Beshalach: A Desert Seminar - All on the Way to Har Sinai

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Bnei Yisrael's journey from Egypt to Har Sinai was certainly not easy.  Instead of the anticipated cheerful 'three day journey', Bnei Yisrael endured several weeks of life-threatening situations - including lack of food & water, and military attacks by both Egypt and Amalek.

Did something go wrong, or were all of these events part of God's original 'plan'?

Furthermore, if these 'tests of faith' were indeed part of a divine 'plan' - did God really expect for Bnei Yisrael not to complain?

To answer these questions, this week's shiur analyzes the progressive nature of the events that occur from the time that Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt until they reach Har Sinai, while considering their relationship to the overall theme of Sefer Shmot.

Introduction: Three Days or Seven Weeks?

Prior to the actual Exodus, God had made several specific promises that He would take Bnei Yisrael from Egypt to the Promised Land (see Shmot 3:16-17 and 6:5-8, as well as Breishit 15:13-18); yet we never found even a hint that God wanted Bnei Yisrael to dwell for any length of time in the desert (other than to cross it).  True, Moshe had told Pharaoh that Bnei Yisrael requested a three day journey to worship God in the desert; however, Moshe was never instructed to convey that message to his own people.

Hence, it only makes sense that Bnei Yisrael would expect to travel directly from Egypt to Eretz Canaan.

Furthermore, the opening pasuk of Parshat Beshalach implies that traveling directly to Eretz Canaan remained the primary goal of the Exodus, while the 're-routing' of that journey (to the southeast) was simply a 'maneuver' taken due to 'military considerations' (see 13:17, and 14:1-3).

However, in Parshat Beshalach, a very different set of events unfold.  Instead of leading Bnei Yisrael directly to Israel (or to stop at Har Sinai on the way to Israel), God reroutes their journey towards the Red Sea.  Then, after crossing the Red Sea, Bnei Yisrael do embark on a 'three-day journey' into the desert, but only to arrive at ‘Mara’, rather than ‘Har Sinai’.  Then, over the course of their five-week excursion from Mara to Har Sinai, they run out of food at Midbar Sin, run out of water at Refidim and then face Amalek's unprovoked attack.  Only after some six weeks do they finally arrive at Har Sinai.

In the following shiur we will attempt to find the purpose of this sequence of events - by considering the underlying reason for Bnei Yisrael's redemption from Egypt.

A Second Chance

In our study thus far of Sefer Shmot, we have shown how the Exodus served as a fulfillment of God's covenant with Avraham Avinu (at "brit bein habetarim").  However, the purpose of that covenant was not merely to promise Avraham's offspring salvation from a future oppressor; rather God was ‘planting the seeds’ of a people that were to become His model nation - to make His Name known to all nations.

From this perspective, the redemption that God promised in "brit bein ha'btarim" was only the first stage in a long historical process.  After their redemption from Egypt, Bnei Yisrael would first need to receive the special set of laws and guidelines (better known as 'Matan Torah') - that would facilitate their becoming that ‘model nation’.  After receiving and studying those laws, the nation would be 'spiritually' ready to inherit the Promised Land.

For this very reason, God found it necessary to first call upon Bnei Yisrael to perform 'teshuva' [repentance] even before the Exodus began.  [See Yechezkel 20:4-10, and the shiur on Parshat Va'era.]  Presumably, had Bnei Yisrael indeed obeyed that original call, the redemption process could have proceeded as originally planned, i.e. the nation would have traveled directly to Har Sinai (in three days) - to thank God and receive the Torah.  (See Seforno's introduction to Sefer Shmot; see also Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Ramban and Seforno on 2:23-25.)

Unfortunately, the nation did not repent in the manner that God had expected.  As we explained in last week's shiur, the offering of the 'korban Pesach' may have rendered them worthy 'just enough' to survive the Tenth Plague; nevertheless, at the time of the Exodus Bnei Yisrael were far from being 'spiritually ready' for Matan Torah.   Therefore, we posit that God found it necessary to first challenge His people with a series of 'tests' (as described in Parshat Beshalach) - to help prepare them for Matan Torah!

The New Plan

The following table lists the key events that take place during Bnei Yisrael's journey from Egypt to Har Sinai:

Location Event
1) Yam Suf (14:11) Am Yisrael is attacked by Mitzrayim;
2) Mara (15:24) the water is bitter;
3) Midbar Sin (15:2) there is no food to eat;
4) Refidim I (17:3) there is no water to drink;
5) Refidim II (17:8) Am Yisrael is attacked by Amalek.

[Note the chiastic structure: war-water-food-water-war.]

Despite the distinctive nature of each of these events, we will show how and why God intentionally initiates these incidents in order to catalyze Bnei Yisrael's spiritual growth, to 'train' them to become His Nation!

To appreciate the specific purpose of each individual event, we must first consider WHY Bnei Yisrael had not performed proper 'teshuva' in Egypt.

Breaking Slave Mentality

It is extremely difficult for a slave, even after having gained his freedom, to act or think like a free man.  As we explained in Parshat Va'era, Bnei Yisrael did not listen to God's original call because of their 'crushed spirits and hard labor': "v'e-lo sham'u el Moshe, mi-kotzer ruach u-meavoda kasha" (see 6:9).

The strain of their prolonged bondage and the fatigue of their daily routine had drained them of all spirituality.

Specifically because of this bondage - Bnei Yisrael had grown instinctively dependent upon their Egyptian masters.  Therefore, to facilitate their transformation - from Pharaoh's slaves to God's servants - they must change their instinctive physical dependence on Egypt to a cognitive spiritual dependence on God.  [See an amazing Ibn Ezra on Shmot 14:10 for a discussion of this topic.]

We all know how difficult it is for an individual to change his character, all the more so for an entire nation.  Therefore, the rebuilding of Am Yisrael's character becomes a very complex process.  This background can help us understand the need for the variety of events that transpire from the time that Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt.  To explain how, we will show how that a change of character occurs in one of two patterns - via:

  1. A traumatic experience - which may facilitate a sudden change.
  2. A change of daily routine - which affects instinctive behavior.

As we will see, God employs both approaches.

1) Kriyat Yam Suf: Splitting Old Ties

Kriyat Yam Suf [the splitting of the Red Sea] may be understood as the traumatic experience that helps Bnei Yisrael break away from their instinctive dependence upon Egypt.

Recall that, at Kriyat Yam Suf, God inflicted His final punishment upon Pharaoh and his army (14:4).  Were God's sole intention merely to punish the Egyptians, He could have done so during the Ten Plagues.  The fact that Bnei Yisrael must witness this Egyptian defeat suggests that these events occur for the sake of Bnei Yisrael as well.

This purpose becomes clearer in light of Bnei Yisrael's reaction to the imminent threat of the approaching Egyptian army:

"And they complained to Moshe saying... What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?  Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt: Let us be and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the desert?!"   (14:11-12)

[See Ibn Ezra on 14:13 where he explains why Bnei Yisrael did not even consider confronting the Egyptians in battle.]

God responds to Bnei Yisrael's complaint by commanding them to ‘break away’ from this instinctive dependence:

"Do not fear, stand upright and watch God's salvation... for the manner in which you see Mitzraim today - you will never see them again" ["lo tosifu lir'otam od ad olam"] (14:13).

Although God's reassurance appears to be a promise, for some reason Chazal interpret this statement as a commandment!  According to Ramban (14:13), Chazal interpret this pasuk as follows:

"In the manner by which you look at Mitzrayim today - do not look at them this way ever again" (14:13).

God here does not promise His nation that they will never face an Egyptian army again.  Rather, He commands them to 'never again' look to Egypt for their salvation.

Although this interpretation of "lo tosifu lir'otam" does not appear to be the simple 'pshat' of this pasuk, it does find support in a parallel reference in the 'tochacha' in Parshat Ki Tavo (see Devarim 28:1-69).  At the conclusion of that lengthy rebuke, God warns Bnei Yisrael that - should they disobey Him - they will be exiled and sold into slavery (see Devarim 28:62-67 / note "ki lo shama'ta be-kol Hashem...").  Their condition will deteriorate to such an extent, the Torah warns, that they will actually hope that someone will 'purchase them as slaves'.

To emphasize this point, note how the end of that Tochacha employs a phrase very similar to the phrase used to describe God's command before "kriyat Yam Suf":

"And God will return you to Egypt in ships, in the manner that I told you: 'lo tosif od lir'otah" [do not look at them this way again], and you will offer yourselves to your enemies for sale as slaves and maidservants, but no one will purchase you" (28:68).

[The word 'ba-derech' - 'in the manner' - should not be understood as a description of the ship-route to Egypt, but rather as a description of their ‘state of mind’ as they are exiled to Egypt inside of those crowded ships.]

Ironically, the last stage of the 'tochacha' has Am Yisrael returning to the same state they were in before they left Egypt, where they yearn for total dependence on their human masters!  In the slave-market, their only hope for survival would be for an Egyptian to buy them (to become his slave); otherwise they will starve to death.  [See also Devarim 17:16 & Yeshayahu 31:1-3 to support this interpretation of "lo tosifu li'rotam...".]

Thus, after the miracle of "kriyat Yam Suf", it appears as though God's plan had succeeded.  Upon seeing the drowning of the Egyptians, Bnei Yisrael arrive at the 'proper' conclusion:

"...and Yisrael recognized His great Hand.. and the people feared God and believed in God and Moshe His servant" (Shemot 14:30-31).


They instinctively respond with a song of praise to God:

"Az yashir Moshe u-vnei Yisrael..." (see 15:1).

2)  Mara - A Desert Seminar

After crossing the Red Sea, Bnei Yisrael set out on their 'three-day journey' into the desert.  However, instead of arriving at Har Sinai, they arrive at Mara, where the only water they could find is bitter and hence undrinkable (see 15:22-23).  As we'd expect, the people complain to Moshe, their leader; who in turns complains to God.  As their complaints appear to be justified, God provides Moshe with a solution to 'sweeten' the water (see 15:24-25).

Certainly God realized that the people could not survive without water, nonetheless He led them to a location without water - in order that the people would complain.  In this manner, God teaches the nation not to take their water supply for granted; rather - it now becomes clear to them that their physical survival is dependent upon God - who now tends to their water supply.  [Recall that in Egypt, the Nile River supplied drinking water for the entire country, and hence it became like a God to Egypt - and Pharaoh considered himself as the god-like master over the Nile / see Yechezkel 29:1-3.]

Now, after these two traumatic events have shown the nation who their real 'master' is, Chumash informs us how God gives the people another chance to show their readiness to accept His laws:

"And He said - im shamoa tishma le-kol Hashem Elokecha - Should you listen to the voice of God, and do what is proper in His eyes, and listen to His commandments, then the affliction that I put on the Egyptians I will not put on you, for I am God your Healer"  (15:26 - see shiur on Parshat Va'era.)

Note how Bnei Yisrael's acceptance of this offer can 'cure' their original 'attitude problem' reflected by "ve-lo sham'u el Moshe..." (see 6:9, and the shiur on Parshat Va'era).

Furthermore, by linking the sweetness of the water to their readiness to obey His laws, God teaches Bnei Yisrael an important lesson of spiritual dependence.  This connection between 'water' and 'following God' will emerge numerous times in Chumash, and forms the basis of the famous Midrash Chazal of 'ein mayim ela Torah' - that the term 'water' in Tanach symbolically refers to Torah.

[The 'message' of the 'eitz' which God instructs Moshe to cast into the water (see 15:23-25) may also relate back to Gan Eden, itself a motif of an environment that demands obedience to God.  See also Mishlei 3:18 and its context ("etz chayim hi la-machazikim bah...").]

A "Model Camp" for a "Model Nation"

At their next camp-site, at Eilim (see 15:27), God gives Am Yisrael a short 'rest' - as there is plenty of water and food. But note how they ‘just so happen’ to find twelve springs and seventy palm trees!

The ‘twelve springs’ obviously reflect the twelve Tribes.  [Recall the twelve monuments erected at Har Sinai to represent Am Yisrael when they accept the covenant in Shemot 24:4-7.]  We posit as well that the seventy palm trees represent the ‘seventy nations’.  Just as the spring provides ‘water’ – so the trees can bear their best fruit; so too when Bnei Yisrael will become a nation properly keeping God’s Laws, the other nations can learn from this ‘model’ and thus reach their fullest potential.

After this educational ‘time out’, Bnei Yisrael arrive in Midbar Sin, where God creates yet another crisis.

3)  Midbar Sin: Basic Training

After arriving in Midbar Sin, the food supply runs out, triggering yet another round of complaints (16:2-3).  Even though Bnei Yisrael have the right to ask for food, the way in which they ask is inexcusable:

"If only we had died by the Hand of God in Egypt, when we had plenty of meat and bread to eat!  Now you have brought us out into this desert to die of famine" (16:3).

The very tone of their complaint (and its content), indicate that Bnei Yisrael had retained their instinctive dependence upon Mitzraim.  Their instinctive reaction to this terrible hunger includes reminiscing about the 'good old days' in Egypt.  The trauma they had experienced heretofore was not sufficient to totally change their character.  To rectify this, God will force them into a daily routine that hopefully will slowly change their instinctive behavior.

The manna served this very purpose, as it provided a daily routine that transformed what was once their physical dependence on Mitzraim into a physical dependence on God.  As explained in Sefer Devarim:

"And He tormented you and starved you, then gave you 'manna' to eat... in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, rather, man lives by whatever God commands" (Devarim 8:3).

By allowing only enough food for one day at a time, Bnei Yisrael learn to become dependent solely on God.  To emphasize this point, their food falls directly from heaven.  Note how the Torah uses a key word - 'nisayon' (a test) in its description of the purpose of the manna:

"Behold I will rain down bread for you from the heavens, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day's portion - lema'an anasenu (= 'nisayon') - in order that I may test them, to see whether or not they will follow my instructions..." (16:4).

The word "nisayon" here should not be understood simply as a 'test' that will help God assess Bnei Yisrael's obedience.   The purpose of this "nisayon" was to raise the nation to a higher level in their relationship with God.  In a similar manner, we find that the Torah uses this same root in the story of the Akeida where God 'tests' Avraham ["ve-Hashem nisa et Avraham..." /see Breishit 22:1] - not to find out if he is worthy, but rather to make him worthy.

The manna served a similar purpose. God is not testing Bnei Yisrael to find out IF they will obey Him, rather He is training them in order that they learn HOW to obey Him.

4) Refidim: Preparing for Har Sinai

The next stop on their journey (and the last stop before arriving at Har Sinai) is Refidim - where they can't find any water to drink (17:1-3).  But why does God lead them to such a location?  Certainly He realizes that Bnei Yisrael cannot survive without water.

Once again, God wants Bnei Yisrael to complain!

However, this time God's plan is more complex, as His scheme at Refidim will prepare Bnei Yisrael both physically and spiritually for Har Sinai.  As you review the details of that story (see 17:1-6), note how God solves their water shortage.

As you probably remember, God instructs Moshe to hit the rock - and it would supply water.  But we would expect that rock (and hence the water source) to be in Refidim - where the people are suffering from thirst.  Instead, God instructs Moshe to gather some elders (see 17:5-6) and travel from Refidim to the rock at "Chorev " - the same site where God first appeared to him at the burning bush (see 3:1)  - the same site that later becomes Har Sinai! [See Shmot 3:12 & Devarim 5:2.]

But would it not have made more sense for God to supply this dearly needed water at Refidim, where the people are encamped!

One could suggest that God is providing water purposely only at Har Sinai, for He wants the nation to first encounter Har Sinai as a source for their physical salvation - that will quench their terrible thirst.  By providing water at Har Sinai, the nation will now eagerly travel from Refidim directly to Har Sinai.

Note the wording 17:5, where God instructs Moshe to take his staff with which 'he hit the Nile' - to hit the rock at Chorev.  Even though Moshe's staff also turned into a "nachash", and had also split the sea, etc. - yet God specifically refers to it here as the one with which he 'hit the Nile' - for Har Sinai will now become the new source of water for Bnei Yisrael, replacing their old source of water - the mighty Nile River of Egypt.

Let's consider the reality of this situation.  After Moshe hits the rock, the water would gush forth from Chorev and flow into the desert.  But to drink that water, Bnei Yisrael will need to travel from Refidim to Har Sinai, to their new source of water.  [For proof that hitting the rock created a gushing river flowing down the mountain - see Devarim 9:21.]

This initial encounter with Mount Sinai – where it becomes the source for their physical existence, sets the stage for Matan Torah, when Har Sinai will become the source for their spiritual existence.  Not only has heaven replaced earth as the source of bread (the manna food), but now Har Sinai has replaced the Nile as their constant source of water.

In this manner, Bnei Yisrael's total dependence on Mitzrayim has now been replaced by their total dependence on God.

5) The War with Amalek: Looking up to Har Sinai

As Bnei Yisrael begin their journey from Refidim to Har Sinai (to their new source of water), Amalek attacks. War breaks out, and God orders that Yehoshua lead Bnei Yisrael in battle.

In contrast to passive nature of Bnei Yisrael's participation in battle against the Egyptian army – when God split the Red Sea, here Bnei Yisrael do the fighting themselves.  But to assure that the people recognize that God Himself brings them victory - despite their own military efforts - God instructs Moshe to climb the hill and raise his staff heavenward.  Upon which hill does Moshe stand?

Based on the juxtaposition between this narrative and the incident at 'masa u-meriva', Ibn Ezra explains that Moshe stands with his hands raised high - on Har Sinai!  Just as Har Sinai has become their source of water, it now becomes their source of military salvation, as well.

For Yisrael to become victorious, Moshe must raise his hands (see 17:11) to show and teach the people to look to Hashem, to Har Sinai, for their salvation.

[See Midrash in Rashi (17:11) & Rosh Hashana 29:1.]

From Pesach to Shavuot

We have shown that during the seven weeks from the Exodus to Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael encounter several traumatic experiences and changes in their daily routine that helped prepare them for Matan Torah.  During this 'training period' they have also become more active in the process of their redemption - they are now ready to take on the next stage of the redemption process: to receive the Torah in order to become God's special Nation in His land.

Not only was this seven week time period significant for Bnei Yisrael at the time of Exodus, this same time period of the year remains no less significant for future generations as well.  It is not by chance that Chazal identify a similar purpose in the seven weeks of the Sefirat ha-Omer, where we count the seven weeks from the celebration of our freedom from Egypt [on Pesach] in preparation for our commemoration of Matan Torah on Shavuot.

Each year, after we thank God for our freedom from slavery, we prepare ourselves for seven weeks - to become worthy of, and to be thankful for - our receiving of the Torah.