. There is understanding that the demand for maturity was apparently a bit too quick and that there was a need for backtracking, to the infantile satisfaction of needs like that in Egypt:
 
And the Lord said to Moshe: “Pass on before the people … and your rod, with which you smote the river, take in your hand… and you shall smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.” (17:6-7)
 
            It is necessary to go back and take the rod, to return to the pattern of the plagues in Egypt – Moshe strikes the forces of nature and provides the people with their needs. Drinking from the rock evokes a clear association of an infant nursing at its mother's breast.
 
            But even here, God alludes to the people that this is but a temporary retreat. The gaze is forward, to the giving of the Torah that will present demands together with abundance. The rock from which the water comes is found not in Refidim, but in Chorev (17:6). In the next parasha when the people arrive in Chorev to receive the Torah, they will remember the water that issued forth from there and make the connections.
 
The War Against Amalek
 
            The events in Mara include another mental process of the people – a feeling of detachment from God: "And because they tested the Lord, saying: Is the Lord among us, or not?" (17:7). Suddenly it is not so clear to the people of Israel whether or not God is among them.
 
            It is precisely the satisfaction of their needs, which takes place the entire length of the parasha, which becomes dangerous. Satisfying needs too perfectly can lead to ignoring the provider of those needs. He is taken for granted. A child, all of whose needs are filled by his parents, stops seeing them as independent characters. He perceives them as a natural function that automatically satisfies his needs. At this point, Amalek appears, as Rashi explains:
 
Scripture places this section immediately after the preceding verse to imply: I am ever among you and ready at hand for everything that you might need, and yet you say: Is the Lord among us or not? This may be likened to a man who carried his son upon his shoulder, and went out on a journey. The son saw an article and said, “Father, pick up that thing and give it to me.” He gave it to him, and so a second time, and so also a third time. They met a certain man to whom the son said: “Have you seen my father anywhere.” Whereupon his father said, “Don't you know where I am?” He, therefore, cast him off from himself and a hound came and bit him. (Rashi, 17:6)
 
But the response to Amalek finally leads to the desired goal – the people of Israel act on their own, in parallel to the Divine providence that hovers over them. The independent action appears in the earthly war waged by Yehoshua against Amalek. At the same time, Divine providence appears by way of the raising of Moshe's hands. In this way, the developmental process is completed. Israel and God work together. Now the people are ready to receive the Torah. They understand that they must act in order to receive God's abundance and providence.
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 
 

[1] In a later period, Jewish tradition connected the counting of the Omer to this period of preparation that the people of Israel underwent. In this way, remembering the need for a preparatory process in anticipation of receiving the Torah was preserved for all generations.
[2] Aside from the war against Amalek, where there is no direct appeal to God, as will be explained below.
[3] Rav Samet, in his article Sippur Beki'at ha-Yam – ha-Matarot ha-Mutzharot ve-haMatara ha-Nisteret, took a similar approach regarding the purpose of the parting of the Sea of Suf, and explained it as a way to deal psychologically with the experience of slavery. According to him, however, the reversal of the experience was created entirely by God's action during the splitting of the sea, which turned the Egyptians into the weak ones in relation to Israel. We took the idea in a different direction that emphasizes Israel's actions in the therapeutic process.
[4] It seems that it is from this formulation that Chazal learned that the sea split only after Nachshon the son of Amindadav entered the water (Sota 36b).
[5] Part of the forgiveness toward the people in the story seems to be related to the fact that an entire month had passed from the time of the Exodus from Egypt until they asked for food. For this reason, the section opens in an exceptional manner with the date on which the story takes place: "On the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt" (16:1).
[6] This action – the people testing God – is deemed so severe that it gave rise to a prohibition for all future generations: "You shall not test the Lord your God, as you tested Him in Masa" (Devarim 6:16). While in this instance God withheld his anger because of the people’s immature developmental state, the severity of their behavior gave rise to a prohibition for all future generations.