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Claustrophobic Kindness

This week’s portion, Be-Shallah, contains some of the most powerful and familiar images from the Exodus story: the pillar of fire that illuminates the night as the people walk through the desert; the pillar of smoke that shields them during the day; the dazzling wall of water in the Sea of Reeds; Pharaoh’s army submerged as the sea closes on itself again; manna that rains down from the sky like dew; Moses presiding over the victory against Amalek with upraised arms. In these stories, God’s mighty arm flexes, doles out mercy and punishment, and extends into a fierce, protective embrace that encircles the people of Israel. The miracle of the Sea of Reeds is recounted in the daily liturgy, with words clipped from the exuberant song of praise sung by Moses and the people after the crossing: “Who is like you among the powerful, God? Who is like you mighty in holiness, too awesome for praises, doer of wonders!” (Exodus: 15:11)

When I think of this story, I think mostly of God’s overwhelming display of power on behalf of the people, and I forget about the people themselves, who at one moment raise their voices in song, and at the next moment begin croaking out complaints. They are parched and frightened, and ask to be brought back to Egypt. This story of the Exodus is very different from the joyful celebration that we recount during the Passover Seder. In the Seder we say “dayenu”: It would have been enough if God had just split the sea and let the people walk through, but then — what kindness! what mercy! — God gave us all his laws and the Land of Israel to boot. But really it wouldn’t have been enough, and it wasn’t enough for the people. This is not simply a story of the bestower and the bestowed-upon meeting in a moment of mutual receptivity. Even though the Children of Israel had just seen a concrete manifestation of God’s power, they still weren’t sure that God was a reliable presence.

The people resist the closeness that might have been enabled by these miracles — it seems they find God’s embrace stifling rather than reassuring. Rash’s comment on the pillars of fire and smoke calls to mind the claustrophobic reality of these kindnesses: The text says God “would not remove the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night” (Exodus: 13:22), and Rashi takes this to mean that the two pillars overlapped, so that the people were never without one or the other. When one “set,” the other would “rise.” Essentially, the pillar of smoke and fire marked the transition between the day and the night in place of the sun. For the people, who had been working under the sun all their lives, this must have been a frightening phenomenon: to suddenly lose their ability to rely on the main time-telling instrument and to have to live instead behind a veil of smoke and fire.

God’s mercy comes with corresponding demands, and the people know this. How could they not, when from the moment of their release, they are laden with a new burden? As we are told in the beginning of the portion, the people leave Egypt armed with weapons and with the bones of Joseph. The exit from servitude means an entrance into a set of heady new problems — of memory, destiny, war and covenant. Evidently, the people are supposed to enter into line with Joseph, to pick up with God where he left off. The people, experimenting with the limits of their brand-new power, chafe against this predestination.

Rashi gently (but, I think, pointedly) analogizes God’s treatment of the people during this first ordeal to a parent’s treatment of a child, thereby hinting at the long, painful adolescence that will follow in the desert years. Again, discussing the pillar of fire that “came between” (Exodus: 14:20) the Egyptians and the people as they pursued them, Rashi says that this situation can be compared to a father who is walking with his son. Bandits are approaching, and the father puts the son behind him; later a wolf comes from behind, and the father puts the son before him. When bandits come from in front, and wolves come from behind, the father puts his son on his shoulders while he fights against them. A parent’s natural impulse is to shelter and protect, and a child, as he grows, will have to resist that shelter (no matter how lovingly it was provided) before he can return to its warmth.

Sasha Weiss is a writer living in New York.

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