Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Beshalach

What If?

In the opening of Parashat Beshalach, we are told how in taking the nation out of Egypt, Hashem rejected the Philistine Route in favor of the Wilderness Route.  What, though, would have happened had the Philistine Route been chosen?  See The Roundabout Route and The Road Not Traveled.

  • Would revelation not have taken place on Mt. Sinai?  Did not Hashem already tell Moshe that upon leaving Egypt the nation was to worship Him in the wilderness, at Mt. Horev?1  Where, instead, would the Torah have been given?  How would the experience of revelation have differed had it taken place in Israel, for instance?
  • Would the Egyptians never have drowned at Yam Suf?  How would history have differed if that was the case?  Would Hashem have destroyed their army in a different way or simply prevented their giving chase?  Was it necessary for the nation to witness their previous masters' deaths so as to be really free, or would the Exodus have been enough?  See Ibn EzraShemot Second Commentary 14:13About R. Avraham ibn Ezra.

Physical or Spiritual Sustenance?

When describing the events that take place at Marah, the nation’s first stop in the Wilderness, the text shares, "שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט". This has been understood by various commentators to refer either to Hashem’s instructing the nation in some of the Torah’s laws,2 His relaying of the principle of Divine providence,3 or to His providing them with physical sustenance.4 See Miracles and Mitzvot at Marah for elaboration.

  • Use a concordance5 to check how the words "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" are used throughout Tanakh and what evidence there is for each of these possibilities.
  • What does each position suggest regarding what were the nation's most pressing needs as they emerged from slavery and how Hashem dealt with these?  Is it more important to provide a fledgling nation with a spiritual and moral compass, or to first provide for their physical needs? 
  • Those who take the approach that the terms refer to Divine commandments differ regarding which laws Hashem relayed. Their suggestions include: Shabbat, honoring parents, civil law, illicit sexual relations and the red heifer ceremony.  What might be the textual and/or conceptual motivation behind each suggestion?

The Wilderness: A Purely Supernatural Existence?

Parashat Beshalach describes several of the miracles of the Wilderness period including the provision of water, heavenly manna and שְׂלָו.  Were such miracles the norm or the exception?

  • What evidence might support the position that the Israelites led, not a supernatural existence, but a typical nomadic lifestyle in the Wilderness, merely supplemented by the occasional miracle?  See Life in the Wilderness for suggestions.
  • Were the miracles achieved by completely supernatural methods or by harnessing the laws of nature?  See שְׂלָו – Fish or Fowl for a discussion of the identity of the שְׂלָו and how the possibilities impact the question of its natural/miraculous nature. See also Miracles for general discussion of the relative roles of the natural and supernatural.

Annihilating Amalek

What was so terrible about Amalek's attack that it led to a command to totally annihilate the nation?  For several approaches, see Annihilating Amalek, and think about the following: 

  • How is one supposed to react to terrorism?  If a nation with a terrorist mindset and lack of ethical norms attacks, how extreme a response is necessary or appropriate?  What if innocents will be killed as collateral damage?
  • If you deem another nation to be an existential threat to your survival, is it justified to launch a preemptive attack to prevent your own destruction?  How can you determine when such a threat exists?
  • How exceptional is the command to wipe out Amalek?  In the rest of Tanakh, what is Hashem's usual course of action when dealing with enemies of Israel?6


For more, see: Parashat Beshalach Topics.