Parashat B'shallah

Exodus 13:17–17:16
February 7, 2009 / 13 Shevat 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Ackerman, Rabbi for National Outreach, JTS


As an undergraduate, I studied American History, with a special focus on the African American experience in the nineteenth century. Black Americans of the time divided their lives into two distinct phases—before emancipation and after emancipation. The Civil War, of course, served as the hinge; by war's end in 1865 millions of former slaves had become, in the parlance of the day, freedmen. Not that post-emancipation Black life in America was easy, simple, or beautiful. As we all know, it took another century for some of the basic promises of emancipation—the right to vote, some measure of equal opportunity, fair and equal access to public accommodations, among others—to become reality. But still, that moment came to represent the possibility of transformation, of reversal of fortune, of redemption, for many.

Last month I stood in the cold with a million or so fellow citizens to witness President Obama's inauguration. I was fortunate to receive two tickets and was determined to give our two teenage sons the opportunity to be part of history. As they reminded me, somewhere in a crush of people getting on or off the Washington Metro, "Abba, this is something that we'll get to tell our grandchildren about." The boys took the two tickets and found their way to a reserved section near the podium. I headed to the National Mall, settling in near the Washington Monument, among the people. My "neighborhood" for the day was overwhelmingly African American, and for my neighbors on January 20 the day's events symbolized that same possibility of redemptive transformation embedded in emancipation a century and a half prior. My neighbors hung on every word spoken, especially those offered by the new president, who expressed the same sensibility in describing himself as "a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant" but who "can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

In our culture, the paradigm for moments of redemptive transformation is the Bible's story of the Exodus from Egypt, and Parashat B'shallah serves as the dramatic high point of that tale. B'shallah begins with a verse much commented upon: "Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer . . . (Exod. 13:17)." The path from slavery to freedom will not be the direct route, but rather a roundabout one. The trip is not a straight shot; rather, as Rashi puts it, it is derekh m'ukam—curved and twisty.

The Midrash picks up on the Torah's unusual wording in order to make the point with even greater force. In Hebrew, "the way of the land of the Philistines" is derekh eretz p'lishtim.

Dividing that phrase adds a powerful nuance. Derekh eretz means the way of the earth, the ordinary course of events, the norm. God leads the Israelites neither in the ordinary way nor along a route that crosses through the coastal territory of the Philistines. The Israelites don't get to hug the shoreline; they have to journey inland toward redemption.

Pesikta d'Rav Kahana 11:8 offers a list of divergences from the usual course of things in the Exodus story. Usually, water comes from above and bread from below. Not so during the Exodus, wherein water emerges from rocks and manna rains down from the heavens. Usually, disciples walk ahead of teachers, carrying a lantern to light the path, even carrying the master over difficult terrain. Not so during the Exodus, wherein God does the advance work and the heavy lifting. Usually, disciples wash, clothe, and stand guard over their teachers. Not so during the Exodus, wherein God purifies and enrobes the Israelites, all the while never succumbing to slumber or sleep. It's a powerful reflection on redemption as reversal. Sometimes, to make things right, the world has to be turned upside down.

That crooked, upside-down path leads eventually to the Red/Reed Sea, the Torah's most dramatic metaphor for transition and transformation. Wisely, the Rabbinic framers of our parashah place the crossing of the sea at the very center of this Shabbat's narrative. Certainly, it focuses our attention on the theme of redemption. But this strategic placement of the crossing teaches another essential message: it's not all sweetness and light on the other side. Crossing complete, celebration concluded, the Israelites immediately encounter a series of existential crises, facing (and complaining about) a lack of food and water and a mortal enemy known as Amalek. The journey of our freedmen ancestors was hardly easy. President Obama's address captured this aspect of the spirit of the Exodus as well in his claim that "God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."

As the Torah's tale unfolds, the roundabout path will lead to an encounter with God at Sinai and, many years down the road, to the Promised Land. It takes time and effort and struggle. Redemption, like revelation, doesn't happen all at once. It evolves slowly, and sometimes painfully. As Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of Selma and one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, put it to a visitor the day before inauguration: "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma." A full generation's march through the wilderness is what it takes to get there.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.