Balancing liturgy with poetry
New Year of the Trees

Under the Sea

Beshalach, this week's Torah portion, is action-packed. It's a dramatic saga: the journey out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds. The special effects practically pop out of the scroll: pillars of smoke and fire, oceans parting, the whole megillah.

A few things caught my eye. First, we learn that although God could have led the Israelites through the nearby land of the Philistines, God chose to take them the roundabout way through the Sea instead, "Lest the people regret it, when they see war, and return to Egypt." (All Torah citations in this post are transl. Everett Fox.)

It's fascinating to try to divine God's intent. Some argue that God knew the Israelites, being "stiff-necked people," would need to witness many miracles in order to be transformed by freedom and faith, so God took the Israelites along a path which would necessarily require miracles, starting with the parting of the Sea of Reeds. This relates easily to the notion that the decades of wandering in the desert were necessary in order to shake off the spiritual bondage of slavery; that if the journey had been easy, the Israelites would still have been mentally enslaved when they reached freedom.

The Talmud (Midrash Rabbah) compares God's routing decision to a king who wants to give his son an inheritance, but thinks, "If I give it to him now that he is small, he will not know how to take care of it; I will therefore wait until my son studies the writings and comprehends the value [of the property], then I will bequeath it unto him." In other words, even the adult Israelites were spiritually children, unable to grasp the true import of connection with God, and needed to be schooled in the desert before they could be ready for the inheritance of Torah.

Other nifty things in this week's parashah: Moses fetches Joseph's bones and carries them out of Egypt. It's an image with profound resonance, maybe especially for those of us whose parents and grandparents left Europe for the New World. How do we carry our ancestors with us? How do we honor their memory? (I also can't help thinking of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises, and their penates, household gods, out of falling Troy.)

Later in the portion, we see the Israelites cowering in fear, bitching to Moses that he brought them out of Egypt merely to let them die; so Moses calls on God. God's response? "Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let-them-march-forward!" On this, Rashi writes, "God said to Moses: 'Moses! My children are in dire straits, the sea is closing in on them and the enemy pursues, and you stand and pray at length? Why do you cry to Me? There are times when that calls for lengthy prayers, and times when one must pray shortly...'" (I'm contemplating using that in my handout for the Torah discussion: proof that even God understands that sometimes shortened davvening is the way to go.)

But what I like best about this parashah is the moment when the Israelites walk into the Sea of Reeds, which has been divided in a joint effort by Moses and God (Moses holds out his arm, and God drives back the sea). The source text just says, "The Children of Israel came through the midst of the sea upon the dry-land, the waters a wall for them on their right and on their left." Of course, commentators through the ages have had a field day with this teeny little line.

Sotah 37a of the Talmud shows us a Rabbinic disagreement about who went in first. Rabbi Meir said that the Israelites vied with each other to be the first to enter the sea for each tribe wanted that honor. In contrast, Rabbi Judah taught that each tribe announced that it would not be first to enter the sea, but while they stood and debated, Nachshon ben Amminadab of the tribe of Judah sprang forward and jumped into the sea. The waters then parted for the Israelites to make their way through. (Some commentators take "The Children of Israel came through the midst of the sea upon the dry-land" to mean that the Israelites had to plunge into water, perhaps as high as their necks or noses, before the dry land materialized for them. Talk about your leap of faith!)

Modern commentator Rabbi Larry Kushner suggests that for some of the Israelites, the passage across the sandy ocean floor was gritty, muddy, and unpleasant. Their eyes were on their feet, trudging through the silt: they never noticed the walls of water surrounding them. They never noticed that they were walking through a miracle.

The messages I take from this passage are twofold: God helps those who help themselves, and it's best to approach the world with eyes open to the miraculous. God will be there to part the waters for us, but we need to take the first steps into the unknown with our own feet...and whether we find ourselves bogged down in unpleasant mud, or walking miraculously across the floor of the sea, is up to us.