Summary: Beshalah is the 4th parasha in the Book of Shemot, spanning chapters 13:17-17:16. Most noteworthy for the Song of the Sea, Beshalah opens with the Egyptian pursuit of the freed Israelite slaves, their drowning at the Sea of Reeds, the song of rejoicing and Miriam’s song for the women.
Beshalah continues with the miracle of the Manna and the quail, the commandment not to gather Manna on Shabbat, the water test at Meribah and G-d’s command to Moshe to strike a rock to quench the nation’s thirst. The parasha ends with an unprovoked attack by the tribe of Amalek on the rear flank of the wandering Israelites.
Comment: Earlier this week, while out for a mid-morning walk in the neighbourhood one couldn’t but notice the many young mothers and nannies perambulating with their pre-school children. One ambitious mother uploaded the boot of her car with all the baby gear needed for a half-day outing. Watching, it struck me how under-appreciative we are of the contribution of nearly half our population.
It isn’t enough that we expect women to endure the physical pains of child-bearing and rearing but to expect our wives to be home makers, homework tutors and social-calendar organisers is a bit much. And, on the rare occasion when women band together on a Shabbat afternoon for group study and education, some husbands have been heard to complain how, after a long week working in their offices, it’s difficult to look after the children for a few hours. Are we not unworthy of the women who enhance our lives?
Enter Miriam, the prophetess, who in this week’s parasha is instrumental in drawing all the women into song after Shirat HaYam (Song of the Sea) – a short, percussive performance that might raise eyebrows in today’s religious circles. One can almost hear the complaints from wizened grey beards. Why must these women play music in public?
Yet, the story behind Miriam’s performance is a testimony to the honour showed her by Moshe and by G-d. As a small child, the Midrash recounts how she chastised her parents for refusing to bear further children once the Egyptian infanticide edict was announced. She prophesized that her parents would give birth to a baby that would one day redeem the enslaved Israelites.
Having listened to their eldest daughter, Moshe was born and though his initial chances of survival were slim, Miriam stood on the banks of the Nile to see how matters would play out. A new-born floating in a basket without food had little chance of survival. Yet her determination, to an extent, willed him to live, and may have brought about the miracle with Pharaoh’s daughter.
Now, 80 years later, after the harshest decades of enslavement and suffering, the Jewish people were finally released with great ‘borrowed’ riches as well. And, at the final moment when again it seemed their fate was sealed by the great waters of Egypt, Bnei Yisrael who instead witnessed a miracle unlike any that had ever occurred before, stood staring at their former task masters drowned by the sea.
That Miriam earned the privilege to sing with the women should be no surprise. For it was her initial role as a prophetess and as a caring, protective sister that brought about Moshe’s birth and survival. All the more reason that at the culmination and climactic moments at the Song of the Sea, she too was recognised for her contribution and took up timbrel in song.
May those in a position of authority give pause to consider the often truly under-appreciated role that women play in our world!
Among the unusual traditions in Judaism, is the custom to feed the birds during Shabbat Beshalah. There is a Midrash that some cynics placed Manna on the ground on Shabbat to prove Moshe had lied – because G-d had said no Manna would fall on Shabbat. But before anyone could find it, the birds ate everything. Another story is that birds joined with Bnei Yisrael while they sang the Song of the Sea.
Because this week’s portion includes the section about Manna, some believe by reciting this chapter it will increase one’s livelihood. Notwithstanding, the above, our custom is to simply sing the entire song, including verses 19-26, during Shaharit.