The Red Sea Parts and Manna Falls from Heaven
a.k.a. Parashat Beshalach
children of Israel left Egypt, going through the wilderness towards the Red Sea. They were equipped for battle,
should it arise. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. God led them by appearing as a pillar of cloud by day
and a pillar of fire by night. In the meantime Pharaoh regretted letting the people of Israel go, and he and his
army gave chase with numerous chariots. When the people saw the chariots, they accused Moses of leading them to
death in the wilderness. Moses told them not to panic. Following God’s instructions, Moses lifted his rod and
parted the waters of the Red Sea and the people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry land. When the
Egyptians gave chase, their chariot wheels got stuck. Moses, following God’s instructions, lifted his rod again
and the sea closed in upon the Egyptians and every one of them perished. Moses led the people in a song of
deliverance and Miriam, the prophetess, led the women in a dance.
short-lived because desert travel was hard. Only bitter water could be found in the wilderness, but God made it
sweet so the people could drink. Then the food supply ran out, and the people again blamed Moses and Aaron. But
God told Moses He would cause bread to rain down from heaven. This came to pass, and God also sent quails into
the camp in the evening. God commanded the people to gather double the amount of manna on Friday as none would
rain down on the Sabbath. Some people tried their luck gathering manna on the Sabbath but all they received was
a tongue-lashing from Moses. As testimony to God’s providence Aaron kept a small quantity of manna in a
years of wandering in the wilderness, the people came to the border of Canaan. At Rephidim the people demanded
water, awakening the anger of Moses who rebuked them for constantly putting God to the test. At Horeb, God told
Moses to strike a rock with his staff – when he did, water gushed out and the people were able to
Amalekites appeared, attacking the people of Israel. Moses instructed Joshua to raise an army to fight the
attackers. Moses stood on a hill, watching the battle, and every time he raised his hand in the air, the army of
the children of Israel prevailed. When Moses grew tired, Aaron and Hur helped him keep his hand up. Joshua and
his soldiers achieved a decisive victory and God promised to wipe the Amalikites off the face of the
Commentary on the 16th parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
MS: I’m not sure I want to talk to you any more. You have been very scathing about the
Pesach story and I find that offensive and intolerable.
SAS: I’m not going to stop my probing now that we have come to Moses making the sea stand
up in two tall columns. This is a story that insults our knowledge and understanding of the natural universe.
MS: Just because we’re an intellectual people who understand the universe and how it
usually works doesn’t mean we can’t believe that God can work miracles as he
SAS: Come on! The sea standing up like walls! It’s unimaginable, and it’s ridiculous to
ask people to believe it happened. Rather say that either by coincidence or Moses’ understanding of the ebb and
flow of water, the tide was high when the Egyptians came to cross an area of water that was at low tide when the
people of Israel crossed – that would at least make some sort of sense.
MS: And remove the need for God from the story!
SAS: Well, that’s not a need that I think is required, but I’m sure you could still work
God into the story as the controller of tides. The very idea of the Egyptians falling for the trick beggars
belief. What ruler or general would order his army through a backed-up sea?
MS: Pharaoh would have! He was obsessed!
SAS: Well, that’s a matter of speculation about the inner workings of Pharoah’s mind. It’s
not much of an argument. One other thing that irks me is the people’s celebration at the death of the Egyptians.
Is it right for God’s people to celebrate the wide-scale death of other people? You go along with that bit,
MS: Either they would have been hauled off to slavery again or the Egyptians had to die.
I don’t blame them for rejoicing. You would probably have done the same.
SAS: I would have felt relief, and gratitude too if I’d believed in God, but the sight of
thousands of people drowning would have sobered my mood, and made me regret the passing of
MS: What! Are you part of our people or not?
SAS: Yes, but I am part of all
MS: I feel sorry for you – if you belong to everyone in general, then you belong to no
one in particular, including your fellow Jews.
SS: That’s partisan nonsense. But, listen, I want to comment on something else. Why do
you present the Jews in Exodus as a grumbling and discontented lot? They see miracle after miracle, but when
there’s no food and water, they forget all the signs God has given them and doubt his providence.
MS: I presented them like this because that’s how it happened. It’s a theme that gets
repeated throughout our history and it is an important one – in spite of the faithfulness of God, the people
quickly lose faith and loyalty to Him when situations are adverse or when followers of other gods tempt them.
It’s an important theme because it shows that man is inherently weak and that it takes devotion and commitment
to be a true believer in God.
SAS: There’s something amusing about it all – God has, after all, walled up the ocean to
let the people of Israel pass, and yet they still kvetch and say,
“OK, now let’s have a real miracle.” What did they want God to do to
prove Himself – get angels to come down and do handstands? Surely
anyone who’d witnessed the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea would have felt completely secure in the hands
of the God performing such acts. Your story undermines itself here – if you ask me, the people of the Exodus, if
it ever happened, never saw the miracles you’ve described and they remained doubtful about the whole enterprise
until they reached Canaan and were able to conquer its inhabitants.
MS: The story simply makes the point that the people were immature and quick to forget –
they needed constant proof and reinforcement early in their relationship with God. Trust had to grow over time.
SAS: So the children of Israel really were children? How patronising. Anyway, there’s
another aspect of the story that fascinates me and that’s our rapid military success. We emerge bedraggled from
the desert and our ragtag army, whipped into shape by Joshua, wins the first battle it has! That’s unbelievable!
There must have been a lot of vitamins in that manna coming down from heaven!
MS: It’s not so strange. Remember, I mentioned before that the people left Egypt equipped
for battle, so they would have kept their armaments.
SAS: No wonder they spent 40 years in the desert – they were weighed down by armour! No,
this part of the story makes no sense, I’m afraid. There is a period of time missing here when we built up
supplies of arms, trained up as a military force on the outskirts of Canaan, and tested ourselves in minor
skirmishes before entering a full-scale battle with a well-entrenched mob like the
MS: I’ll remind you again – God makes all things possible.
SAS: Yes, and of course, He knows the future. Here God vows to wipe the Amalekites out,
and of course it’s a safe prophecy to include because you knew that King David did exactly that. So into the
mouth of God this certain prediction is placed.
MS: I’m tired of you ascribing dishonesty to me.
SAS: Dishonesty went with the literary territory in your time. No, primarily I ascribe
genius to you, my friend. In spite of its illogical elements, your story of our people is a brilliantly
assembled one. It’s gripping, though implausible – a masterpiece of storytelling and
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
Jews in South America and
North America 15th century to 18th century
Christopher Columbus left for the New World on the same day Ferdinand and Isabella expelled
Jews from Spain in 1492. Seven Jews sailed with Columbus. It was the start of a significant movement of Jews to
the two American continents. Today there are 400,000 Jews in Latin America and possibly as many as 6.5 million
Jews in the USA. New York’s Jewish population is estimated at 1,750,000 – the largest Jewish population outside
The American adventure sprang properly to life in 1654, Paul Johnson writes, when a French
ship brought 23 Jewish refugees from Brazil to New Amsterdam. Although these Jews were allowed to stay, the
governor – Peter Stuyvesant – complained to the Dutch West India Company about this influx of Jews. In 1664 New
Amsterdam fell to the English and became New York. The Jews were granted English citizenship and religious
Charleston, South Carolina, attracted Jews from an early date because of a 1669 charter
promising liberty to all settlers. Records show at least one Jew was there by 1695, and in 1702 a significant
influx of Jews entered the town. More came in 1740-1741. The first synagogue was established in 1750. Initially
Portuguese Jews dominated, but more and more Jews from Western Europe began arriving. Until 1830, Charleston had
the biggest concentration of Jews in the USA.
Jews settled in Delaware and Rhode Island. In 1730, the first Jewish
synagogue was established in New York and one followed in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1763. Newport’s Touro
synagogue was designed by Peter Harrison, America's most famous 18th century
architect. A Jewish colony in Philadelphia arose in
Unlike in Europe, as Johnson informs us, Jews had no reason to form a separate community as
they enjoyed religious freedom. Jews were members of synagogues, but in all other ways were members of the
citizenry, just as all other citizens. Jews quickly acquired a permanence and stability they had never
By 1776, there were approximately 2000 Jews in America, most of them Sephardic. Jews played a
significant role in the War of Independence (1775-1783), either as soldiers or financiers of the war. President
George Washington lauded the Jewish contribution to American life in 1790. The Russian pogroms of the 1880s led
to many Ashkenazi Jews coming to the USA and we will hear more of their history in future
By the 16th century there were Jewish communities in
Brazil, Jamaica, Barbados, Suriname and Curaçao. The first synagogue in the
Americas was set up in Recife, Brazil, in 1636. Most Jews there had left Europe to escape the Inquisition.
However, the war between the Portuguese and the Dutch – which ended in 1654 – led many Jews to return to
Amstersdam. By April of that year, all Jews had left Brazil in the wake of the Portuguese victory. Some Jews
arrived in the 1800s and there are 295,000 Jews in Brazil today, most in Sao
have been in Venezuela by the middle of the 17th century but permanent settlements there arose only
in the 19th century and today the population of Jews is about 21,000.
Jewish community in South America is in Argentina – a population of 400,000. The influx started as Jews fled the
Inquisition but the incoming refugees assimilated into the society and no community was established at this
time. After 1810, however, Jews from France started arriving. Later in the century many Eastern European Jews
arrived because by that time Argentina had an open-door policy for immigrants and the Inquisition had finally
been abolished in 1813.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by the Father, Chaya and
CHAYA: This is a much happier story than the ones we have heard up to now. The New World has been a
good place for Jews, I think.
DAD: Generally speaking, you’re probably right. The North American chapter of our history is
particularly inspiring and shows just how great a contribution to a country’s history and culture Jews can
make when allowed to live normally and assimilate into the general population.
BEN: I can think of lots of famous American Jews – Steven Spielberg, Saul Bellow, Bob Dylan, Susan
Sontag, Isaac Bashevis Singer …
DAD: Don’t get started, Ben – the list runs into thousands and by next year there’ll be a few dozen
CHAYA: Why was English-speaking America so tolerant to Jews when we
DAD: The main reason, I think, is that the Christian religion was not allowed to dominate human
affairs in the USA, although it’s always played an important role. The country sprang into life in a
new-world setting, and the violent results of religious fanaticism, especially relating to the Roman Catholic
Church, were well known. The American Constitution, adopted in 1787, included several ideas from the Bill of
Rights Act passed in England in 1689. In a new world, where
history was being made afresh, these ideas took root and a society dependent upon freedoms, including
religious freedom, was born. The separation of church and state was also a key element of American
CHAYA: So, has there been no anti-Semitism in the USA?
DAD: On the contrary, there has been a good deal, but
it has been a lot less prevalent, destructive and systematic than in Europe. It became noticeable in the
American Civil War (1861-1865), but we’ll discuss that period another evening.
BEN: Perhaps our communities were too small for people to feel threatened by
DAD: No, the size of our communities never stopped people from attacking us before. It’s more that
the notion of our being enemies of Christ didn’t seem important to most Americans. In the 17th
century, a lot of immigrants came to America to escape religious persecution. This persecution resulted from
governments trying to impose one particular brand of religion – be it Catholic or Protestant – on those
people’s communities. These new arrivals in America craved religious freedom above all else, and weren’t
predisposed to pick on the Jews, who constituted another religious community. Remember also that by the
18th century, the Age of Enlightenment was spreading in Europe, and Enlightenment ideals, based on
knowledge and reason, were admired in the USA. It took a while for serious anti-Semitism to raise its head in
the USA, as we shall see later.
BEN: South America is not a place I generally think of as having Jews.
DAD: Well, our numbers there are a lot fewer than in the USA, but we have flourished there too.
CHAYA: You know what? I once read that someone wanted to create a Jewish state in
DAD: Perfectly true! Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy German Jew, proposed the idea in 1891, and
offered assistance with the settlement. European rabbis didn’t bite, and only countenanced a resettlement in
Israel, but Hirsch did set up 6000 Jews in agricultural colonies there. On the subject, there have also been
proposals for a Jewish homeland in Uganda in Africa, as well as Alaska and other parts of the
BEN: Why was Argentina, a predominantly Catholic country, accommodating to
DAD: It wasn’t, as such. You must remember that the
first Jews who came there following the Inquisition were conversos, or secret Jews, and they quickly blended into the community. It
wasn’t until the 19th century, when Argentina gained independence from Spain and abolished the
Inquisition that Jews started arriving in significant numbers.
CHAYA: Was anti-Semitism a problem there?
DAD: In the 20th century, yes, it was – and it continues to be today. The local Jewish
community has had other problems too – political and economic upheavals have put the largely middle-class
Jewish community there under great pressure. Still, Jews are
Kippur, and the first two and last two days of Pesach as legal holidays. But we’ll talk more of
present-day Argentina on another occasion.
BEN: Haven’t there been lots of
Nazis hiding out in Argentina, Dad?
DAD: Correct, Ben. What an irony
that Jewish refugees and Nazi refugees have ended up in the same place!
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
- To pull a friend out of the mire, don’t hesitate to get dirty. (Baal Shem
- Seven things shorten a man’s life: anger and envy, lust and pride, gossip,
debauchery and idleness.
- When two men quarrel, the one who yields first displays the nobler nature.
- A fool who can keep silent is counted among the wise.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Hillel (end of first century BCE to beginning of first century CE)
Hillel was a Pharisee leader
from first century BCE and an outstanding sage. He propagated some very basic humanistic ideas – “The Jew must
be guided not only by considerations of justice but by mercy and conciliation, with special consideration for
the poor and underprivileged.” Two of his sayings still live on. One is: “What is hateful to you, do not do to
your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” With these words Hillel
recognized as the fundamental principle of the Jewish moral law the biblical precept of brotherly love. This
saying is often referred to as The Golden Rule and in Jesus’s version
appears as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Hillel also famously said, “If I am not for
myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” These fundamental ideas are
at the basis of all ideas of justice and fairness.
Primo Levi (1919-1987)
Primo Levi was a chemist born
in Turin, a Holocaust survivor and author of memoirs, short stories, poems, and novels. He is best known for his
work on the Holocaust and in particular his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the
infamous death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. If This is a Man has
been described as one of the most important works of the twentieth century. He also wrote The Periodic Table, a collection of short pieces, mostly episodes from his
life, but also including two fictional short stories that he wrote before his time in Auschwitz, all related in
some way to one of the chemical elements. At London’s Royal Institution in 2006 it was voted “the best science
book ever written”. The most important of his later works was his final book, The Drowned and the Saved, an analysis of the Holocaust in which Levi
explained that, although he did not hate the German people, he had not forgiven them. Levi himself, along with
most of Turin’s Jewish intellectuals, was not religiously observant. This deeply depressed man died as a result of a three-story fall in 1987 and
the coroner’s verdict was suicide.