On gazelles and pillars of fire

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By Rabbi Beth Kalisch

This week’s Torah portion is Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16.


Traveling in Tanzania on safari, my husband pointed to a gazelle bending down in the tall grass. After a moment, I realized why he was so excited — the gazelle was standing over a baby gazelle. Newborn gazelles are on their feet within a few days, but this calf was only hours old, still wet with amniotic fluid, and not yet able to stand on its spindly legs. The mother stood over her tiny treasure, nestling the baby in the grass.

But suddenly, to our surprise, the mother stood up — and contrary to all expectations of maternal instinct — leapt away.

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We were horrified. The mother continued running until she was halfway across the savannah. “Did she abandon it because it is sick and will not survive?” we asked our safari guide.

No, our guide reassured us, the newborn gazelle was healthy. “The mother is moving away as way of protecting him,” he explained. “By himself, the calf is very well camouflaged in the grass. Predators will have a hard time seeing him. But if the mother were to stand next to him, they would see her, and then would be more likely to notice the defenseless baby next to her. This way, any predators will see her, not the calf, and she can distract them should they come too close to where the calf is hiding.”


We looked at the mother in the distance. She was not eating, not moving, but standing sentry, protecting by keeping her distance.

In this week’s Torah portion, our ancestors experience a similar moment of protection that must have seemed at first like a moment of abandonment.

The Israelites, newly escaped from Egypt, not yet across the Red Sea, have been led by God’s presence. As the Torah describes: “The Eternal went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light … the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).

But Pharaoh has a change of heart; he orders his army to chase down his freed slaves. When the Israelites catch sight of Pharaoh’s chariots approaching, they are terrified. Behind them is the approaching Egyptian army, in front of them, the sea. “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” they cry to Moses (Exodus 14:11).

Just as their enemy is approaching, they are trapped between chariots and the sea. Their protector seems to have abandoned them. God commands them to “go forward” (Exodus 14:15), but God is no longer leading the way. The pillar that represents God’s presence has moved; it is no longer in front of the Israelites (Exodus 14:19). Suddenly, just when they are at their most vulnerable, they feel utterly alone.

Fear must have seized the Israelites’ hearts in that instant.

Soon, God’s plan becomes apparent; the pillar has not disappeared, but has placed itself behind the Israelite camp, acting as a buffer to protect the Israelites from the Egyptian army. God has not abandoned them.

In our own lives, I wonder if we always have the courage and the foresight to care for those we love in this way. Sleep-training a baby means letting him cry. Helping a teenager become a safe driver means letting her take the wheel. But these are rules that we can more easily apply to other people’s children, I think, even when we know them to be true.

When we have to take a leap of faith alone, sometimes that’s when miracles happen.

“Go forward!” God commands, and we do, even though we are terrified.“Go forward,” God commands, and we do, even though there is no one leading the way. “Go forward!” God commands — and when we do, the sea splits before us.

Rabbi Beth Kalisch lives in Philadelphia and serves as the spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Pa. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

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