Beshallach: High-Handed

January 20, 2013 at 9:22 am | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

I was a constant victim as a child, the target of any bully who needed to humiliate someone. So I can imagine how the Israelites might feel when they finally leave Egypt the morning after God’s tenth and final plague. Their god beat the pharaoh! They asked their Egyptian neighbors to give them silver and gold, and the Egyptians handed it over! Yesterday they were slaves, and today they are free!

They leave the city of Ramses unchallenged, in last week’s Torah portion (Bo), and they march for three days in military formation, in companies of 50, following God’s spectacular pillar of cloud and fire. For three days, they feel on top of the world.

Then God surprises them. This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, begins with the route God chooses for the Israelites after they leave Ramses.

It was, when Pharaoh was sending the people out free, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines … God circled the people around to the way of the wilderness of Yam Suf … (Exodus/Shemot 13:17-18)

when sending out free = beshallach

Yam Suf = Sea of Reeds, often referred to in English as the Red Sea

At the Red Sea, God arranges one last showdown with Pharaoh, who changes his mind again and sends a troop of charioteers after the freed slaves.

But God strengthened the heart of the pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and he chased after the children of Israel, while the children of Israel were going out beyad ramah. (Exodus 14:8)

beyad ramah = with a high hand

What does it mean to march “with a high hand”? When I first read this passage, I pictured the Israelites raising their hands as if they were trying to get the teacher’s attention. But this image is the opposite of the spirit of beyad ramah.

In both Biblical Hebrew and English, the word yad or “hand” is used in many idioms, often standing for the power to do something. After all, we accomplish things primarily with our hands. Elsewhere in the Torah portion Beshallach, Moses raises his hands, as well as his staff, in order to channel divine energy—first to split the Red Sea, later to help the Israelites win a battle with Amalek. Both times, the Hebrew uses the verb rum, “raise up”, which comes from the same root as ramah.

But the idiom yad ramah, “a high hand”, has a unique meaning. It occurs four  times in the Torah, twice to refer to the way the Israelites leave Egypt (in Exodus 14:8 above, and in Numbers/Bamidbar 33:3). The other two occurrences help to clarify the idiom’s meaning.

But a person who does it with a high hand, whether citizen or foreign resident, is reviling God; so that person will be cut off from among the people. (Numbers 15:30) 

In this passage, the Torah has just ruled that if someone inadvertently fails to obey one of God’s laws, he can atone by offering a goat for sacrifice. But if he does it on purpose, acting “with a high hand”, the consequence is cutting off, i.e. banishment and/or death. When someone transgresses with a high hand, he behaves as if he has more authority than the religious law.

The last occurrence of yad ramah in the Torah comes in Moses’ parting poem to the Israelites. In his long final warning, Moses quotes God’s response to their ingratitude and idolatry:

I said: I would have cut them to pieces,

I would have made the memory of them disappear from men,

If I had not feared for the provocation of enemies—

lest their foes would misinterpret

lest they would say: Our hand was high, and it was not God Who accomplished all this! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:26-27)

Here, the “high hand” is the arrogance of Israel’s enemies, who will falsely assume they have the power to destroy Israel.

In English, “high-handed” persons arrogantly ignore the concerns and rights of others, acting as if they have all the authority. In these last two translations from the Torah, those who act with a “high hand” also assume they have more power  than they really do.

But what about the newly freed slaves in the portion Beshallach, who leave Egypt with a high hand? Dazzled by their new higher status, they may well feel arrogant. If they had a chance, they might even try to bully or enslave someone less fortunate. But God does not give them a chance.

In this week’s Torah portion, right after “the children of Israel were going out with a high hand” the test says:

The Egyptians chased after them, and they overtook them toward evening, at the sea; all the horse-chariots of Pharaoh and his army were at the mouth of the Chirot, before Baal-Tzefon (Master of the Hidden). And Pharaoh came closer, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and hey! Egyptians! Pulling out after them! And they were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to God.  And they said to Moses: Are there no graves in Egypt, that you take us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us, to take us out from Egypt? (Exodus 14:9-11)

Imagine how the Israelites feel. Their first three days of freedom, they march out of Egypt into the wilderness “with a high hand”. Then they look up and see Egyptian chariots approaching. At once they are struck with the fear of their old owners, the bullies who tortured and subjugated them. They cry out to God, but there is no immediate response. Their belief in God’s protection is too new and fragile to withstand the cringing reflex. They despair. They are caught between the sea and the chariots. At that moment, they think they will always be victims.

Yet when they complain to Moses, they make a sarcastic joke: Are there no graves in Egypt, that you take us to die in the wilderness? Thus Jewish humor is born.

Would you rather be an arrogant bully, like the pharaoh in the book of Exodus, treating people with high-handed disregard, suffering through disasters yet too habitually hart-hearted to learn compassion?

Or would you rather live like an Israelite in the book of Exodus, or perhaps like a Jew in America, with your status and power always in flux, never knowing where you stand—but resilient enough to keep your sense of humor?

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