Torah Ecology: Beshallach 2018 (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)

Beshallach focuses on food and water, essentials for life, and how these necessities shape and define relationships. Last year I explored these themes and how structural elements in the story reveal them. This year I will examine the Animals’ Story subtext, how it adds density to the themes and illuminates the relationship between human beings and other animals.

Following are the animal references in the portion:

Ex. 14:9 – “…the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.”

Ex. 14:23 – “The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen.”

Ex.15:1b – “Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 15:20b – “And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 16:3 – “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 fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.'”

Ex. 16:8 – “‘Since it is the Lord,’ Moses continued, ‘who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord!'”

Ex. 16:11 – “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the Lord am your G-d.'”

Ex. 16:13 – “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.”

Ex. 16:20 – “But they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank. And Moses was angry with them.”

Ex. 17:3 – “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

As we have seen in these portions, the fate of the animals follows that of their humans and augments the main narrative.

There was a time when I had to memorize the song in chapter 15. It’s cadence and imagery always stayed with me, especially the refrain, סוּס  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (soos v’rochvo ramah va-yam) – “The horse and its driver He hurled into the sea.” And thus the Egyptians’ horses suffer the same fate as their drivers although they bore no guilt for the sins of their society.

In Ex. 16:3, 8 and 11, we hear about the barely concealed grumblings of the hungry Israelites, longing for the “fleshpots” (סִיר הַבָּשָׂר – seer ha-basar) of Egypt. There are two interesting points here:

  1. Is it likely the Israelites as slaves in Egypt would have been “sitting by” the fleshpots, eating their fill?
  2. In Ex. 12:32, when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to go, he finally tells them to take their flocks and herds. In 12:38, we learn, “Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” What was the purpose of the livestock if not to provide milk and meat? Nahum Sarna suggests (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 86) “livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal. Besides, the people had probably already suffered losses for lack of adequate pasturage.” Maybe. But they seem to sacrifice a lot of animals without those same worries.

Two thoughts occur to me as alternatives to Sarna’s explanation for the Israelite complaint when they were surrounded by their own herds. The first is, the fact that they are not killing their animals for food offers a parallel similar to the horses being hurled into the sea along with their riders: the Israelite herds, like the Israelites themselves, are saved from death. The animals’ story corresponds to their humans’ story.

My second thought is related to the word “flesh” (basar – בָּשָׂר). It refers to a dead carcass. It is the word used in the Flood story when G-d says He will destroy “all flesh.” In the Flood story, there is a negative connotation to the word as humans and animals are referred to as merely basar, carcasses, not nefesh, that part of creatures animated by the breath of G-d. Here it is associated with Israelite gluttony and their distrust and ingratitude. The fleshpots were Egypt. Now, on the path to freedom, it is time for something else.

The negative association to basar is amplified in the verses about the quail, Ex. 13:16 and 20. Gluttony and distrust results in environmental distress, maggots and a stench.

In Numbers 11, there is a similar story about Israelite complaints at Taberah and their nostalgia for the food in Egypt. In this story, the negative association between basar, “flesh”-eating and gluttony and ingratitude is even more explicit: “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?'”

Finally, in Ex. 17:3, the themes come together in these words: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” From the vantage point of the complaining Israelites, the livestock may end up dying — not as food but rather from thirst. The fate of the livestock is bound up with how the Israelites perceive their own fate, brought out of Egypt to be killed from lack of food and water.

Yet the animals, like the Israelites, are destined for another future. G-d brought the Israelites and their livestock out of Egypt to save them, and water will come. As the Egyptians’ animals went down into the sea with the Egyptians and their chariots, the Israelites’ animals are going up to the Land of Israel with their humans, fed and watered by the hand of G-d.

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