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A Taste of Independence – Parshat Beshalach 5774

A Taste of Independence

Beshalach 5774

Dependence to Independence:

Donald Winnicot, the renowned British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, presents an important theory of development in a child.  He explains that in order for a child to develop in a healthy way, he must gradually move through three stages.  The first ‘undifferentiated unity’ is the stage where the child has an illusion of being a part of the mother.  In this there is a sense of omnipotence of the mother, the child  feels the mother is part of the child and vice versa.   The second stage he calls ‘transition’.   This is when the mother must slowly ‘dissolution’ the child of the mother’s and child’s omnipotence, allowing the child to make space for the feelings and considerations of others.  This must be done in small doses so as to allow the child to gradually become independent.  The final stage he terms ‘relative independence’.  In this stage the child develops a ‘false self’, [1]which it is comfortable with and willing to present to the world.

In another book Winnicott delineates these stages as follows:

“in planning this brief statement on a very complex theme I find I need three rather than two categories, not simply dependence and independence.  It is helpful to think separately of:

Absolute dependence, Relative dependence, Towards independence”.[2]

This week’s parsha, I would like to propose, follows the stages that Winnicott presents.  The analogy of parent-child is used countless times by Chazal in order to understand God’s relationship with the people of Israel.  Perhaps in this week’s parsha, more than any other place, we see this analogy clearest.

We begin with the famous narrative of the crossing of the Red sea.  Stranded in the desert, sea in front of the them, persecutors behind, the people cry to Moshe.  They exclaim in no uncertain terms that they were better off in Egypt, ‘Were there not  enough graves in Egypt that you had to take us to the wilderness? What have you done by taking us out of Egypt?”.   No initiative is taken, no creative solution is sought, they cry like children.  So God too responds to their passivity accordingly.  Moshe proclaims  ‘fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord’.  A passive people, a passive response by God.

At the end of the parsha we have an ostensibly similar narrative.  The people also face an existential threat. An enemy fast approaching, desert in front, enemy behind, what are their options?  This time, however God refuses to fight the battle for them.  They must fight for themselves, with Yehoshua leading them, they must experience a  taster of independence, subtle yet undeniably present.

But why now? Surely, if we are to follow Winnicott’s theory of transition, it is too early for the people to achieve a true sense of independence.  Having only just ‘been born’[3] and living in the stage of absolute dependence and omnipotence, how can they be expected to suddenly fight for themselves?  How can God ‘dissolution’ them, without preparing them first?

The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in two other episodes in our parsha.  The first is by the Red sea, the second is the question the people ask immediately preceding Amalek’s attack. By looking at these two episodes we can begin to piece together God’s pedagogical lessons that underlie the events in this week’s parsha.

Miriam’s Song at the Red Sea:

Rabbi Sacks[4], notes that Parshat Beshalach follows a chiastic structure of ABCBA.  It begins with a battle, ends with a battle and what lies at the centre connects the two – the crossing of the Red Sea. It moves the people both literally and metaphorically from Egyptian territory to no man’s land.  They traverse a boundary from Egyptian rule to Divine rule, the crossing of the sea acts as the intermediary point, the moment of the covenant between Israel and its God.[5]

That the Red Sea acts as the synthesis between these two territories is indisputable. However I believe that there is a specific event that occurs at the Red Sea that highlights not only God’s saving hand, but also displays the human capacity for change and independence.  Whilst the people were passively crying to God for help, the women were actively singing themselves into a vision of a new reality.  They proved to God that the people of Israel had the potential to be ‘dissolutioned’ or given a sense of independence.  Where do we see this? It is a subtle play of the text that differentiates most unmistakably, a new perspective.

When the people of Israel sing at the Red sea the torah relays it to us in the following way[6]:

א אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֵאמֹר:   אָשִׁירָה לה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה,  סוּס ורֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.

1 Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea

Immediately following this song, we are presented with another song, the song of the women: [7]

כ וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. כא וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם: 

 שִׁירוּ לַה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם. 

20 And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.21 And Miriam responded to them: Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted: the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea.

There are some similarities but more significantly some differences between the two songs, and I want to focus on one in particular.  In the men’s song, we are told ‘Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying’.  The Rabbis in Gemara Sota 30b focus on the words  ‘ וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֵאמֹר-and they spoke saying’, asking why the words seem to repeat themselves.  Rabbi Akiva answers by explaining to us that the people responded, like a child to a teacher, repeating  the song word for word after Moshe.

In a very subtle, almost barely discernible fashion, the Torah presents for us a new model of relationship.  Here we see that Miriam has installed in the women a sense of independence that we do not detect in the national song. The word    “וַתַּעַן and she replied or responded” to the women implies that the women themselves initiated the song.  Unlike the men who passively wait for Moshe to start and then simply repeat his words, the women have been empowered to sing for themselves, they possess a power of self that the men simply don’t have yet, or are not ready to own.  Moshe sings, the men respond, the women sing, Miriam responds.  The women themselves have become leaders, they have found their autonomous selves, and utilize it to celebrate their Redemption by praising God.

In Winnicott’s model, whilst the men remain at the stage of dependence, the women have already moved to the second stage of transition.  It is important to understand this, since I believe it directly explains the next narrative – the complaints and the battle with Amalek.

היש ה” בקרבינו?” – Is God amongst us or within us?

As I mentioned earlier, there are two episodes that explain why God felt the imperative for the people to fight the battle with the Amalekites themselves.  The first we have explored above.  The women’s song shows us that there are those within Am Yisrael who were ready for the next stage of development.  They understood the mode of dependency on God is not necessarily an ideal one, or perpetual one, but rather a stage that needs to eventually pass.

The second event that highlights this idea occurs immediately preceding Amalek’s attack.  This is how the Torah describes it for us:

א וַיִּסְעוּ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּדְבַּר-סִין, לְמַסְעֵיהֶם–עַל-פִּי ה; וַיַּחֲנוּ, בִּרְפִידִים, וְאֵין מַיִם, לִשְׁתֹּת הָעָם.  ב וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, תְּנוּ-לָנוּ מַיִם וְנִשְׁתֶּה; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, מֹשֶׁה, מַה-תְּרִיבוּן עִמָּדִי, מַה-תְּנַסּוּן אֶת-ה…….  ז וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה:  עַל-רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת-ה לֵאמֹר, הֲיֵשׁ ה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן. 

1 And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, by their stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and encamped in Rephidim; and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Wherefore the people strove with Moses, and said: ‘Give us water that we may drink.’ …………………..7 And the name of the place was called Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tried the LORD, saying: ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?

What we witness here is the people acting in the mode of complete dependence.  There is no autonomous thought, no creative problem solving.  There is simply the passive cry of a child for food/drink (reminiscent of the cry at the sea) , and the response of God who provides for their needs.  There is however, a telling line at the very end of the narrative ‘ because they tried the LORD, saying: ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?’. The

?הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ question, is often translated as ‘Is God amongst us or not?’ But a proper translation would be ‘Is God within us or nothing‘.[8] In this cry we hear echoes of Winnicott’s transitional move from dependence to independence, from omnipotence to recognition of limits, both God’s and man’s.

As much as the people are questioning God, they are questioning themselves, their belief in self.  Are they able to ‘be’ without the open miracles, can they survive without continuous open revelation? Are they ‘nothing’ without the authority and omnipotence of God?  Is their persona wrapped up exclusively with God’s (in the same way the infant’s persona at the stage of absolute dependency is tied exclusively to its mother).  What God does for the people by forcing them to fight for themselves is to show them that the power of faith does not necessarily rest with God and His supernatural powers, but rather with man and his natural powers.

There is a fascinating midrash[9] that Rashi quotes in his commentary on the verse when Amalek attacks, that reveals this exact conflict.

Amalek came, etc. He [God] juxtaposed this section to this verse, [“Is the Lord in our midst or not? “] implying: “I am always among you, and [I am] always prepared for all your necessities, but you say, Is the Lord in our midst or not?’ By your life, the dog will come and bite you, and you will cry out to Me, and [then] you will know where I am ” This can be compared to a man who mounted his son on his shoulder and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, “Father, take that thing and give it to me,” and he [the father] would give it to him. They met a man, and the son said to him, “Have you seen my father?” So his father said to him, “You don’t know where I am?” He threw him [his son] down off him, and a dog came and bit him [the son].

The midrash depicts accurately Winnicott’s notion of ‘omnipotence’ and the challenge it poses.  The child, on the shoulder of the parent, cannot cognitively differentiate between himself and his father.  There is an omnipotence self that is tied to the omnipotence of the father.  In order to ‘teach the child a lesson’, the father must throw the child off, even if just for a few minutes, in the hope that the child will understand his state of dependence and the subsequent need to move slowly towards independence. If a child however, cannot move past the ‘dependency’ phase, or when a parent ‘disillusions’ the child too quickly, damage can be done.

The ‘Miracle’ Within:

God has faith in His people.  Having seen the women at the sea, God knows that there is hope for His people.  When they question not just God, but the Godliness within themselves, God, as the supreme parent, attempts to install in them a sense of autonomy, by having them fight the battle themselves.  He allows them a glimpse into the potential they possess, and ultimately the model they are moving towards.

The image of the people at the battle ground is matched by the depiction of Moshe on the top of the mountain, hands being raised towards heaven – the hands of emunah -faith or more accurately – loyalty.  We are told:[10]

ח וַיָּבֹא, עֲמָלֵק; וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּרְפִידִם.  ט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בְּחַר-לָנוּ אֲנָשִׁים, וְצֵא הִלָּחֵם בַּעֲמָלֵק; מָחָר, אָנֹכִי נִצָּב עַל-רֹאשׁ הַגִּבְעָה, וּמַטֵּה הָאֱלֹקים, בְּיָדִי.  י וַיַּעַשׂ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ מֹשֶׁה–לְהִלָּחֵם, בַּעֲמָלֵק; וּמֹשֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וְחוּר, עָלוּ רֹאשׁ הַגִּבְעָה.  יא וְהָיָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָרִים מֹשֶׁה יָדוֹ–וְגָבַר יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְכַאֲשֶׁר יָנִיחַ יָדוֹ, וְגָבַר עֲמָלֵק.  יב וִידֵי מֹשֶׁה כְּבֵדִים, וַיִּקְחוּ-אֶבֶן וַיָּשִׂימוּ תַחְתָּיו וַיֵּשֶׁב עָלֶיהָ; וְאַהֲרֹן וְחוּר תָּמְכוּ בְיָדָיו, מִזֶּה אֶחָד וּמִזֶּה אֶחָד, וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה, עַד-בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.  יג וַיַּחֲלֹשׁ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת-עֲמָלֵק וְאֶת-עַמּוֹ, לְפִי-חָרֶב. 

8 Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. 9 And Moses said unto Joshua: ‘Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.’ 10 So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

The Mishnah in Rosh Hashana asks the famous questions: Did Moshe hands really make or break the battle? The rabbis answer that it was not Moshe’s hands that made them win or lose but rather man’s thoughts: [11]

אלא כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלן, ומכוונין את ליבם לאביהם שבשמיים–היו מתגברין; ואם לאו, היו נופלים.

All the time when the people of Israel would raise their eyes upwards, and turned their hearts towards God in heaven, they would be victorious and if not they would falter.

The people have to fight the battle, they have to physically fight for their existence, but they are also being reminded that to prevail over our enemies, requires two elements; faith in God and His omnipotence, and the courage and inner confidence to recognise that we do not need to constantly see His omnipotence to know that He is there with us.

The process of moving the people ‘beyond the miracles’[12] is not an easy one, especially for a generation of slaves who have grown accustomed to authority and obedience, and the presence of their masters.  But it is absolutely imperative if they are to be a people who act in brit – covenant with God, to move on from that mode of existence.  For the very notion of ‘brit’ is that we are actors, that we are called upon as free willed individuals to work with God in perfecting the world.  Like a parent must move a child from dependency to independency,  slowly but deliberately, so too God must teach the people the importance of being independent.  The child will make mistakes, and at times will crave for a return to the time of dependence, because in many ways it is easier.  But ultimately the child will understand that to be independent and act responsibly, reaps far greater rewards.

Despite their battle for God, in this week’s Parsha, the people are not ready yet for absolute independence. It is too early, they are too young, and the paradigm the women present does not permeate every sector of the nation. They must wait longer, even as long as forty years in the desert, until they are ready to take the reins from God.  But I believe that Beshalach gives us a glimpse into an ideal that God anticipates for man in the future.  A world where free willed men choose to work with God in a Brit, a covenantal partnership to create a brighter future for themselves and those that come after them.

Shabbat Shalom!




[1] A false self in its early phase is often a reflection of the mother’s defences, a false self will anticipate the demands of others in order to maintain relationships.  The false self, is a person’s compliance with external rules or social codes.  Winnicott differentiates between a healthy ‘false self’ and a ‘unhealthy false self’, as whether the person is still maintaining his/her ‘true self’, rather than betraying it.

[2] Donald Winnicott: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development p84

[3] There is no escaping the parallel imagery between the splitting of the Sea and the birth canal

[4] Jonathan Sacks: Covenant and Conversation: Exodus the Book of Redemption

[5] The crossing of sea correlates in its imagery to the ancient ceremony of covenant making. (see  Brit Ben Habatarim Bereshot 15).

[6] Shemot 15

[7] Shemot 15:20

[8] See bereshit 18:12  וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ ‘And Sarah laughed within herself’

[9] Tanchuma, Yitro 3; Exod. Rabbah 26:2

[10] Shemot 17:8

[11] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8

[12] See Rambam: Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah: 8.2

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