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The Miracles Within: Parshat Beshalach

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Dependence to Independence:

Donald Winnicott, the renowned British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, presents an important theory of child development. He explains that the healthy development of a child we see her move through three stages. The first 'undifferentiated unity' is the stage where the child has an illusion of being a part of the mother she is omnipotent. The second stage, 'transition’, is when the mother must carefully 'dissolution' the child as to her omnipotence to encourage the development of a separate and distinct identity. The final stage he terms 'relative independence'. In this stage the child develops a 'false self' which they feel confident to ‘present’ to the world. The self undergoes a maturation in which he/she understands they are comprised of multiple components that make up the ‘self’. In another book Winnicott delineates these stages as Absolute dependence, Relative dependence, Towards independence".

I would like to propose that Parshat Beshalach reflects Winnicott’s developmental stages. Beginning with the famous narrative of the crossing of the Red sea where in desperation the people of Israel cry out: '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?" the people act like an infant who waits passively for the mother to respond and ‘save’ them. Moshe proclaims: 'fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord'. A passive people who are passively ‘saved’ from an existential threat.

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 taste of independence.

If we follow Winnicott’s theory of development we are missing the intermediary stage – disillusionment or relative independence, that will prepare them for the independent life. I believe that the middle stage takes place in two incidents nestled between the passive salvation at the start and the active salvation at the end.

Miriam's Song at the Red Sea:

In crossing the Red Sea the people traverse a boundary, both geographically and psychologically from Egyptian rule to Divine rule. But the event of the Red Sea has an added dimension that illustrates the readiness of the people to take agency. The song of Miriam and the women at the sea is significantly different to the song sung by Moshe. 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 the song of the women, we are told:

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

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”.

The word "וַתַּעַן and she (Miriam) replied or responded" implies that the women themselves initiated the song and Miriam simply answers them. Unlike the men who passively wait for Moshe to start and then repeat his words, the women have been empowered to sing for themselves. They women here offer a new model of selfhood that is infused with initiative, agency, hope and gratitude. 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. If we apply Winnicott's model, 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?

Towards the end of the parsha we hear once again the people’s complaints – ‘we don’t have water to drink’ they cry adding הֲיֵשׁ ה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן. – ' which is usually translated as Is the LORD among us, or not?'.

A literal translation, however, would be 'Is God within us or nothing' (See bereshit 18:12 וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ 'And Sarah laughed within herself'). 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. As Rabbi Sacks was so fond of saying ‘It is less about our belief in God than about His belief in us”.

The 'Miracle' Within:

Having witnessed the song of the women, God knows that there is hope for His people. When they question not just God, but their own tzelem Elokim, 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 - one of brit – covenantal relation, which is in Winnicott’s language – the stage of interdependence.

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 text describes his hands as , וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה – the hands of ‘faith’ or more accurately – loyalty/trust. 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 – when the people of Israel would raise their eyes upwards, and turn their hearts towards God in heaven, they would be victorious and if not, they would falter. In other words, to prevail over our enemies requires 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' is not an easy one, especially for a generation of slaves who have grown accustomed to authority, obedience, and the presence of their masters. But it is an essential element in cultivating a relationship based on the principle of covenant where we become the active protagonists of our own destiny whilst keeping our eyes fixed on heaven.

Despite their battle against Amalek in this week's Parsha, the people are not yet ready for ‘relative 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 a future ideal - a world where free willed individuals 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!

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