Light from the Sidra

Beshalach ('When he let them go…'). 30th January 2015. 11th Shevat 5775

Torah: Exodus 13:17-17:16. Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31

I believe with imperfect faith...

I’ve always found the Rambam’s ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ ironic. Although each article begins, ‘I believe with perfect faith…’ Maimonides’ thinking was grounded in the logic of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. A present day disciple of Maimonides’ is Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim of The Jewish Times who says, ‘A view should be recognized as true when it is reasonable.’

The mind is important and HASHEM does not require blind faith of his people but neither does he demand that we sift what he reveals to us through the fine mesh of our own rationality. Since Adam rebelled against God, the human capacity for reason has been tainted and so we must not try to understand in order that we may believe; we must believe in order to understand.

In this week’s Parasha, Israel is called to trust HASHEM on the basis of what they had seen him do in Egypt. After delivering his people from slavery by a series of plagues that left the greatest superpower in the ancient world economically ruined, God led Israel to safely through the sea and then destroyed the entire Egyptian army. If the book of Exodus was nothing but a mythological tale, after all those miracles we would expect all Israel to have believed with perfect faith in HASHEM and to have lived happily ever after. But the account of what happened after the parting of the Sea of Reeds has a poignant ring of truth about it.

At Marah, HASHEM healed the waters so Israel could satisfy their thirst. At the oasis of Elim, HASHEM supplied food and water in abundance and blessed them with the gift of Shabbat. At Meribah he provided water out of a rock and Israel defeated the Amalekites. At each stage in Israel’s journey through the Sinai desert, HASHEM met Israel’s needs in various ways. Each of Israel’s trials should have strengthened their faith in God but human logic demanded to know how he could possibly meet the next crisis and we see the people kvetching at every point of the way.

What a tragedy to see Israel demonstrate such ingratitude: rationalising rather than believing; kvetching rather than trusting. But are we any better than they were? The history of the Jewish people is inseparable from God but an astonishing number of Jewish people today define themselves as atheists and agnostics. And it’s not only – excuse the term – ‘ordinary’ Jews who doubt the existence of God but also scientists and intellectuals, community leaders and even rabbis!

To call out to God when we find ourselves in trouble is good. It’s honouring to HASHEM to do so. But it’s wrong to blame him for our ills and to complain that he doesn’t care about us. Worst of all, it is out of order to challenge God. You know the kind of thing: ‘If there is a God, let him prove himself by giving me a Lamborghini!’

At the Exodus God revealed to Israel the principles by which he redeems, not only at that time but also when he would redeem Israel a second time through the Messiah.

A significant but often over-looked factor in the Exodus account of Israel’s redemption is the part played by Moses’ shepherd’s staff. In Exodus 4:17, when HASHEM sent Moses to confront the world’s most powerful ruler he instructed him to take with him his wooden staff. It was with that simple branch from a tree that Moses would perform the great signs that would bring about Israel’s redemption. At Moses’ first confrontation with Pharaoh, in obedience to God, he threw down his staff before the king. The stick turned into a snake which ate the snakes produced by Pharaoh’s court magicians. It was a serpent that brought humanity into slavery to sin, so there was great significance in that first miracle. By the power of HASHEM, Moses defeated serpents with a weapon used by shepherds to strike the heads of snakes in the wilderness. With the same staff Moses turned the waters of the Nile to blood. With his staff he brought vast numbers of frogs onto dry land, turned dust to lice, caused gigantic hailstones to fall on the land and brought a plague of locusts that left Egypt agriculturally devastated. Finally, on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, Moses stretched out the staff, and the sea parted.

When the people arrived at the waters of Mara and were in danger of dying of thirst, HASHEM, showed Moses a tree – probably the Moringa Oleifera, which is still used to purify water in parts of Africa – and the water became sweet. Salvation came to Israel once more through wood though it’s unlikely Moses threw the whole tree into the water. If the tree was the Moringa, just a few of its berries would have purified the brackish water in minutes.

The lesson in all this is that just as the world was ruined through a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – and mankind was cut off from the Tree of Life as a result, when God saves he does it by means of a tree. In the dealings of God with Israel at the Exodus, ordinary trees become life-giving shadows of the Tree of life. At Mara, God revealed that his remedy for the bitterness of life and of death is a tree. And it was on a tree that the Messiah – who said he was ‘the way, the truth and the life’ – was executed.
When the people came to Rephidim, they were once again faced with the prospect of death by dehydration. And God’s remedy once again involved Moses’ staff, with which he struck the rock and saved the people. Jonathan ben Uzziel’s Targum on Numbers 20 reads: ‘And Mosheh lifted up his hand, and with his rod struck the rock two times: at the first it dropped blood; but at the second time there came forth a multitude of waters.’

The author of the Gospel of John draws on Exodus imagery, including the rock of Horeb, to show that Jesus is the Messiah. John was present at the death of Jesus and recorded that when a centurion struck the heart of Jesus with a spear – a wooden staff tipped with iron – ‘blood and water’ came out of the wound. John was no doubt familiar with the Targum and by recording the blood and water that came from the side of Jesus, he shows us that just as the striking of the rock of Horeb brought salvation from death, so the striking of the Messiah saves those who look to him.

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