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Questions for Young Children

  • How do you imagine the Israelites felt when the Egyptians were chasing them in their chariots?  How did God protect the Israelites? 
  • After they crossed the Reed Sea the Israelites complain about food and drink.  Have you ever done that even when something really wonderful is happening?
  • How does God take care of the Israelites so they feel safe in the desert?

Questions for Older Children

  • Take a look at the map of the Sinai peninsula.  How would you have suggested B'nei Yisrael get to Eretz Yisrael from Egypt?  Why do they take the route through the wilderness?  How long will it take B'nei Yisrael to get to Eretz Yisrael?
  • What do you think ancient music sounded like when you read about the kinds of instruments that Miriam and the women played?  
  • Imagine being an Israelite who crossed the sea safely.  You turn around and you see the Egyptians aren't going to make it.  How would you have felt?

Questions for Teens and Adults

  • How do the narrative and poetic accounts of the parting of the Reed Sea differ?  To what do you attribute those differences?  (There are a few articles on thetorah.com that delineate the differences and why they exist).
  • Tension between Moshe the leader and the people began long before the exodus.  How does Moshe cope in this parasha with grumbling?  How does a good corporate leader or political leader cope with grumbling and dissatisfaction?
  • How is Miriam identified in 15:20 and what's unusual about the description of who she is?  What do you deduce about women's roles from this one verse?
  • How do you explain the extreme vacillation in the emotions of B'nei Yisrael in this parasha?  They are jubilant and grateful at one point and not much later they complain about wanting to return to Egypt because they're worried about food and water.
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Table centerpieces possibilities abound

  • Ceate a Cecil B. DeMille jello sculpture with a pathway for the Israelites.
  • Drown your children's toy soldiers, chariots, wheels in a container of water.
  • Bring out the staffs! (Pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate or vegetable sticks) and discuss how many different times and different ways Moshe employs his staff in the parasha.





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Parashat B'shalah is the musical highlight of the liturgical year. It includes Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, the poem chanted after crossing Yam Suf (The Reed Sea). There is both a narrative and a poetic version of how the Israelites escaped from Egypt with the Pharaoh’s chariots in hot pursuit. The poem concludes with gratitude to God for salvation. Salvation is short-lived and the parasha ends with the Amalekite threat. If it’s not one enemy, it’s another.

Immediately after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and praise God, they begin complaining because they lack drinking water. Moshe tries to solve the complaining problem once and for all by promising that if the Israelites heed God and God’s commandments, they will be safe from diseases that befell the Egyptians. Two verses later, the kvetching resumes. This time God promises a miracle food--manna—plus quail in the evening. There are rules connected with the gathering of food and, of course, there are some people who test the limits and discover the consequences. The trek through the wilderness continues and the kvetching continues –no water to drink! The Amalekites are threatening us! Each time God--through Moshe--saves the Israelites. What a lesson in patience!

Find the food connection...

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד-יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל-סִיר הַבָּשָׂר, בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע

The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt. when we sar by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread...

--Sh'mot 16:3a

...וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם

Now when Pharaoh let the people go...

--Sh'mot 13:17a

Cholent (Pot of Meat) with Farro!


The Side Dish

What's the best Jewish joke you know?  Can you chant the intonation?  Does it include a question?  What better way to begin our retelling of the Pesah story than with four questions?  It feels very Jewish.  So how old is the rhetorical question?


At times when I read the Torah, I'm stunned by how much of the dialogue is rhetorical question and no answer. The first dialogue we encounter occurs in the Garden of Eden where even the serpent asks rhetorical questions.  The Israelite kvetching in Parashat B'shalah (and the repetition in BaMidbar) sounds very Jewish, very familiar to our ears.  You can even hear the same sentence structure in modern Hebrew. Here are a few examples from this week's parasha:

  • "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt..?"  14: 11,12
  • Then the Lord said to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to Me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward."  14:15
  • The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt. when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread... 16:3
  • And the people grumbled against Moshe and said, "Why did you bring us up frpm Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst? 17:3

The Israelites, God, and Moshe all come alive in vivid tones when I read their questions.  Just because they experienced a miracle or ten not so long ago, doesn't mean they are complacent.  They have complaints.  They have questions.  The tradition continues into the Mishnah, the Gemara and all the commentaries.  We have an entire literature called sh'aylot ut'shuvot--questions and answers- or Responsa.  


The Torah anticipates the Socratic method.  Questioning means we're actively thinking, actively processing and analyzing information.  We are not just passively receiving. For me the questioning and even the kvetching that accompanies Moshe like the pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day is a sign that B'nei Yisrael is becoming a free people. Pharoah, as part of his punishment, had his heart hardened and his freedom to choose frozen by God.  While B'nei Yisrael will be enjoined not to bear false witness or take God's name in vain, they will never be told not to ask questions.

(To read a scholarly paper about humor in the Torah see  Humor in the Torah by Hershey Friedman and Linda Friedman).







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A Dash of Poetry

No one mistakes Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for a comprehensive history of the Battle of Balaclava.  We shouldn't assume that Shirat ha-Yam recounts the events of the exodus from Egypt.  Poems offer us different truths and this poem celebrates God's very direct hand in the salvation of God's people. Although it appears to be a spontaneous song, it probably was composed later. 

Other civilizations could also boast of a poetic tradition and Shirat haYam is similar in structure to Canaanite  poems with its parallel structure. Egyptian texts often present a narrative and poetic version of the same event as well.  You'll probably notice that the Hebrew in Shirat ha-Yam differs from the narrative Biblical Hebrew.  For example, the definite article is absent.  The major difference between this poem and other Near Eastern counterparts is that it is God who is praised and not a flesh and blood king.  Shirat haYam is incorporated into the Shaharit and was sung by the Levites during Second Temple times.  Its uniqueness as a text is preserved in the Torah scroll where it's written like brickwork.  You'll also notice that the chanting differs from the standard cantillation of the rest of the parasha.  The haftarah chosen for this week presents the Song of Deborah which lyrically retells the story of the battle against the king of Hazor following the narrative account.


 A Dash of Literary Allusion

The narrative and poetic accounts of the exodus from Egypt and parting of the Red Sea leave no doubt that God has triumphed over Pharaoh.  The parasha opens with a much subtler hint that Pharaoh has submitted to God's will.  The first word of the parasha, b'shalah , is translated as "Now when [he] let [them] go.." In the previous parshiyot, Moshe commanded Pharaoh in God's words, Sh'lah et ami, "Let my people go!" six times. The root of the verb, shin-lamed-het, appears forty-two times in Sh'mot as the narrative traces how Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go and then reneges on this promise.  


A Dash of Geography

The Israelites begin their exodus and forty year trek to Eretz Yisrael by doubling back.  This was a strategem to lure the Egyptian army into the sea.  Where did they cross?  Although translated in most English versions of the Torah as the Red Sea, the Hebrew is Yam SufSuf is a reed like the papyrus.  No one is certain where the places were that are mentioned in this parasha (Pi-jajirot, Migdol, or Baal-Zephon), but scholars think it likely that the crossing took place in the northeastern corner of Egypt along the marshes south of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Torah makes the theological and psychological  reasons clear for the forty year journey through the desert as B'nei Yisrael matured from a former slave people to a free nation bound to God through a brit, a covenant. The parasha opens with a statement about the road the Israelites didn't take--Derekh Eretz P'lishtim. That route (The Way of Horus) is 240 km or 150 miles to Gaza.  It follows the Mediterranean coastline and has convenient way stations with water.  This could road could be traversed by an Egyptian army in ten days.  Even if B'nei Yisrael only traveled five miles/day, it would have taken only a month to get from the Reed Sea to Gaza.  The shortest and most developed route between Egypt and Asia was studded with Egyptian fortifications, customs stations, and bounded by walls.  Just as there were no short cuts for B'nei Yisrael to transform from a slave people to a free nation. Neither were there any geographical short cuts to Eretz Yisrael.


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Cholent—Sir haBasar- with Farro

Serves 6-8 and fits into a 5 qt. Dutch oven. If you have a bigger slow cooker, increase the recipe.

Ingredientsrsz cholemt

  • 2 lb. chuck, stew meat or brisket cut in cubes.
  • 3 onions
  • 2 gloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp. paprika (smoked or regular)
  • 1 cup dried lima beans
  • 1 cup farro (not the quick cooking type)*
  • 4 potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
  • optional: 1 16 oz. can tomatoes


  1. Soak the dried limas at least 6 hrs. before using.
  2. Drain the beans.
  3. In the Dutch oven, brown the meat and onions in the canola oil.
  4. Add the minced garlic when the meat and onions are almost browned.
  5. Add the seasonings to the browned meat.
  6. Add water to cover and bring to a boil.
  7. Add the remainder of the ingredients and cover tightly.
  8. Simmer about 30 min. until the meat is cooked through.
  9. Leave on the Shabbat warming tray until next day’s lunch.

If you have a slow cooker, follow the directions through step 6 and then place all the ingredients into the slow cooker.

*You can substitute old fashioned barley for the farro.

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