Beyond the Mask- B’Shelach and Purim

In the Torah portion of B’Shelach we learn about the Jews and the miracle of the parting of the sea of reeds and the song they song is contrasted against the survival of the Jews of Spain & Portugal and the song their descendants sing before or after Birkat HaMazon.

I’m combining my review of ‘B’Shelach’ with the Jewish holiday of Purim as the last 9 psukim of this Torah portion are also read on Purim. In B’Shelach we learn more about the miracles of the exodus from Egypt. This is the 16th of 54 sedras and 4/11 in Shemot. It contains only 1 mitzvah of the 613 found in the Torah and that is the one of leaving one’s Shabbat boundary (T’chum Shabbat). The Hebrews depart in the morning so they can be seen by the people of Mitzrayim (Egypt) and not hidden in the darkness of night and leave armed. They leave on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan and spend 3 day’s walking in the dessert. What we learn from the Parasha is not that Pharaoh let us go, but that HaShem took us out of Egypt. This is part of the experiential relationship between the Jewish people and G-d and how the whole nation were part of and witness to the event.

The Hebrews are led out of slavery in Egypt on a circuitous route on their way to “Yam Ha Suf” (the Red Sea), apparently to stop them from panicking and returning to Egypt; after a long time in slavery they were not used to this freedom. Despite leaving with the clothes and jewelry of the Egyptians, the Hebrews left with no food, confusing the Egyptians into thinking that they would return (making them fear that they would receive more punishment from G-d). We also learn (as I mention here in the previous week) that a Midrash states that Yosef’s bones were hidden in the Nile and miraculously rose to the surface in time to be taken for proper burial in Egypt. Yosef had buried his own father in Israel, and merited his own burial in the land. In fact, it was the burial of Yaakov that may have caused initial resentment to the Hebrews in Egyptian society as when the Hebrews escorted the body of Yaakov up to Israel, Egypt’s neighbors attacked them as they were weaker with so many armed personal away from home. Yaakov had to be embalmed in the manner of the Egyptians as when he left his body, it was as if he was still alive (such was his spiritual level) and it is said that the body of a Tzaddik does not decay like a regular body. By mummifying him, it would have prevented idol worship of his body by the Egyptians. All the sons of Yaakov are brought up to Israel for burial with the exodus.

There are two interesting points in regards to their journey through the dessert. In regards to the circuitous journey they took, they could have been avoiding the lands where they may be forced to fight as they still had a submissive slave mentality. It could also be interpreted that the route they took was not a normal route, as they were part of something miraculous. It would confuse Pharoah who had inserted spies into the Hebrews as to what they were doing. We also hear that they were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This is so they could travel by day and night and the clouds have a crossover time; they are never described as disappearing in the Torah portion. A cloud is something that sits in the sky and contains water, something that we also find in the earth and which sustains life. We learn that the water in the dessert came from below a rock and from a miraculous well that accompanied the Hebrews on their journey, thanks to Miriam. According to the Tosefta, the people were granted three miracles in order to survive in the dessert; the Manna by the merit of the Moses, the cloud by the Merit of Aaron and the water by the merit of Miriam.

When the Hebrews arrive at the sea, they see the Egyptian army coming after them (countering the idea that Pharaoh let them go; he in fact changed his mind once they were gone and the spies he’d sent among them reported to him that the Hebrews were not coming back). G-d commands Moshe to raise his hand over the sea and to split it and that the people will be able to pass through it on dry land. We learn that G-d will harden Pharaoh’s heart again so he will continue with his pursuit of the Hebrews. We hear now the cloud’s are positioned so that they separate the Hebrews from the Egyptians. A strong wind comes and divides the water, giving the Hebrews a sign that something physical is also involved in the event, as we learnt in Egypt that their faith was weak.

From the Gemara we learn that it’s the tribe of Yehudah who enter the sea first. Nachshon, the military leader of Yehuda, is the first to enter the water and walks into it until it reaches his chin before the seas open up.  The Hebrews walk into the parted water and a midrash states that their were 12 tracks through the water (one for each tribe), showing that everyone has their own way in life. The walls of water at the side of each track had fruit that could be picked, that the water could be seen through like glass and that each tribe could see each other. This idea is hearkening back to the trees of the garden of Eden which were supposed to have been edible, with the trunk and branches tasting like fruit (Rashi, Midrash Bereshit Rabbah). This meant that the trees were immediately edible (and thus easy to destroy) but also reminds us of the concept of sustainability and protecting what we have so it can keep on producing life-sustaining food. The path through the sea was as unconventional as the journey to the sea: the Hebrews semi-circled through the waters and came out on the same side as they entered. G-d commands Moshe to raise his hands and the water crashes down behind the Hebrews and onto the pursuing Egyptians, with the wheels of the chariots becoming stuck in the mud and this gives the Hebrews the opportunity to see them lying dead when they emerge on the shore again. A midrash also states that the plagues of Egypt were repeated against them again but 5 times worse. Today in Jewish prayer, the full Hallel is not said on the last six day’s of Pesach because on the 7th day the Egyptians drowned so we don’t rejoice. We also don’t rejoice of the 70,000 enemies of the Jews of Persia who are killed in the Purim story.

What comes next is the ‘Song at Sea’ which in itself is a direct quote from the Hebrews that ended up in the Torah. This part is their composition and is incorporated into daily prayer. It is here in which I would like to tie the story of the exodus to Purim. In later history we hear of the Exodus of the Jews of Spain escaping the Spanish inquisition and the Alhambra decree (1492) with as many as 120,000 moving to Portugal (before being expelled from there 3 years later in 1495). Many thousands remained in Spain and converted to Christianity but remained Jews on the inside trying to retain their culture and faith. The Jewish culture of Spain, or in Hebrew “Sepharad” was so great that it gave Judaism many of it’s greatest Jewish thinkers and bodies of work: the Rambam, the Ramban, the Rif, Ibn Ezra, Isaac Avranel, Shmuel HaNagid, Yehuda HaLevi and many more. Jews across North Africa and the Middle East call themselves Sephardim now because they took the Jewish law of Rambam which he developed whilst living in Spain. In the book of Esther, read on Purim, we hear the story of a Queen, secretly Jewish and married to the Gentile King, whose people are at risk of destruction by the King of the Persian Empire and his adviser, Haman. Her name “Esther” comes from the Hebrew word for hidden and in the book of Esther we do not see G-d’s name mentioned once. Esther and her uncle Mordechai’s plan to save the Jews is successful and is as miraculous as the opening of the sea for the Hebrews in Egypt. We also see a miracle in the Jews of Spain and Portugal aside from their miraculous culture, but in the incredible way in which the forcibly converted Jews, often referred to as Converso’s, Anusim, Crypto Jew’s and Marrano’s; despite the 400 year inquisition, that many of them (and their descendants) held onto as much of their Jewish culture as they possibly could despite the outward dangers of doing so. Through their hidden life, they were able to take their traditions outside of Iberia.

Aside from the point that the name Esther comes from the word hidden and that G-d is overtly missing from the Book of Esther, we learn that at the time of the Purim story in Iran,  was close to the time of the destruction of the 2nd Temple when prophecy ceased for the Jewish people. Passing on tradition is a big thing for the Jewish people and Haman apparently knew that Moshe was the founder of this tradition and that by destroying the entire Jewish people that this tradition would be destroyed. We hear in the story of the Exodus that Hebrews were offered a compromise; they could leave Egypt but without the elderly and the children and in effect which damage the passing down of traditions from generation to generation. The hidden nature of Esther is also alluded to in the Torah from the verse “I will hide my presence on that day”.

On the Spanish island of Mallorca there are until this day 18,000 descendants of the forcibly converted called ‘Chueta’ (local name for pig), many of whom share only 15 surnames, having married within their community and who contain a distinct genetic marker that’s only found in the Jewish population. Why only 15 names? It’s related to the the surnames of 35 people who tried to escape the island, but a storm forced their ship back to the harbor where the inquisition arrested and tried them. Three, including a Rabbi, were burnt at the stake, whereas the rest renounced their Judaism and were instead strangled before being burnt. All were marched through the streets wearing robes announcing their crime. The 15 surnames were then hung from the exterior walls of a local church for over a hundred and thirty years so everyone would know who the families of these people were and would persecute them.

A once great British author called George Elliot said;

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

In her 1876 novel, Elliot introduces us to a young Sephardi Jewess, rescued from drowning in a rural English river. She’s in England searching for her brother having escaped the tyrannical clutches of her father. Through the course of the book we learn how the title character, Daniel, whose rescued her, searches for his own mother, having only known his English father. His fascination with Mirah, the Jewess is not unfounded, as he too discovers that he is Jewish and that is mother is alive and well and living in Italy. The novels ends with the two characters marrying and setting off to Israel to work on building a Jewish state where they can live without prejudice. Elliott said

“that once established, the Jewish state will shine like a bright star of freedom amid the despotism of the East.”

This was a radical novel in it’s time, when antisemitism was peaking across Eastern Europe and in which Jews were rarely portrayed as humans. It was also a Zionist novel, one in which the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel was promoted.

The Jews of Spain and Portugal that were able to escape and reclaim their heritage brought with them a song sung in Spanish and allegedly sung when in hiding to avoid the suspicion of Christians who might report them to the inquisition for singing in Hebrew (though there are counter arguments to this). The song is called ‘Bendigamos’ and was sang in place of Birkat HaMazon (blessing after meals). The song traveled from Bordeaux in France to the Spanish & Portuguese exiles living in Amsterdam, Holland and from there to North America and to the Dutch colonies in the south and arrived in England sometime in the late 1960’s or 1970’s. It became a tradition in those communities to sing this either just before or after Birkat HaMazon and many people sing it to this day. The song is connected to the Exodus as in the Spanish & Portuguese tradition the Song at Sea is sung all the way through by the congregation to the same tune. It’s also connected to hiddenness due to the hidden Jews tradition of singing songs in Spanish in order to retain their traditions and thus connected to the story of Purim. It is said that when the Jews left Spain on Tisha B’Av that they took musical instruments and sang as they left Spain, as this was not a sad thing; only leaving Israel is a sad thing. I reproduce Bendigamos here, alongside the Song at Sea in the Spanish & Portuguese tradition:


Az Yashir Moshe

In regards to the one Mitzvah that we see, travelling outside of a boundary on Shabbat, there is an interesting story about this in Mesecet Rosh Hashana related to the new moon. There was once a tradition of declaring the new month to communities in the diaspora by lighting fires from hilltop to hilltop. When these would be sabotaged, messengers would be sent out instead and Shabbat could be violated for this purpose, but only by 2,000 amot. Announcing the date of the new moon was especially important for the months of Nisan and Tishrei in order for the holiday’s in those months to be in their correct time. Midwives and anyone rescuing lives was also permitted to travel this distance. Erev Techumin enables an observant Jew to travel on foot beyond the one biblical mile limited by Rabbinic restriction. It’s related to the giving of the Manna; the food that would drop from the sky and sustain the Hebrew’s in the wilderness. On Shabbat they were prohibited for going out to search for more food: The Manna was enough to sustain them and they should not question this by seeking out more. After three day’s of journeying the Hebrew’s find water but complain about their inability to drink it. Moshe throws a piece of wood into it and it becomes sweet. We learn from this that both water and Torah sustain life- both physical and spiritual. We also read Torah in the mornings three day’s apart: on a Monday and Thursday. The Manna that fell also fell with a layer of dew which is why we cover Challah on Shabbat even when there is no wine present. A Rabbi recently told me that if people are hiding things it’s because they’re ashamed and know that it’s wrong. And although we hide the Challah, to spare it the shame of saying the blessing over the wine first, we learn with Seudah Shlishit that it’s not always shameful to hide things.