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Parashat B’shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

“You guided in your kindness this people you have redeemed:
You led them in your strength to your holy abode” (Exodus 15:13).

Parashat B’shalach’s blockbuster main act presents God’s splitting the Red Sea to deliver the Israelites from slavery to liberty. However, the opening verse of the parasha, or portion, hints at the real hurdle the Israelites will have to overcome once they are free: “… God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, though it was near, for God said,’ The people may change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ So God made the people go round by way of the wilderness toward the Reed Sea.” (Ex. 13-17-18). This prediction comes true when the Israelites complain, repeatedly, about being brought from Egypt into the wilderness to die (Exodus 13:11-12).

What is it the Israelites fear? After all, they’ve witnessed God perform incredible miracles on their behalf; a little wilderness shouldn’t be a problem. And the actual, physical wilderness isn’t. But the metaphorical wilderness is a big problem. The wilderness represents nature, which is God’s creation. Egypt represents civilization and culture, which is a human invention. Culture is what people manufacture out of God’s nature.

The Israelites still possess a slave mentality: they take orders and do what they’re told. They are not (yet) able to think freely and imaginatively to create independently. The responsibility of choosing between new ideas scares them to death; they are not ready to transform the wilderness from the “raw” into the “cooked.”

The wilderness is where the Israelites develop their imagination. God may have promised a land, but it requires Israelite ingenuity to transform it into a functioning Jewish society.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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