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B’shalach 5768-2008

“Finding Meaning in the Lost Verses”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There can hardly be a more dramatic or more exciting parasha than parashat B’shalach! The parasha features the actual Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and records the historic songs of exultation led by Moses and Miriam that were sung by the People of Israel after they crossed through the sea on dry land.

On the heels of these extraordinary events, the Torah tells us (Exodus 15:22), “Vah’yah’sah Moshe et Yisrael mee’Yam Soof,” and Moses caused the people to journey from the Sea of Reeds. Scripture then tells us that the Children of Israel went out to the wilderness of Shur, and traveled for three days in the wilderness, but could not find water. When the people finally arrived at Marah, they were unable to drink because the waters had become bitter. The people complained to Moses, demanding something to drink. In response to Moses’ plea, the Al-mighty showed him a branch to throw into the water that miraculously turned the waters sweet (For a more complete analysis of this event, see B’shalach 5762-2002).

The Torah then informs us (Exodus 15:25) that at Marah G-d established for the people a “decree and an ordinance and there He tested them.” It was at that time that G-d declared to the the Jewish people (Exodus 15:26): “Eem sha’mo’ah tish’mah l’kol Ha-shem Eh-lo’keh’cha, v’hah’yah’shar b’ay’nahv tah’ah’seh, v’hah’ah’zan’tah l’mitzvoh’tav v’sha’mar’tah kol chook’av,” If you diligently harken to the voice of the Lord your G-d, and do what is just in His eyes, give ear to His commandments and observe his decrees, then G-d will make certain that none of the diseases that He placed upon Egypt will strike you [the people of Israel]. After all, “Ani Ha-shem rof’eh’chah,” I, G-d, am your healer.

In a rather cryptic statement, the Zohar 3:134 teaches that everything needs luck–even a Torah scroll in the ark needs good fortune. After all, only one or two Torah scrolls in the ark are used regularly, while the others are frequently ignored. The same may be said about verses in the Torah. If a particular verse is surrounded by other very dramatic narratives, even an important and meaningful verse can somehow fail to receive its due recognition.

It seems as if verse 26, in which G-d implores the Children of Israel to “harken diligently to the voice of the Lord your G-d,” is a verse that somehow gets lost in the shuffle, surrounded by the dramatic verses of song and salvation.

What exactly is the message that G-d is trying to convey to His people in this “neglected verse”? Exactly what is expected of Israel, and in what manner are they to harken diligently to G-d’s voice and do what is just in G-d’s eyes?

Our commentators tell us that G-d’s voice is present in every thing, in every time, and in every place. We need only listen attentively so that we hear His voice. When G-d adjures us to do what is “just in His eyes,” the Mechilta explains that He is specifically referring to our behavior in business. If a person is honest in business and is highly regarded in the community for his probity, Scripture considers this as if that person had fulfilled the entire Torah.

The commentators further explain that the intent of the verse instructing the people to harken diligently to the voice of G-d means that religious precepts should not be performed perfunctorily or robotically. A truly committed follower is expected to expend additional effort to listen and understand what is desired by the precepts of G-d. The Torah must not be used to do unseemly things, or to justify distasteful actions. Even the commandments known as chukim that seem to be irrational, or appear to have no rational meaning, must be fulfilled properly even if they require great effort.

If we fulfill the instructions of this verse, G-d will truly be our Healer, and will protect His people from the dread diseases that others experience.

There is, however, another way of interpreting these verses. The verb “shema” is often rendered to mean “to hear or listen.” A more precise translation would be “to understand.” Therefore the expression “Eem sha’mo’ah tish’mah l’kol Ha-shem Eh-lo’keh’cha,” means that if you surely listen to and understand the voice of the Lord your G-d, then you will be blessed. The Torah tells us that if we want to be happy, optimistic and fulfilled Jews we need to make an effort to understand what the Torah is telling us. Our hearts, minds and souls need to be receptive to the message of Torah. Then Torah will then not be seen as a burden, in fact even the chukim, the irrational laws, will become palatable and meaningful.

We must not allow this important verse to be lost in the drama of the events of the splitting of the Red Sea. Its message is too vital, its lessons too essential. We must read the words of this verse slowly, savoring each syllable. We must contemplate the depths of its message, for only this will bring blessing upon us and upon all of the people of Israel.

May you be blessed.