As the Jewish people triumphantly march out of Egypt, G-d recognizes that their faith is still fragile. Though they are led by a miraculous pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the prospect of a “war of invasion” against the Philistines could awaken the desire to turn back. Therefore, G-d leads the Jewish people along a more circuitous route toward the Sea of Reeds.
Just three days after witnessing the death of every first-born in Egypt, Pharaoh and his servants regret their decision to allow the Jewish people to leave. G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and he rouses his people to pursue the Jews in the desert. Three days later, with a massive force of 600 elite chariots, officers, and soldiers, Pharaoh overtakes the Jewish people at the Sea of Reeds.
Frightened at the Egyptians’ ability to regroup after the Ten Plagues, the Jewish people complain to Moses that He has led them out to the desert to die. Moses reassures them that the hour of their redemption is at hand, and that G-d will destroy the Egyptians once and for all. In the most dramatic act of Divine intervention in history, G-d then splits the Sea of Reeds. The Jewish people walk through the sea on dry land as the water becomes a wall on their right and left.
The Egyptians blindly chase after the Jewish people into the sea, and G-d causes the water to crash back down on them, drowning horse and rider. G-d then washes the dead Egyptians on the shore of the sea so that all of Israel can witness the tremendous miracle that has just occurred. In appreciation of this open miracle, Moses and the Jewish people sing the Song of the Sea, a prophetic passage which is recited every day during morning prayers.
Three days later, however, there is no water to drink, and the Jewish people begin to complain. They come to a place known as Marah, but the water there is bitter. G-d instructs Moses to throw a tree into the water in order to sweeten and exhort the Jewish people to follow G-d’s commandments. The Jewish people then arrive at Elim, where there are 12 springs of water and 70 date palms.
One month into their journey, the supply of food the Jewish people brought with them has run out. Afraid that they will die of starvation in the desert, the Jewish people complain bitterly to Moses, nostalgic for the “pots of meat” they ate in Egypt. G-d hears their complaints and responds by sending manna in the morning and quail in the evening. For the next 40 years in the desert, the manna miraculously falls each day, surrounded by layers of dew on bottom and on top and melting in the mid-day sun. It was forbidden to keep the manna overnight – and when this was done against G-d’s command, the manna rotted and teemed with worms. It was also forbidden to search for manna on Shabbos; two portions fell on Friday instead.
The portion continues as the Jewish people once again find themselves without water as they arrive at Rephidim. Worried that their children and livestock will die of thirst in the desert, the Jewish people again complain, declaring that it would have been better to die in Egypt. G-d instructs Moses to strike a rock, which would then bring forth water for the nation.
Sensing the Jewish people’s vulnerability, Amalek attacks the Jewish people in a senseless, suicidal effort to prove that that the Jewish people were not invincible. Moses appoints Joshua to lead the battle. Although Joshua weakens Amalek, the war is not over. G-d tells Moses that He will blot out the memory of Amalek and that He will maintain a war against this nation for all generations to come.