The Israelites leave Egypt after the final plague, approach the Sea of Reeds, cross it, and celebrate their freedom. They then come to realise the hardships that freedom can bring, and the changes to their lives that they will need to adjust to. The stories from this parashah are linked by the themes of faith and withdrawal. The Midrash (first in the Mechilta and then Talmud Sotah 37a) tells of the courage and faith of Nachshon ben Aminadav when entering the Sea of Reeds; he didn’t know the sea was about to split, but followed God’s command to escape the pursuing Egyptians.
The Rabbis say that this faith was what caused the Sea to split and not Moshe and his staff. Once the Israelites have crossed the water there is initial jubilation, followed by continual bouts of complaining about the lack of sweet water, the lack of variety in the available food and the newness of their life; they misremember their lifestyle in Egypt and mourn for it. There is an absence of faith or appreciation of everything God has done for them. There is a roller-coaster of emotions: wonder, joy, anger, relief, frustration. But there is little gratitude or focus on their blessings, and little or no resilience in the face of the difficulties and opportunities brought by freedom.
The Children of Israel, in these early stories after the escape from Egypt, can be compared to literal children. They want to grow up and gain their independence but struggle with the reality of it. The name of this parashah is B’shallach, meaning ‘When (he) let go’. So who lets whom go in this parashah? The classic interpretation (and the simple meaning of the text) is that Pharaoh is finally confronted with God’s power and lets the Israelites go, but we know he quickly changes his mind and pursues them. So in fact he didn’t let them go at all!
In the next parashah, Moshe complains that the burden of caring for all the people singlehandedly is overwhelming. His father in-law Yitro teaches him how he can ‘let go’ a little bit through delegation and still complete the task while supporting everyone. So the ‘he’ in this week’s parashah can’t be Moshe.
We can also read ‘he’ as referencing God: It may be God who is letting go. God is realising that part of leading and parenting is setting boundaries for withdrawal. Taking the people to the water’s edge but asking for their trust and faith to take the first step in. God enjoys their celebration and provides them with basic necessities for survival, but then starts to learn the fine balance of reacting to bad behaviour and just letting it ride. ‘Parenting Teenagers 101’! But we know that this isn’t a lesson well learnt. Throughout the remainder of the Torah we have periods where the Israelites behave in a way that lacks faith and respect for God’s law, together with periods where God seems to lose patience and wants to separate from his chosen people. We live in a world that seems to be characterised by the absence of God and yet we still, out of faith or tradition, stay connected to our community and narrative. Cruelty, despair and despondency seem to abound, and yet still we stay connected to our faith, our traditions and our truth. Others may let go – but we need to retain our resilience in order to truly celebrate the freedom that we crossed the Sea for.
Melanie Kelly is a Jewish educator working for the UJIA Living Bridge Department and is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue