Torah Commentary by Bettijane Eisenpreis: Parashat Beshalach – February 4, 2023

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Parashat for February 4, 2023

This Saturday, February 4, at 9:15 AM, Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem will lead a special Torah Study session on the topic Tu BiSh’vat: A Growing Holiday. This session will be in-person and on Zoom and is open to temple members and non-members. To RSVP, email .

This coming Saturday is also our World Refugee Shabbat Service at 10:30 AM. Dr. Neal Richmond from Natan Worldwide Disaster Relief will join us as we come together to raise our voices in support of refugees and organizations caring for them. Click here to learn more about joining us in-person and online for this special event.

Torah Commentary by Bettijane Eisenpreis

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 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!”
Exodus 16:2-3

The Israelites “grumbled,” or so says the English translation of the Hebrew verb. I checked four different translations, and the only one that doesn’t say “grumbled” is the little white Bible I received upon my Confirmation, back in the 1950’s. It says “murmured,” which is a little more poetic and polite than “grumbled” but means pretty much the same thing.

The Yiddish word for what the Israelites are doing is “kvetch,” and we had better get used to it, because they are going to complain throughout their 40 years of wandering in the desert. They grumble so much that they almost drive Moses crazy – so crazy that he loses his temper and God forbids him from entering the Promised Land. But I am getting ahead of myself.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it murmur, grumble or kvetch, anyone who has dealt with small children will recognize this behavior – the Israelites are acting like two-year-olds. They are stamping their feet and shouting “no” to any orders or suggestions of the adults.

“But the Israelites are adults,” you say. “Why are they acting like two-year-olds?”

Adults? Really? For four hundred years these people have been slaves. They have depended on authority figures to tell them when to get up in the morning, when to go to bed at night, what work to perform, and how they will be rewarded for that work. They have been punished most severely if they try to take the initiative and do something not prescribed by their taskmasters. They may be adults in years but they have been treated as infants and, after 400 years, they have all the maturity of infants.

What does an adult do when confronted with a problem? He or she tries to solve it: We need water to drink – let’s look for the nearest oasis in this desert. We are hungry – are there animals to hunt or edible plants to use for food? But these people do not think like adults because they have not been allowed to grow up for 400 years. Later, in Parashat Yitro, they summon the courage to promise “All that the Lord has spoken we will do,” but they haven’t even heard the Ten Commandments yet, so once again, they are promising to follow their Leader without really knowing what that implies.

The distance from Egypt to the Promised Land is really not very great. It shouldn’t take 40 years to get there. Later, we will read the story of the spies and find out why God is said to have punished the Israelites by making them wander 40 years in the desert. But I have an alternate theory: They have been babies for 400 years. Maybe God realizes that it will take at least 40 years for them to grow up. The generation that is born in the wilderness has to learn the art of survival, which will serve them well when they enter the Promised Land.

Are they being punished for grumbling? Or has God, as parent, realized that the kids need to grow up before they can move on?

Congregants are always welcome to send us their Torah commentary. If you would like to contribute, please contact Erica Slutsky to learn more.

Temple members can click here for more details on weekly Torah study at Emanu-El and how to register.