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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat B'shallah 5761
Exodus 13:17-17:16
February 10, 2001    17 Shevat 5761

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Though separated by centuries, this week's parasha and haftara overlap thematically. In each case, ancient Israel, aided by the forces of nature, prevails over a mighty enemy equipped with the most fearsome weapon of the day, the chariot. Pharaoh pursues the horde of Israelites departing Egypt with every chariot at his command, including his elite corps of 600. Drawn by two horses, each one of these swift vehicles was manned by a driver, warrior and officer. Clearly, Pharaoh intended to cow his just freed slaves into returning to Egypt without a struggle (Exodus 14:6-7).

And had God not intervened, Pharaoh would have succeeded. At the very sight of his mobile armada, the Israelites lost their nerve and bitterly accosted Moses. But in the midst of the parted waters, the metal chariots sank into the muddy surface and became a life-threatening liability. "[God] locked the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty (14:25)." At daybreak when the waters surged back, the Egyptians were entombed in their chariots.

Similarly in Canaan, a Canaanite king named Jabin oppressed the loosely knit tribes of Israel for some 20 years with a force of 900 iron chariots (Judges 4:2-3). Inspired by the Prophet Deborah, and in her company, Barak, the son of Abinoam, marshaled an army of 10,000 foot soldiers from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali to take on Sisera, Jabin's commander-in-chief, with his 900 chariots at Mount Tabor in the plains of Jezreel. The armor proves useless as before in the face of divine intervention. "And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and army into a panic before the onslaught of Barak . . . (Judges 4:15)." As if to underscore the allusion to the earlier triumph at the Sea of Reeds, the author of Judges employs the same verb used in Exodus, va-yaham-he threw into a panic: ("and [God] threw the Egyptian army into panic (Exodus 14:24))."

In Deborah's poetic retelling of Barak's victory over Sisera, the panic appears to be induced by water" as it had been in the wilderness. "The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them [the Canaanite kings] away, the raging torrent, the torrent Kishon (Judges 5:20-21)." Both in style and substance, then, the redemption at Mount Tabor is regarded as a reprise of the climax of the Exodus.

Far be it from the midrash to miss the parallelism. In the Song at the Sea, Moses opens by announcing his subject: "I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:1)." The Hebrew for "He has triumphed gloriously" or more literally, "He is most exalted," is a doubling of the same verb, "ga'oh ga'ah". Taking the word in its most basic sense of being "proud," the midrash assigns the first verb to God and the second to man to arrive at the moral lesson that God humbles the arrogant, or in the felicitous translation of Judah Goldin "God lords it over all those who act high and mighty - for in the very ways the nations of the world adopt to act high and mighty before Him, He brings them to account (The Song at the Sea, p. 89)." That is, God delivers retribution to the arrogant with surgical finesse: What they deem to be the source of their glory becomes their undoing. And among the many biblical examples cited by the midrash to affirm the universality of the pattern are the instances of Pharaoh and Sisera, whose intimidating chariots were no match for the waters displayed by God against them.

Weapons systems weigh heavily on my mind these days. I am aghast at the determination of the Bush administration to push ahead vigorously with the introduction of an expanded anti-missile defense at a cost of $100 billion. Long ago Einstein warned that, "with the splitting of the atom everything has changed, except our mode of thinking." The collapse of Communism has done little to rid Washington of the delusion of Star Wars, despite our failure to make the vastly simpler Patriot missile functional. A combination of power and paranoia impels us to destabilize international relations with a technology that does not work against an enemy which does not exist.

I do not deny that there may indeed be rogue regimes consumed by a single-minded hatred of the United States. What I question is the undocumented psychological assumption that they are unrestrained by the usual threat of deterrence. In the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein, surely a rogue if there ever was one, did not take recourse to his arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, no matter how dire his straits, because he knew that he would face certain obliteration if he did. The preferred method of retaliation of an aggrieved rogue is an act of terrorism which permits him to cover his tracks. The United States is surely at risk from terrorism, but not in the form of a ground-to-ground missile whose point of origin is easily identifiable. Rogues are survivors, not martyrs.

A pig in a poke, the anti-missile venture also threatens to derail the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which has tempered the arms race for 30 years now. To scuttle that treaty would replicate the colossal mistake made by the United States when it refused to join the League of Nations after World War I. As we learned then, there is no security in going it alone. Nor does a renewed arms race bring us any closer to a fail-safe world. The incalculable sums to be saved by avoiding it could alleviate so much human suffering and environmental degradation!

My common sense bristles at the arrogance of expertise and its moral torpor.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat B'shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.