This week’s portion tells of The Children of Israel’s early adventures in the desert, before receiving God’s law at Mount Sinai. Pharaoh once more changes his mind about the Hebrews leaving, and sends his army out after them. God splits the sea, allowing the Israelites safe passage and drowning Pharaoh’s forces. All is not smooth, however, and the Israelites challenge God several times as they encounter strife along the way.
Our portion relates that God opted not to take the Israelites into the Land of Israel by the most direct route, as it would take them through Philistine territory and possibly discourage the people, sending them running back to Egypt. Instead, carrying the bones of Joseph, the Children of Israel are led towards the Red Sea led by a Godly Pillar of Cloud by day and Pillar of Fire by night.
God tells Moses to prepare the people for the eventual pursuit of Pharaoh, saying it is all a part of His plan to complete their humiliation and destruction. Indeed, when Pharaoh realizes his slaves are not going to return from serving their God, he sets out after them with 600 chariots. The Israelites, despite the advance notice, are frightened; Egypt is before them, and their backs are to the sea! They turn on Moses. He tells them, however, that they have nothing to fear, as God will protect them. God tells Moses to lift his staff over the sea and part the waters. He instructs Moses to lead the people through the water on dry land and allow the Egyptians to drown.
Points to Ponder
In 14:15, God asks Moses rhetorically why he is still praying when he should be commanding the people to cross the sea. Why does God discourage prayer here; isn’t prayer the ideal response to a difficult situation?
Crossing the Sea and the Waters of Mara
Throughout the night, God keeps His angel and His Pillar of Cloud between the Israelite camp and the Egyptians. Moses holds his staff over the waters, and God sends a great wind to blow over the sea. The waters part, allowing the Israelites to safely cross on dry land. When the Egyptians move to cross after them, however, God interferes with their movements. He instructs Moses to again stretch out his staff over the waters, and they come crashing down upon the Egyptians as they try to escape. So moved by the miracle they witness, the Children of Israel sing a song of praise to God for His salvation. Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, also leads the women in song.
Despite their gratitude for God’s miracles, the Children of Israel are quick to complain when, three days later, they cannot find potable water. Moses cries out to God, who shows him a tree whose bark would make the water sweet (drinkable). They name the place Mara (bitter) after the bitter waters. God also promises the people if they keep His commandments, He will never visit the diseases of Egypt upon them. From there, the people journey to Elim, where they find plenty to eat and drink.
The Israel Bible points out a Jewish tradition, that the Hebrew month ‘Iyar’ is named for an acronym from our portion, ani Hashem rof’echa (I am God your Healer). Only after the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt in Nissan were they able to be healed from the trauma of slavery. The name of the month also serves as a constant reminder that everything, including our health, is in the hands of God.
This is not the only acronym in our portion. The Maccabees, who fought the Hellenists in the Chanukkah story, are so called because of a verse in the song the Israelites sang at the sea: mi kamocha b’elim Hashem, who is like you, God?
Points to Ponder
The text tells us God tested (“proved” in the Israel Bible translation) the Israelites at Mara, but does not elaborate on what that means. What do you think the test was? Did the people pass?
Manna from Heaven
One month after leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel are moved by hunger to again complain against Moses and Aaron. Going so far as to say things had been better in Egypt, they accuse the pair of trying to kill the people. God tells Moses He will rain food down upon them, instructing the people to collect only what they need for each day and a double portion on Fridays, for He will not send food on the Day of Rest.
Before sending the miracle food from heaven, however, God sends quail, that the people should eat meat that evening. In the morning, the Israelites find the camp surrounded by a strange, wafer-thin substance. ‘Man hoo?’ they ask each other — what is this? — which is how the Manna got its name.
Whatever was left by the end of the morning was melted by the sun, and whatever people tried to hoard for another day became spoiled, except on Fridays. Those who tested God on the matter found no Manna on the Sabbath.
God later commands Moses to save a measure of Manna for all eternity, placing a jar of it in the Ark of the Covenant.
The Children of Israel continued to eat Manna for forty years in the desert, until arriving at the Promised Land. The Israel Bible brings the explanation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who teaches that God intended for the Israelites to enjoy the produce of the land as if it were manna, provided directly by God.
Points to Ponder
Manna and quail are partnered again in Numbers 11, when the Israelites complain that they cannot bear to eat any more of the heavenly bread. They demand meat, which God provides in the form of quail. Why do you think the two are connected?
Water from a Rock
Once again, the Children of Israel thirst for water and complain to Moses. They demand water from him, but he turns them away, telling them they are testing God. Again the Israelites accuse Moses of trying to kill them in the desert.
Moses turns to God for help, and He instructs him to take some representatives from the elders of Israel and strike a certain rock in Horeb with the staff he used to part the sea. God will cause water to flow from the rock for the people to drink. Moses does so, and he names the place ‘Masa u’Meriva’, meaning contention and strife.
The Israel Bible explains that the Israelites were not questioning God’s presence with their complaints so much as His involvement in their daily lives. In contrast to the Egyptian worldview, which saw nature as static, God showed the Children of Israel that He created and therefore could control nature, providing water in the desert as needed.
Points to Ponder
This story reminds us of the earlier story from our portion about thirsting, but it also strongly parallels the account in Numbers 20. In what ways are these stories similar? Different?
Our portion ends with an account of an attack by Amalek against the Children of Israel. Moses sends Joshua out to lead the people in battle, while he, supported by his brother Aaron and nephew Hur, held his arms up in supplication to God throughout. When is hands were raised, the Israelites rallied, but as they drooped, Amalek began to gain. Aaron and Hur brought him a rock to sit on and helped hold his arms aloft.
Following the battle, God requires Moses to record that He will surely erase the memory of Amalek from the Earth, for an enmity will exist for all time between Amalek and God.
Points to Ponder
We are told the story of Amalek again in Deuteronomy 25, which is read in synagogues worldwide the Sabbath before the Purim holiday, whose villain was descended from Amalek. What do you think was so severe about Amalek’s actions that would cause the eternal enmity of God?