Torah Portion of the Week: Who Gets the Blame?

Parashat Beshalach: During the Exodus, the Children of Israel cry out to God and disparage Moses.

Ariel Seri-Levi
Crossing the Red Sea by Nicholas Poussin (1634).
Crossing the Red Sea by Nicholas Poussin (1634).
Ariel Seri-Levi

Midway through the Exodus, depicted in Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), the Children of Israel express longing for Egypt. The Egyptians are in hot pursuit and fear is translated into prayer: “And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the Children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were sore afraid; and the Children of Israel cried out unto the Lord” (Exodus 14:10). This cry, bereft of verbal content, articulates faith in God, who has the power to rescue Israel from impending death.

One would expect that this expression of faith in God would extend to faith in Moses, God’s authorized representative vis-à-vis Israel. However, the nation sees no discrepancy between crying out to God and almost simultaneously demanding an accounting from Moses: “And they said unto Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness’” (Exod. 14:11-12).

Unlike the intuitive, wordless cry to God, the nation presents Moses with a reasoned, well-phrased protest. Behind the sarcastic gibe about the lack of graves in Egypt, a clear argument is voiced: Life is no less important than liberty. The complaint is not merely the expression of a passing fear: “Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt …? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.” The Hebrew slaves’ consistent position is that living as a slave is better than dying a free individual.

Apparently, Israel considers the Exodus to be the implementation of a policy created by mortals rather than a divine action: “Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?” the Hebrews ask Moses, not God, whom they nonetheless call upon to rescue them. This chapter in the story culminates with the splitting of the Red Sea, and for this, credit goes not only to God but also to Moses: “and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses” (Exod. 14:31).

This feeling of trust, however, is short-lived, and the question of whether to assign responsibility to God or to Moses continues to echo in the following chapters. The complex triangle of God, Moses the prophet-leader and the nation operates differently in each segment of Parashat Beshalach.

The claim that life in Egypt is preferable to death in the desert is followed by another complaint that Israel aims this time at both Moses and Aaron: “And the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Exod. 16:3). Here the issue is not life versus death, but rather the two ways of dying: Death with a full belly is preferable, Israel argues, to dying of hunger.

Although the nation sounds its complaint before mortal ears, it is intended for God: The retroactive wish to die at his hands in Egypt is Israel’s elegant, subtle way of blaming God for the present crisis. Trying to clarify the issue, Moses tells his people, “Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). And God does in fact address the distress, supplying them with food.

The people’s relief, however, is only momentary. Toward the end of this week’s reading, Israel voices another complaint, which initially sounds less bitter and more concrete: “Give us water that we may drink” (Exod. 17:2). Moses interprets the people’s complaint as being directed against both himself and God: “Why strive ye with me? Wherefore do ye try the Lord?” (Exod. 17:2). However, the nation, suffering from thirst, insists that their leader alone is blameworthy: “… and the people murmured against Moses, and said: ‘Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?’” (Exod. 17:3).

Just as Israel cried out to God in its flight from Pharaoh, Moses beseeches God in his flight from the nation: “And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying: ‘What shall I do unto this people? They are almost ready to stone me’” (Exod. 17:4). When Moses cries out to God, he expresses not a loss of faith, but an acknowledgment of the powerlessness of mortals, who must therefore pin all their hopes on their Creator. In contrast, Moses interprets the nation’s lack of confidence, reflected in the complaints directed against him, as an illegitimate test of God: “Why strive ye with me? Wherefore do ye try the Lord?” In light of his words, the site where this incident takes place is called “Massah and Meribah” – “trial” and “strife,” respectively.

According to Psalm 95, based on the narrative presented in Parashat Beshalach, God shares Moses’ position regarding the nation’s complaint: “Harden not your heart, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness” (Psalms 95:8), God addresses the Children of Israel many years later, asking them not to act as the Hebrews did during the Exodus: “When your fathers tried me, proved me, even though they saw my work” (Ps. 95:9). In this verse, God considers the attempt to test him a hardening of the heart; however, since he is being tested, he accedes to the nation’s demand and demonstrates his powers.

In contrast, in the narrative appearing in this week’s portion, God neither joins Moses in his criticism of the nation, nor is he in any hurry to show it his might. Instead, he concentrates on calming Moses down. The side in the triangle now requiring reinforcement is not the one connecting God and the nation, but rather the one connecting Moses and the nation. His desperate cry shows that his distress is no less profound than that of his people.

Moses is convinced that Israel seeks to stone him. For that reason, God commands him, “Pass before the people” (Exod. 17:5), so that he can see that the nation is not waiting in ambush for him, but instead wants to hear his words. At the beginning of Parashat Beshalach, it is clear that God is the savior and that Moses is operating in his shadow. In chapter 17, in order to reinforce Moses’ authority and boost his confidence, God arranges the situation so that it appears that Moses is the one who is performing the miracle: “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink” (Exod. 17:6). The harmony of the opening words is restored, even if only momentarily: “ ... and they believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses.”

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