The Sixteenth Sedra
7-13 Shevat 5783
FROM THE TORAH
The Eternal has brought Egypt to its knees. Ten plagues have weakened the people, denuded the land, and established the presence and power of the Eternal over life and death in Pharaoh’s realm. The redemption of the Children of Israel leaves an indelible mark on their spring renewal festival in the observances of Unleavened Bread and the Pesach offering, and in the treatment of Israelite firstborn as consideration for the firstborn of Egypt who were lost in the tenth plague. As the Eternal foretold, Pharoah and the Egyptians come to virtually driving out their former captive slaves. With their Exodus, Moses and Israel face a new set of challenges, but the Eternal is their Guide.
Salvation at the Red Sea
THE INITIAL EXODUS
By way of the Wilderness at the Red Sea to Etham
When Pharaoh lets the people go (Beshalach), God does not lead them by the more direct route through the land of the Philistines, lest they retreat to Egypt in the face of war. Instead, He leads the people around by way of the Wilderness at the Red Sea. The Children of Israel go up from Egypt organized for battle. Moses takes the bones of Joseph with him to fulfill the promise that Joseph had obtained from the Children of Israel before his death (cf. Genesis 50:25). They set out from Sukkot and encamp at Etham at the edge of the Wilderness. Constantly the Eternal shows them the way during the day with a pillar of cloud and lights the way for them at night with a pillar of fire, allowing them to travel both day and night without interruption.
PHARAOH PURSUES ISRAEL
To encampment near the Red Sea
The Eternal tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to turn back and encamp facing Pi-hachirot and Baal-tsephon between Migdol and the Sea. Pharaoh would then imagine the Children of Israel to have lost their way in the Wilderness. The Eternal would empower Pharaoh’s will to pursue them: “Thus shall I gain glory through Pharaoh and through all of his army so that Egypt will know that it is I, the Eternal” (Exodus 14:4)! The Children of Israel act accordingly.
When the king of Egypt is told that the people has fled, Pharaoh and his servants regret having released Israel from serving them. Pharaoh harnesses his chariot and takes all the chariots of Egypt, all commanded by officers, and among them 600 elite chariots. His will empowered by the Eternal, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and the Egyptians pursue the Children of Israel even as they depart determinedly. They are overtaken at their encampment near the Sea, near Pi-hachirot facing Baal-tsephon, by all of Pharaoh’s chariot horses, horsemen and army.
Frightened at Pharaoh’s approach, “the Children of Israel cry out to the Eternal” (Exodus 14:10). They blame Moses for risking their lives in the Wilderness: “’Were there no graves in Egypt so that you had to take us out to die in the Wilderness’ (Exodus 14:11-12)?! Did we not tell you then that we preferred Egyptian bondage to death in the Wilderness!” Moses entreats the people not to fear but to remain confident and witness “‘salvation by the Eternal which He will perform for you on this day’ (Exodus 14:13)! Today will be the last day that you will see the Egyptians forever: the Eternal will fight on your behalf, and you, be quietly confident!”
MOSES DIVIDES THE SEA
Crossing through the Red Sea
The Eternal says to Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Children of Israel to proceed with their journey, and you, lift your staff and extend your hand over the Sea, and divide it, so that the Children of Israel can march into the Sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:15-16)! I, for My part, will embolden the Egyptians to go after them. Thereby shall I gain glory through Pharaoh, his army, his chariots, and his horsemen, and Egypt will know that I am the Eternal!”
God’s angel who was going before the Israelite camp now moves behind them, as does the pillar of cloud, coming between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. The cloud together with the darkness casts a spell upon the night, so that one camp does not approach the other camp all that night. Moses extends his hand over the Sea, and the Eternal drives back the Sea with a strong east wind all that night, He turns the Sea into dry ground, and the waters are divided.
“The Children of Israel march into the Sea on dry ground with the waters as a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22). The Egyptians follow them into the Sea with all of Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen. By the morning, looking down from a pillar of fire and cloud, the Eternal wreaks havoc upon the Egyptian camp. He starts by locking the chariots’ wheels. As the Egyptians find it difficult to drive their chariots, they realize that the Eternal is fighting against them on Israel’s behalf. Now the Egyptians attempt to flee from Israel!
Then the Eternal directs Moses once again to extend his hand over the Sea, the result being that the waters return upon Egypt and upon its chariots and horsemen. By morning the Sea returns to its full strength. As the Egyptians seek to escape it, the Eternal hurls them into the midst of the Sea. The returning waters cover all of them, all of Pharaoh’s army that has marched after them into the Sea. Not one of them remains, while the Children of Israel have walked through the Sea on dry ground between the walls of water on their right and on their left.
SONG OF THE SEA
On the other side of the Red Sea
As the Eternal on that day saves Israel from the hand of Egypt and Israel sees the Egyptians lying dead upon the shore of the sea, Israel perceives the great power which the Eternal has wielded against Egypt. They fear the Eternal, and they trust in the Eternal and in Moses His servant.
Moses and Israel sing this song to the Eternal:
Let me sing to the Eternal, exceedingly triumphant;
horse and rider has He cast into the Sea!
The Eternal, my Strength and my Song, has become my Salvation;
this is my God, whom I enshrine, the God of my father, whom I exalt.
The Eternal is a man of war:
Pharaoh’s chariots and army has He thrown into the Red Sea.
Your right hand, O Eternal, majestic in power;
Your right hand, O Eternal, shatters the enemy.
With Your nostrils’ blast waters are piled up, rivers stand still like a heap;
The enemy thinks: I shall pursue and overtake, I shall divide the spoil!
You blow with Your breath, the sea covers them;
they sink like lead in the mighty waters.
Who is like You among the mighty, O Eternal!
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
praiseworthily awesome, working wonders!
You stretch out Your right hand, earth swallows them;
You lead Your redeemed people
in lovingkindness and strength
to Your holy abode.
Peoples have heard, they tremble;
terror grips the inhabitants of Philistia.
Then the chiefs of Edom are dismayed,
trembling seizes the heads of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan melt away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
before Your immense power they become dumb as stone,
until the people You have redeemed crosses over.
You will bring them and establish them
in Your Own mountain;
You have created a foundation for Your dwelling, O Eternal,
the Sanctuary which Your hands have established, O Lord.
The Eternal will reign for ever and ever!
Then Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, takes the timbrel,
and all of the women go out after her dancing with timbrels.
Miriam sings for them:
Let me sing to the Eternal, exceedingly triumphant;
horse and rider has He cast into the Sea…
Thirst and Hunger in the Wilderness
SEARCH FOR SWEET WATER
Through the Wilderness of Shur to Marah, then encamping at Elim
Moses directs Israel’s march away from the Red Sea to the Wilderness of Shur. They go for three days in the Wilderness without finding water. When they arrive at Marah, which means “bitter,” they are unable to drink its water because of its bitterness. The people complain against Moses: “What shall we drink” (Exodus 15:24)? Moses cries out to the Eternal, who teaches him about a certain kind of wood, which he throws into the water. The water becomes sweet.
This is a place of statute and ordinance.
This is a place of trial.
The teaching continues:
If you obey the Eternal your God and do what is right by Him, heeding His commandments and His statutes, then I will not impose upon you any of the malady that I have imposed upon Egypt, I, the Eternal, your Healer.
They arrive at Elim, a place of twelve springs and seventy palm trees. There they encamp, by the water.
QUAIL AND MANNA
Wilderness of Sin
All of the congregation of the Children of Israel leave Elim. They arrive at the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month of their Exodus from Egypt. There they complain against Moses and Aaron: “It would have been better for us to die by the hand of the Eternal in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we had enough bread to eat, because now you have brought us out to this Wilderness to kill us with famine!”
The Eternal responds by telling Moses that He is about to rain down bread from heaven which the people can go out each day and collect. “This will be a test,” He explains, “to see if they follow His instruction or not. The portion which they gather on the sixth day of the week will be twice the usual daily portion.”
Moses and Aaron explain this to the Children of Israel as follows: “In the evening you shall know that it is the Eternal who brought you out from the land of Egypt, as He shall provide you with meat to eat. Then, in the morning you shall behold the Presence of the Eternal when He satisfies you with bread in response to your complaints against the Eternal. Yes, your complaint is properly against the Eternal. After all, who are we that you should rail against us?”
At the direction of Moses, Aaron bids the congregation draw close before the Eternal “as He has heard your complaints” (Exodus 16:9). They turn to the Wilderness and see the Presence of the Eternal in a cloud. Moses himself is assured by the Eternal of what Aaron and he had explained to the Children of Israel.
So, in the evening quail appear and cover the camp, and in the morning, when the dew lifts, the Children of Israel see a fine, flaky, frost-like substance on the ground. They ask each other “what” (mahn) that substance is. Alternatively, they say it is mahn. (Cf. Exodus 16:31) Moses explains that it is the bread which the Eternal is giving them and which they need to collect in sufficiency for everyone in their respective tents, a measure per person. Thus the Children of Israel collect, some more and some less, but never too much or too little. Moses cautions them not to leave any of it over until morning. But some do, and it becomes wormy and bad-smelling, and Moses becomes angry at them.
They collect it every morning before it has melted from the heat of the sun, enough for just that day. However, on the sixth day they gather in a “double portion of bread” (Exodus 16:22), two measures for each person. The chiefs of the congregation report this to Moses, who explains that the double portion had been mentioned by the Eternal in anticipation of the Sabbath on the next day. “Bake whatever you bake, cook whatever you cook,” he says, “and whatever is left over set aside for yourselves to be kept until the morning” (Exodus 16:23). So they did, and there was no bad smell or worms. “Eat it today, for today is Sabbath for the Eternal; today you shall not find it in the field” (Exodus 16:25). For six days shall you gather it in, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there shall not be any on that day.
Nevertheless, some of the people go out on the seventh day to gather. Of course they do not find anything. To them the Eternal says, through Moses: “How long will you refuse to keep My commandments and My teaching? See that the Eternal has given you the Sabbath. Therefore He gives you on the sixth day enough bread for two days. Let each person stay where he is and not go out on the seventh day!” (Exodus 16:28-29) So the people observe the Sabbath on the seventh day.
The House of Israel calls it manna (mahn) (Exodus 16:31, cf. Exodus 16:15); it is like white coriander seed, and its taste is like a wafer in honey. Moses directs Aaron to fulfill the Eternal’s command of preserving an omer measure of the manna, one-tenth of an ephah, for posterity: place it in a jar which is to be kept before the Eternal throughout future generations. Aaron sets it aside for preservation before the Testimony (cf. Exodus 31:18).
The Children of Israel ate the manna for forty years until they reached the border of the land of Canaan.
WATER FROM THE ROCK AT HOREB
Encamping at Rephidim
All of the congregation of the Children of Israel leave the Wilderness of Sin, journeying in accordance with the Eternal’s command, and eventually they encamp at Rephidim, where there is no water for the people to drink. The people demands of Moses water to drink. Moses replies: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Eternal?” (Exodus 17:2) Again the people accuse Moses of bringing them up from Egypt only “to cause me and my children and my livestock to die from thirst” (Exodus 17:3; cf. Exodus 14:10-12)! Moses communicates his desperation to the Eternal, asking for help lest the people stone him!
The Eternal has Moses appear before the people with some of the Elders of Israel and “your staff, with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5). The Eternal would stand before him on a certain rock at Horeb. “You, Moses, strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6; cf. Numbers 20:8). Thus does Moses in the sight of the Elders of Israel.
The place is called Massah and Meribah (“Trial and Quarrel”) after the quarreling of the Children of Israel and after their trying the Eternal, as they questioned, “Is the Eternal in our midst or not” (Exodus 17:7)?
Enmity in the Wilderness
WAR WITH AMALEK
At Rephidim, Amalek attacks Israel. Moses appoints Joshua to assemble a contingent of men who will go out and fight against Amalek. “On the morrow,” says Moses, “I will stand at the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” Joshua carries out the instructions of Moses to fight against Amalek. In the meantime, Moses, Aaron and Hur, go up to the top of the hill. It then occurs that when Moses raises his hand, Israel prevails, and when Moses lowers his hand, Amalek prevails.
When the hands of Moses become heavy, they set up a stone on which he can sit while Aaron and Hur hold up his hands, one on each side. Thus his hands remain steady until the setting of the sun, allowing Joshua to defeat Amalek and his people by the sword.
The Eternal instructs Moses to record this account in writing and to recite in the hearing of Joshua that “I will surely erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14)! Moses builds an altar and names it Adonai-Nissi (“The Eternal is my Banner”), explaining that it is a memorial upon the throne of the Eternal, the Eternal’s war against Amalek, in every generation.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Shirah
The Judges were charismatic rulers of the Tribes of Israel between the rules of Joshua and Samuel. They were welcomed by the people in response to various external challenges. Jabin, the king of Canaan, reigned in Hazor and was the latest oppressor of Israel. His military commander was Sisera, who lived in Charosheth-hagoyim.
Judgeship of Deborah
DEBORAH CALLS BARAK
Deborah the Prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, is the leader of Israel at that time. She could be found under the Palm Tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth El in the hill country of Ephraim. The Children of Israel would come to her for leadership.
She sends word to Barak son of Avinoam of Kedesh in Naphtali: The Eternal, God of Israel, commands that you should take ten thousand men of the Children of Naphtali and of the Children of Zebulun and march with them up to Mount Tabor. “I will draw to you, to the Wadi Kishon, Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his army, and deliver him into your hand.” Barak agrees to go, but only if Deborah accompanies him. Deborah agrees to accompany him but points out that he will not earn glory by his plan “for by the hand of a woman will the Eternal deliver Sisera” (Judges 4:9)!
BARAK ENCOUNTERS SISERA
When Sisera is told that Barak son of Avinoam has gone up to Mount Tabor, he moves all of his nine hundred iron chariots and all of the people that is with him from Charosheth-hagoyim to the Wadi Kishon. Deborah announces to Barak that this is the day when the Eternal will go out before him and deliver Sisera into his hand. So Barak comes down from Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men, and the Eternal discomfits Sisera and all of the chariots and all of the camp. Barak pursues them as far as Charosheth-hagoyim. All of the camp of Sisera falls by the sword before Barak. Not one survives, except Sisera, who jumps down from his chariot and flees on foot.
YAEL RECEIVES SISERA
Sisera reaches the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite. Heber “the Kenite” had actually separated himself from the Kenites, from the Children of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses. He pitched his tent as far as Elon-betza’ananim, which is by Kedesh. There was peace between Jabin, king of Hazor, and the House of Heber the Kenite.
Yael goes out to welcome Sisera into her tent, and she covers him with a blanket. Thirsty, Sisera asks for water; Yael gives him milk and covers him again. Sisera asks her to conceal his presence from anyone who might come looking for him, then he falls asleep from exhaustion. Yael quietly takes a tent pin and a mallet and drives the tent pin all the way through his temple into the ground. Thus he dies, and thus does Barak find him when he reaches the tent of Yael: “Come, and I shall show you the man whom you seek” (Judges 4:22).
God subdues Jabin, king of Canaan, on that day before the Children of Israel. Israel’s hand grows increasingly severe against Jabin until they cut him off entirely.
SONG OF DEBORAH
So, on that day,
Deborah and Barak son of Avinoam
When the people in Israel
fully dedicate themselves,
bless the Eternal!
Hear, O kings,
give ear, O rulers:
I shall sing to the Eternal,
the God of Israel!
When You came out from Seir,
the earth shook,
the heavens dripped.
This was Sinai
before the Eternal,
the God of Israel!
In the days of Yael,
the roads had ceased to be,
wayfarers went on roundabout paths,
missing their destinations,
until you arose, O Deborah,
until you arose, O Mother of Israel.
When they chose new gods,
was there a fighter in the gate?
No shield or spear was seen
among forty thousand in Israel.
My heart is with the Leaders of Israel
who are devoted to the people:
Bless the Eternal!
You who ride on asses and who walk on the way,
Louder than thunder,
let them recount the victories of the Eternal
for His people in Israel!
Let the people of the Eternal
come down to the gates:
Rise up, rise up, O Deborah!
Onward, onward, break out in song!
and capture your captive,
O son of Avinoam!
They come from Ephraim,
whose root is against Amalek;
after you comes
Benjamin among your peoples;
from Machir come down leaders;
and from Zebulun,
wielders of the marshal’s staff;
and officers in Issachar
with Deborah and Barak.
Among the divisions of Reuben,
great were decisions of the heart.
Why did you remain
among the sheepfolds?
Gilead remained across the Jordan;
why did Dan sojourn at Oniot?
Asher stayed at the seacoast
and dwelled by his landings.
Zebulun is a people
that risks its very life;
on the open heights.
The kings of Canaan came and fought,
but they took away no spoil of silver.
From their courses in heaven
fought the stars against Sisera,
and the Wadi Kishon swept them away!
Tread well, O my soul!
says the angel of the Eternal,
curse its inhabitants,
for they came not
to the aid of the Eternal
against the mighty.
Yael, most blessed of women—
water he asked for,
milk she gave him—
her hand she put to the tent pin,
her right hand to the mallet,
she pierced through his temple,
at her feet he fell down dead.
Through the window
peered Sisera’s mother:
Why is his chariot late in coming?
Surely they are dividing the spoil!
A couple of wombs for every man,
spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera.
May all your enemies thus perish, O Eternal!
May His lovers be as the coming out of the sun
in its might!
And the Land was tranquil for forty years.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Exodus Rabbah 20:1
Pharaoh Compared to a Dishonest Swineherd
“As snow in the summer
or rain at harvest,
so is honor not fitting
for a brute!”
This refers to Pharaoh, who may be compared to a herder of swine who stole one of his master’s ewes and concealed it among his own swine. When his master demanded the return of his ewe, the swineherd denied that it was in his possession. Thereupon the master discovered where the swineherd watered his animals, and he had the water source stopped up. Again the master demanded that the swineherd return his ewe, and again the swineherd denied that it was in his possession. Thereupon the master discovered where the swineherd sheltered his animals, and he had the swine pens destroyed. Again when the master demanded that the swineherd return the master’s ewe, the swineherd denied that it was in his possession. Thereupon the master discovered where he pastured his animals, and he had all vegetation burned away. Even still, when the master demanded return of his ewe, the swineherd denied that it was in his possession.
Then the master discovered where the swineherd’s son attended school, and he had the boy seized. This time, when the master demanded that the swineherd return the stolen ewe, the swineherd complied: “Here is your ewe!” When the ewe was returned, the master then had the swineherd himself seized and held along with his son. The swineherd protested: “Now that you have your ewe back and there is nothing of yours any longer in my possession, why have you seized me? What can you claim from me any longer?”
The master replied, “I demand from you all that the ewe you seized produced while in your possession: the young she produced and the wool that you sheared from her.” The swineherd was indignant. “I should have kept the ewe,” he complained, “and stood my ground, thereby showing that the master was only out to destroy me!”
So Aaron struck the Nile, and it was turned into blood, and the Egyptians could find no water to drink. When God demanded, “Let My people go,” Pharaoh would not heed. Knowing where the animals were pastured, He brought down hail to destroy the trees and fire to burn it all up, as was said, “The Eternal sent thunder and hail, and fire went along to the ground” (Exodus 9:23). He sent locusts to devour all vegetation and what remained of the trees. He brought all of those plagues upon Pharaoh, yet Pharaoh refused to let the people go!
Then He took Pharaoh’s son, as was said, “The Eternal struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who was sitting upon his throne, to the firstborn of the captive, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of cattle” (Exodus 12:29). Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron, “Arise, get out from the midst of my people, you and the Children of Israel” (Exodus 12:31)! But then he regretted releasing them and pursued after them (Exodus 14:1-9). God seized him and imposed upon him the same fate that He imposed upon his son: “He overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea” (Psalms 136:15)! So the Sedra begins, “Vayehi Beshalach,” the first word of which (Vaye-hi) implies Pharoah’s woeful regret, “Vaye! Vaye! Hoyi! Beshalach Paraoh…much regret when Pharaoh let the people go!” (Exodus 13:17): “I should have kept the people,” he lamented, “and stood my ground, thereby implying that the one who sought to free them was only out to destroy me!”
Exodus Rabbah 21:4
Equality in Prayer
When the king of Egypt is told that the people has fled, Pharaoh and his forces pursue Israel as far as the Red Sea. Frightened at Pharaoh’s approach, “The Children of Israel cry out to the Eternal” (Exodus 14:10). Soon thereafter, the Eternal asks Moses, “Why do you (singular) cry out to Me? Tell the Children of Israel to proceed with their journey…” (Exodus 14:15-16). The Children of Israel are the ones who cried out, not just Moses, yet the Eternal asks Moses alone why he cried out!
Here is how Rabbi Judah bar Shalom explains the apparent contradiction, in the name of Rabbi Elazar: When a poor man brings his petition to a human master, the human master pays him no heed, whereas if a rich man brings a petition, the human master accepts it immediately. Not so the Holy One, blessed be He: All are equal before Him—women, slaves, the lowly, the wealthy.
This is reflected in Scripture’s treatment of Moses and the lowly one, respectively. With respect to Moses, the Psalmist subtitles Psalm 90, “A prayer of Moses, the man of God,” and with respect to the lowly, Psalm 102, “A prayer of the lowly, when he is faint and pours forth his plea before the Eternal.” The one is prayer, and the other is prayer, in order to teach you that all are equal in prayer before the Omnipresent.
So here is what happened. When Israel went forth out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursued them, “and the Children of Israel cried out to the Eternal” (Exodus 14:10). Then Moses also begins to pray, and the Holy One, blessed be He, says to him, “‘Why do you (Moses) cry out to Me’ (Exodus 14:15)? My children have already prayed to Me, and I have heeded their prayer! Tell the Children of Israel to proceed with their journey….”
Exodus Rabbah 21:10
What they lacked for forty years
“The Children of Israel march into the sea on dry ground with the waters as a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22). If “into the sea,” then why “on dry ground?” If “on dry ground, then why “into the sea?” From this paradox we learn that the sea was not divided for them until they came into it up to their noses! After that it became dry ground for them.
Rabbi Nehorai taught: An Israelite woman was crossing into the sea, holding her crying child. She reaches out and secures a piece of fruit for him from the midst of the sea and gives it to him, as was said, “He led them through the deeps as through the wilderness” (Psalms 106:9): just as in the wilderness they lacked nothing (cf. Exodus 15:22-17:7), so also in the deeps they lacked nothing. This is what Moses said to them later: “The Eternal, your God, has been with you for these past forty years: you have not lacked a thing” (Deuteronomy 2:7).
If they did lack anything, they had only to mention the thing and it was created before them (cf. Exodus 15:22-17:7)! Rabbi Shimon taught: They did not even need to mention the thing, but if they just had a thought of the thing, it was made for them, as was said, “They tested God in their mind when they requested food for themselves” (Psalms 78:18).
Another interpretation of “You have not lacked a thing” (Deuteronomy 2:7): You have lacked nothing of the material world, not things, nor words to request them, nor thoughts to hold the words, but one thing that you did lack is your word of repentance. Hence these past forty years “in the wilderness” (Psalms 106:9)! In the meantime, “Take words with you, and return to the Eternal” (Hosea 14:3).
Talmud Megillah 10b
Talmud Sanhedrin 39b
The Eternal’s Infinite Mercy
“Give thanks to the Eternal for He is good,
for His mercy is without limit!”
When the Egyptians pursued Israel to the shores of the Sea and failed to destroy them but were destroyed themselves, the ministering angels sought to sing out in thanksgiving, “Give thanks to the Eternal…” (Psalm 118:1), but the Holy One questioned them, “‘Give thanks to the Eternal for it is good?’: Is it so good that the work of My hands is drowning in the sea that you would sing a song of thanksgiving? No, ‘for His mercy is without limit!’”
Said Rabbi Yonatan: When Judah defeated the children of Amon, Moab and Mount Seir, they sang only the words, “Give thanks to the Eternal, for His mercy is without limit” (II Chronicles 20:21)! Why did they not sing, “Give thanks to the Eternal for it is good?” They omitted the words, “for it is good,” because the Holy One does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked; to Him it is not good, “for His mercy is without limit!”
But in the Blessings and Curses
that Moses and the Elders
teach the people (Deuteronomy 27:1-28:69):
“As the Eternal rejoices [sas] concerning you to do you good…,
so will the Eternal rejoice [yasees] concerning you
in the event of your destruction…!”
Said Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina: He does not rejoice, but He lets others rejoice, as can be learned from an interpretation of this verse:
“As the Eternal rejoices [sas] concerning you to do you good…,
so will the Eternal cause others to rejoice [yasees] concerning you
in the event of your destruction…”
Note: The verb form yasees can be read as intransitive (kal), “rejoice,”
but it could also be causative (hiphil), “cause to rejoice!”
Midrash Psalms 106:1
“Give thanks to the Maker of wondrous deeds, He alone…
Give thanks to the Divider of the Red Sea…!”
God’s daily wonders for us are compared to the splitting of the Red Sea!
Said Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat: Many times a day our bodies may be in danger of mortal attack, perhaps by a snake or some other predator of nature, whereupon another force of nature, another of God’s wonders, defends us against them. We do not sense the danger, we do not sense the defense. Who does? “Maker of wondrous deeds, He alone” (Psalms 136:4)!
Exodus Rabbah 25:11
Yalkut Shimoni Ki Tisa 31
The Sabbath: The Eternal’s Gift to Israel
“See that the Eternal has given you the Sabbath.”
He could just as well have said, “Know that the Eternal has given you the Sabbath!” Why “See?” This is what the Holy One, blessed be He, meant: If idolators should argue with you and ask you why you observe this particular day as the Sabbath, say to them, “See the evidence: No manna comes down on this particular day, so this is the day on which we observe the Sabbath!”
Why “has given you?” To you was the Sabbath given and not to idolators! From this we learn that if some idolators should come and observe the Sabbath, they would receive no reward to say the least. The Sabbath is “a sign between Me and the Children of Israel forever” (Exodus 31:17). Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: In the way of the world, when the king and his lady are sitting and talking with each other, one who comes and sticks his head between them—is he not subject to the death penalty?! So it is with the Sabbath, a sign between the Holy One, blessed be He, and Israel: One who comes and inserts himself between them is deserving of death.
Yalkut Shimoni Psalms 896
“The Eternal will extend your mighty staff from Zion;
be dominant in the midst of your enemies!”
It was the staff of Jacob,
as was said:
“For with my staff I have crossed over this Jordan…”
It was the staff that Judah left with Tamar,
as was said:
“And she said…and your staff which is in your hand…”
It was the staff of Aaron that turned into a serpent,
as was said:
“Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants…”
It was the staff that was in the hand of Moses
when Joshua and his men fought with Amalek,
as was said:
“…And the staff of God will be in my hand.”
Midrash Vayosha in Jellinek, Beit Hamidrash I, pp. 42-43
Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 40
I was standing by the well, where I found Tsipporah daughter of Jethro, and I recognized that she was most modest. When I proposed marriage to her, she explained that it was her father’s practice to test any man who requests the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. The test involved a tree in her father’s garden, and whenever previous suitors approached the tree, the tree swallowed them!
I inquired of her as to the origin of the tree. She said that it was originally the staff that the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the eve of the Sabbath of Creation (cf. Mishnah Avot 5:6), which He entrusted to Adam the First. Adam entrusted it to Enoch, and Enoch entrusted it to Noah. Noah entrusted it to Shem, and Shem entrusted it to Abraham. Abraham entrusted it to Isaac, and Isaac entrusted it to Jacob. Jacob brought it down with him into Egypt and passed it on to his son Joseph. When Joseph died, the Egyptians plundered his house and brought the staff to the palace of Pharaoh. “Jethro my father was one of Pharaoh’s sorcerers. He coveted the staff and stole it. He brought the staff to his house.”
On the staff was engraved the Divine Name, and also the initials of each of the Ten Plagues which the Holy One, blessed be He, would in the future bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt. Jethro planted the staff in his garden. Later, when he returned, he found that it had flowered and produced blossoms. With it he tested anyone who wished to marry one of his daughters.
When I heard her earnest words and saw how badly the other shepherds treated her sisters and her, I rescued Tsipporah and her sisters from them. I did also draw for Tsipporah and her sisters, and I watered their flock. They returned to Reuel their father, and I came with them. They entered the house first, and I remained outside. Jethro was curious as to why they had returned so quickly. “An Egyptian man rescued us from the shepherds,” they said. I was listening outside as they told their father that I was an Egyptian. Since I did not then come in and declare that I was a Hebrew man, I lost the right to enter the Land of Israel. Jethro, for his part, urged his daughters to invite me to eat with them out of appreciation for whatever beneficence I showed them by rescuing them from the shepherds. When I entered and was dining with them, I spoke with Jethro and asked him for Tsipporah’s hand in marriage. “If you can bring me the staff that stands in my garden,” said Jethro, “I shall give her to you!” I went to his garden. I read the letters upon it and brought it to him safely in my hand!
From this act, Jethro inferred: This man must be the Prophet whom the Sages of Israel divine will one day redeem Israel from Egypt! Therefore he gave him Tsipporah his daughter as a wife.
Midrash Psalms 114:9
“When Israel went forth from Egypt…
the sea saw and fled…”
What did the sea see?
It saw the Name of God engraved upon the staff,
and so it fled,
as was said by the Eternal to Moses,
“Raise up your staff and extend your hand over the sea,
and divide it!”
Exodus Rabbah 26:2
In order to quench the people’s thirst at Rephidim, the Eternal commanded Moses to strike a certain rock at Horeb to bring forth water (Exodus 17:1-7). He instructed Moses to use “your staff, with which you struck the Nile” (ibid. 5). But Moses reacted: “Master of the universe, the staff with which I struck the Nile, that is the staff of punishment! It defiled the waters of the Nile! It brought ten plagues upon Egypt!” Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “My way is not like the way of flesh and blood, who wound with a knife and heal with a dressing: by that with which I wound I also heal!” That is why it was said, “Your staff, with which you struck the Nile, take it in your hand” (ibid.): in order that it be known that the staff that was used for punishment is also the staff of blessing!
Yalkut Shimoni, loc. cit.
It is the staff that was in the hand of David
when he vanquished Goliath,
as was said:
“He took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones…”
(I Samuel 17:40)
And it is the staff that was in the hand of every king since,
until the Temple was destroyed
and it was then hidden
and will in the future be restored to the hand of the anointed king
who will subdue the nations of the world.
Therefore was it said:
“The Eternal will extend your mighty staff from Zion;
be dominant in the midst of your enemies!”
Rabbi Levi explained the verse to refer to
all of the good accomplishments and consolations
that the Holy One, blessed be He,
would in the future provide from Zion.
Talmud Megillah 14a
Among the Seven Prophetesses whom the Rabbis named were:
“Then Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Aaron, takes the timbrel…”
“Sister of Aaron” but not sister of Moses? Rav Nachman said that Rav taught that she prophesied, when she was the sister of Aaron, “In the future my mother will bear a son who will save Israel!” When he was born, all of the house was filled with light. Her father stood before her and kissed her on the head and said to her, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled!” But when they threw the boy into the Nile, her father stood up, slapped her on the head, and said to her, “My daughter, where is your prophecy?” Whereupon “his sister stationed herself at a distance to know what would become of him” (Exodus 2:4), what would be the outcome of her prophecy!
“Deborah the Prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was the leader of Israel at that time.”
“Wife of Lappidoth” can be understood as “woman of flames,” that she made wicks for the Sanctuary (Rashi: at Shiloh).
Maharsha (Samuel Edels, 17th cent. Poland): We often find that the name of a woman in Scripture is followed by the name of her husband when the husband is more famous than the wife (e.g. Yael wife of Heber the Kenite, Judges 4:17, and Achinoam wife of Saul, I Samuel 14:50). But here, by context (peshuto), the wife, Deborah, is far more famous than her husband Lappidoth, as “she judged Israel” (Judges 4:4)! This was then the opening for midrash of “Lappidoth” as a common noun, “flames,” that she made wicks for the Sanctuary, thereby attaining to the merit of prophecy and light of Torah to qualify as a judge of Israel.
“She could be found under the Palm Tree of Deborah…
the Children of Israel would go up to her for judgment.”
Why is “under the Palm Tree” specified in particular instead of any tree in general? Rabbi Shimon ben Avshalom explained that “under the Palm Tree” was specified because of the issue of privacy between man and woman (Tosafot: when the sons of Israel come to her for judgment).
Maharsha: This is not meant to indicate the name of the place where she sat since there are many palm trees in the Land of Israel. Rather, it is meant to teach us that she sat under a palm tree and not under any other kind of tree purposely because the palm tree lacks branches below, thereby not creating any kind of privacy around it.
Anaf Yosef (Enoch Zundel ben Yosef, 19th cent. Poland, in Eyn Ya’akov): When Tosafot clarify (see above) that Deborah sat under a palm tree to preclude her meeting privately with a man, they are providing a solution (terutz) to an objection to Rabbi Shimon ben Avshalom’s explanation. The objection: How could you even imagine that a son of Israel would come to her for judgment since a woman is not qualified to be a judge! But she could be a teacher of law, in which case she would teach before two or more non-litigant students so that there would not be a problem of privacy between an umarried man and woman and therefore she could have taught under any other kind of tree as well, even one with lower branches that provide shade and privacy! Yet Rabbi Shimon ben Avshalom seems to think that she sat under the palm tree to avoid inappropriate privacy (yichud). So Tosafot is intending here to solve that objection to Rabbi Shimon ben Avshalom: When the sons of Israel come to her for judgment after having accepted upon themselves freely, with good intent, and without coercion, then she would be permitted to act as a judge. (Nonetheless there may be other problems with this understanding of the intention of Tosafot here.)
Here is another explanation as to why “under the Palm Tree” is specified in particular instead of any tree in general: Just as the palm tree has only one heart (sap cells only in the stem and not in the branches), so also Israel in that generation (during the judgeship of Deborah) were devoted with a single heart to their Father in heaven!
Seder Eliahu Rabbah 10:5
Numbers Rabbah 14:11
Genesis Rabbah 99:9
“Deborah sends word to Barak son of Avinoam of Kedesh in Naphtali:
The Eternal, God of Israel, commands
that you should take ten thousand men
of the Children of Naphtali and of the Children of Zebulun
and march with them up to Mount Tabor.”
Where in the Torah did God command this?
Deborah was sending word to Barak of God’s command in the Torah, “The Judges shall interpret (the words of the Torah) [v’darshu] diligently…” (Deuteronomy 19:18), which is followed by the command, “That you shall go out to war against your enemies…” (Deuteronomy 20:1)!
“Deborah the Prophetess…could be found
under the Palm Tree of Deborah
between Ramah and Beth El
in the hill country of Ephraim...”
Deborah was in the hill country of Ephraim. Why would she reach out all the way to Barak, who was in Naphtali? The Rabbis explain that Barak attended the Elders during and after the lifetime of Joshua. Joshua was himself the leader of the tribe of Ephraim (Numbers 13:8; cf. I Chronicles 7:20-29). So the Elders of Ephraim introduced Barak to Deborah.
At the same time as the Elders introduced Barak to Deborah, they convinced her that the Holy One, blessed be He, would save Israel from their enemies only through the agency of those who attended the Synagogue or the House of Study morning and evening every day and engaged diligently in the study of Torah—through their agency or the agency of their disciple, such as Barak!
Why were Naphtali and Zebulun chosen,
out of all of the tribes,
to achieve this great salvation for Israel?
“Naphtali is a doe let loose [sheluchah],
who produces lambs [imrey] of beauty!”
The Rabbis explain that Naphtali attended his father Jacob, who derived much nachas (pleasure) from him for the honor his son showed him. Naphtali was extremely diligent in carrying out any task that his father assigned him, and his father especially admired Naphtali’s words of Torah. These virtues are reflected in Jacob’s final blessing: “Naphtali is a doe sent forth [sheluchah]…” (Genesis 49:21a), who runs to complete his mission like the surefooted hind, “…who gives forth words [imrey] of beauty” (ibid. 21b), that is, words of Torah!
“Zebulun shall dwell by the shore of the sea;
he shall be a haven for ships…”
Although Leah delivered Zebulun after Issachar (Genesis 30:17-20), Zebulun is blessed by both Jacob and Moses before Issachar (Genesis 49:13-14; Deuteronomy 33:18). Zebulun thus prevenes his brother Issachar because he engaged in maritime trade in order to provision the latter, who studied Torah. In that order may we understand the verse, “It is a tree of life (owing) to those who underwrite it (Zebulun), so that its scholars (Issachar) may enjoy learning it” (Proverbs 3:18)! Accordingly were they blessed by Moses:
“To Zebulun he said,
‘Rejoice, O Zebulun, in your going forth,
in your tents!’”
Zebulun, by its trade, provided the walls within which Issachar could study Torah.
Barak, for his part, trusted in the God of Israel and believed in the Prophecy of Deborah. For that reason, he received equal credit with her in the Song —
“Thus sang Deborah and Barak son of Avinoam…”
— and he insisted, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8), even as she replied, “I will certainly go with you, except that you will thus be deprived of the usual glory as the Eternal will conquer Sisera by the hand of a woman…” (ibid. 9)!
Just as Deborah and Barak shared credit for the Song, so did Barak and Deborah share credit for the defeat of the enemy!
Tanchuma Shemot 16
House of a Faithful Friend
“For all time is a friend faithful,
and a brother is born for a difficult time.”
Initially, such a faithful friend was Jethro, who sheltered Moses when he was fleeing from Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15-22). From what ensued we learn: When such a person takes upon himself an obligation which he does not succeed in fulfilling, that obligation remains upon his house. Jethro received into his house a redeemer who was fleeing from an oppressor, but he did not succeed in eliminating the oppressor. Subsequently, from his house there arose one who received an oppressor who was fleeing from a redeemer, and she eliminated the oppressor:
“The descendants of the Kenite, father-in-law of Moses,
went up from the City of Palms with the Children of Judah
to the Wilderness of Judah…and lived among the people.” (Judges 1:16)
“The Eternal turned the Children of Israel over to the power of Jabin, king of Canaan…
whose general was Sisera.” (Judges 4:2)
“Deborah said to her general Barak:
Arise, for the Eternal has given Sisera into your power…” (Judges 4:14)
“Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite…as there was peace
between Jabin and the House of Heber the Kenite.” (Judges 4:17)
“Yael went out to meet Sisera and bid him,
“Turn this way, my lord, turn towards me, fear not…” (Judges 14:18)
“Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite, took the tent pin…
and hammered it into his temple…and Sisera died.” (Judges 14:21)
This is what was meant by the verse:
“For all time is a friend (like Jethro) faithful,
because a descendant (like Yael)
will be born for a difficult time!”
Talmud Pesachim 87b
Diaspora and Survival
“Louder than thunder among the watering-places,
let them recount the victories of the Eternal,
the victories of His people [pirzono] in Israel…”
A certain Roman challenged Rabbi Chanina: We are better than you, based on the account of David’s war with Edom. When Joab his commander went up there to bury the fallen, they committed an atrocity: “Joab and all Israel settled in there for six months until he had killed off every male in Edom” (I Kings 11:16)! But you have been under our control now for several years, and we have not done anything to you!
Instead of responding himself, Rabbi Chanina, with the Roman’s permission, brought in Rabbi Oshaya, who looked to the verse, “the victories of His people [pirzono] in Israel…” and interpreted, “Victory which the Holy One, blessed be He, granted to Israel by dispersing them [pizran] among the nations…”: You would like to murder all of us, but you do not know how to go about it since only some of us are under your control, and you are reluctant to annihilate only that part of us because you don’t want to be considered a limited power. By Jove, acknowledged the Roman, that is exactly what troubles us when we lie down and when we get up!
Midrash Hagadol 23:1
Yael Praised by Solomon
Said Rabbi Abahu: Twenty-two righteous women were in the world…. Who are the twenty-two righteous women? Those whom Solomon praised in the last chapter of Proverbs, “A woman of valor who can find!” (Proverbs 31:10ff.)
10. “She applies her hands to the distaff; her fingers work the spindle.” (Proverbs 31:19) This is Yael, to whom came Sisera, as was said, “Sisera fled on foot…and she opened a bottle of milk and let him drink” (Judges 4:17-19), in order to determine whether his mind was alert or not. He drank and became intoxicated; he tried to commit a sexual transgression, whereupon “she drove the tent-pin into his temple” (Judges 4:21). And it is written: “Her hand she put to the tent-pin and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer” (Judges 5:26). Therefore is she blessed in the tents of Torah, in the houses of assembly (synagogues), and in the houses of study, as was said, “Most blessed of women is Yael” (Judges 5:24)!