TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
Beshallah, Exodus 13:17-17:16
Faith and Trust
The three main narratives in our portion - about the crossing of the Red Sea, the Manna that sustained Israel in the wilderness and the war of Amalek - come to teach fundamental lessons about Faith and Trust that relate to all people.
The simultaneous redemption of Israel and destruction of their Egyptian oppressors through the splitting of the Red Sea was a miracle that sent reverberations through the entire world: "The peoples heard, they tremble; pangs have taken hold of the inhabitants of Philistia" (Exodus 15:14).
For people today who have been schooled in the scientific study of the laws of nature, the destructive Tsunamis of recent years have made it easier to accept that a freak event like the splitting of the Red Sea is far from being impossible. The real miracle was not so much that the waters parted, but that they did so precisely when the people of Israel were in direst need as they stood trapped between the pursuing Egyptians and the deep blue sea. At that moment Israel saw clearly that He who created the laws of nature has the power to bend them at will.
"And Israel saw the great might which God used against the Egyptians, and the people feared God; and they believed in God and in His servant Moses" (ibid. 14:31).
The miracle came to inculcate the newly-freed nation with faith in God and in His omnipotent power. It showed that nature is not blind and indifferent to humans and their struggles; rather it is a veil through which God exercises His supreme power - often in very inscrutable ways - for the benefit of His creations, in order to bring them under the wing of His higher law, the Torah.
The splitting of the Red Sea was an outstanding one-time miracle that came to demonstrate for all the generations that God has absolute omnipotence. It was necessary to show that God is in complete control of everything, including the seemingly implacable laws of nature, in order to open people's eyes to the fact that even when things go "normally", God's miracles and His benevolent providence are present at all times.
Having a general belief in God's existence is the foundation of a life of faith in harmony with His law, but it is only the beginning. After coming to believe in God in a general way, it is necessary to learn that God is not merely a great power somewhere out there in heaven, but that He is in complete control of every single detail of creation down here on earth at all times.
When we understand this we know that we are not alone and abandoned, but that our Father in Heaven is involved with us and cares about us at every step in our lives. This should encourage us to follow God's laws as they apply in all the different junctures of our lives, thereby drawing His blessing into all that we do. General faith thus turns into trust in God in all the specifics of our lives. The more we do what we do under the guidance of His laws and teachings, the more we become connected to Him through the very details of this world, and our knowledge of Him becomes ever deepened.
Thus the great lesson of faith in God taught through the splitting of the Red Sea was followed by a long, protracted lesson in trusting Him day after day for one's very livelihood as the Children of Israel now began to journey deeper into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
Within three days in the arid wilderness they were faced with their first test when they had no water with which to quench their thirst. They now had to learn that He who split the waters of the Red Sea also has the power to provide water in the desert and even to turn bitter waters into sweet, as he did at Marah:
"There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them; and He said: If you will diligently hearken to the voice of HaShem your God and will do what is right in His eyes, and attend to His commandments, and observe all His statutes, I will not put upon you all the diseases which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am HaShem that heals you " (ibid. 15:25-6).
According to received Torah tradition, the "statute" and the "ordinance" that God laid down for Israel at Marah included Dinim - the basic laws governing people's relations with each other, such as the prohibition of theft and robbery, compensation for damages etc., which are subsumed under the general Noahide law prohibiting stealing.
Immediately after the people received these first laws, they were faced with their next great test - having nothing to eat in the wilderness. The miraculous way in which God fed Israel with the mysterious Manna that condensed on the ground around the camp every morning came to teach that even in the most desperate conditions, God still has the power to sustain us. There is therefore no need to take what we require by force - through theft and robbery - because God can provide us with everything we really need benignly and easily. For God provides for all his creatures "from the horns of the wild ox to the eggs of lice".
One who steals demonstrates a lack of belief in God's omnipotence and His ability to provide us with what we need through legitimate means. For this reason the Torah sages taught that a trader who short-sells the public through the use of deceptive weights and measures is in denial of the Exodus from Egypt (Maimonides, Laws of Theft 7:12) - because he does not believe that God's omnipotent power includes the ability to give him profit without forcing the issue through deception. The trader thinks that the public will not notice - but God sees.
If God were visible to us at all times there would be no merit in having faith and trust in Him. The manifest salvation of the splitting of the Red Sea could not be repeated every day. Indeed God often hides Himself in order to increase our merit in having to believe in Him even when we do not see Him. Thus Israel reached the point where they came to doubt whether God was with them or not (Exodus 17:7). This was what led to the attack by Amalek, the archetype of denial and atheism.
"And it was when Moses raised his hand that Israel prevailed, but when he relaxed his hand Amalek prevailed.
"How could it be that Moses hands won the war or lost the war? Rather, this comes to tell you that as long as Israel directed their eyes above and submitted their hearts to their Father in Heaven they prevailed, but if not, they fell" (Rosh Hashanah 3:8).
The struggle against the atheist and denier that resides in our hearts continues every day. We win the battle when we raise our inner eye of faith to God at every juncture and fortify ourselves in the knowledge that God is with us at all times.
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