Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: B'shlach

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The Paths of Praise

By Michael Chessen

In the reading of B'shlach, the people of Israel witness the most singularly defining miracle of the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea. Whereas each of the ten plagues was certainly wondrous and highly instructive to the Jewish people as well as to the Egyptians, no plague on its own was necessarily synonymous with our very physical salvation. In the case of Israel appearing to be trapped between the advancing Egyptian army and the sea, however, Moses tells the people to merely "sit quietly" in order to witness their redemption (Exodus 14:14).

Having crossed the split sea and witnessed it subsequently close upon and drown the Egyptians, the spectacle of salvation having in fact come as timely and as "simply" as Moses had assured them it would, caused the people of Israel to join him in praise, or "shira" to God.

The Talmudic sages divide the act of our reciting praise to God into two categories: while one is the ecstatic-leaning and perhaps more spontaneous acknowledgment of miracles, the other is a more "routine" expression of thanks for God's benevolent day to day care for us and our world. In both of these manners of praise, the Song at the Sea occupies a central niche.

The inspiration of the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea is something to which we seek to connect on a very select group of designated days of the Jewish calendar through our recitation of the Hallel prayer. However, our rabbis strongly caution against seeking to recreate the jubilation associated with miracles on a daily basis. Instead, we are to busy ourselves with our more conventional "work of the heart", daily prayer according to our established liturgy, which includes the Song at the Sea, and its praise of God's ongoing providence in our lives.

The need for us to emphasize the "routine" over the miraculous is something which has its antecedents in the process that the people of Israel went through in making their transition from a slave to a priestly nation. Following the Song of the Sea, their sudden grumbling against God for want of water demonstrated just how "miracle dependent" they yet were as newly liberated slaves. After having their thirst satiated, and they then complain that they have no food, the process of the people's "re-education" begins. For while the manna arrives by miraculous means, its continued reception carries definite stipulations. The adherence to these will accompany us until we are growing our own wheat, and help to ensure that we bear in mind that regardless of how we manage to feed ourselves, we always recognize that all nourishment emanates from the hand of God.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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