Mayanot Parshat Beshalach: Oh! Say Can You See
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Beshalach(Exodus 13:17-17:16)

Oh! Say Can You See

The opinion of our Sages appears to be that the splitting of the Red Sea described in this week's Torah portion was a difficult miracle for God to pull off. Why else would they declare that it is as difficult for God to match people in marriage and to provide them with their livelihoods as it was for Him to split the sea?

Raba bar Chana said in the name of R' Yochonon: It is as difficult to match them [two people in marriage] as the splitting of the sea ... (Talmud, Sotah 2a)

R' Shizvi said in the name of R' Elazar the son of Azariah: It is as difficult to provide people with the necessities of life as it was to split the sea; as it is written, (in Psalms 136): "He provides bread to all flesh..." And an adjacent verse reads: "He divides the sea into sections..." (Talmud, Pesachim 118a)

How can we relate to the idea of God finds anything difficult? What does the splitting of the sea have in common with matchmaking or providing people with a living?

MORAL DIFFICULTY

Logic tells us not to search for the difficulty associated with the performance of miracles in the technical details. If we accept the existence of an Almighty God, it is absurd to think that He could find it difficult to split a body of water for a few hours! It seems far more reasonable to explain the difficulty in terms of moral considerations. Such moral difficulty is hinted at by Rabinnic commentary on some of the verses in this week's Torah portion:

"The angel of Elohim who had been going in front of the children of Israel moved and went behind them ..." (Exodus 14:19)

R' Noson asked R' Shimon: Everywhere else the angel is described as the angel of YHVH [the holy name employed to describe God's attribute of mercy]; why is he referred to here as the angel of Elohim? R'Shimon answered: Elohim always refers to God's attribute of justice; the Jews were being judged at that very moment whether to be destroyed along with Egyptians or saved. (Yalkut, Beshalach, 233)

"The children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea." (Exodus 14:29)

The heavenly angels marveled and said: "How can people who are idol worshippers walk on dry land in the midst of the sea?" (Exodus Rabba 26:4)

In other words, the Israelites were not clearly deserving of such a great miracle as the splitting of the sea; the moral difference between them and the Egyptians was not sufficiently marked to justify saving one while drowning the other. Performing miracles for the undeserving is discriminatory and presents even God with moral difficulties.

A MORAL PEOPLE

But the thesis needs more clarification. The sources indicate that the Jewish people who entered the parted waters had great moral merit. They stubbornly clung to their national identity and customs for 210 long years and refused to assimilate to the loose moral climate of Egypt:

R' Huna said in the name of Bar Kapara: Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things: the Jews did not change their names to Egyptian names; they did not abandon their language; they did not inform against one another; and they did not become loose in their sexual mores. (Yalkut, Emor, 757)

If it isn't Jewish moral standards that are open to criticism, how can we account for the deliberations of the Attribute of Justice regarding the worthiness of the Jews to have the sea split for them? The answer: it is not moral merit that brings miracles; it is emuna, or belief in God. The sea can only split for a people who can believe that it will split before they see it happen.

R' Chaim of Voloz'hin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna, clarifies the verse:

"God said to Moses, 'Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them start moving!'" (Exodus 14:15)

On the face of it, God's injunction is difficult to understand. With the sea on one side and the attacking Egyptian army on the other, what else could Moses do than cry out to God for salvation?

According to R' Chaim, the explanation is the following. God was telling Moses that his prayers had already accomplished all that prayers to God could possibly accomplish. The sea was ready to split! There was nothing more for God to do. The spiritual energy required to accomplish the miracle of splitting the sea had already been supplied and was ready and available, waiting to be used. But in order to bring this power down to earth and apply it to an actual body of water, a human agency was required. Divine energy flows into the world only through the agency of human beings. The Jews would have to enter the sea to make it split. That means they had to believe that it would split before it actually happened. A person who does not believe that the sea can split for him if that is God's desire cannot enter the sea in the face of the clear perception that he will drown.

Thus we learn that miracles require the human power of emuna or faith, as well as a special input of Divine energy. Miracles can only happen to those who believe in miracles! It is in the area of faith that the difficulty of the miracle of splitting the sea becomes manifest.

CLINGING TO ONE'S CULTURE

Exile is physical dislocation by definition. But the Zohar explains that the physical dislocation is actually the outer manifestation of a spiritual dislocation. Some spiritual power of the Jewish people is in exile and being held captive by the nations. The commentators approach the Egyptian exile in terms of the dislocation of the faculty of "speech."

The faculty of speech allows man to express his ideas and feelings. But speech is a cultural tool. Vocabulary follows cultural patterns. The Arabs have thirty words that mean camel; young camels, old camels, males, females etc. each have a distinct word to describe them. English has over fifty words to describe the self-propelled vehicle. Hebrew has many names for God, each referring to another of His aspects while English has only one, the familiar God. Language is an expression of culture.

Jews are cultured people. They always immerse themselves in culture wherever they are. The Jews of Egypt were no different; they were totally immersed in the Egyptian culture. They attended Egyptian schools and universities, they read Egyptian books and newspapers, they exploited the entertainment possibilities. This deep immersion in the foreign culture meant that they only possessed the tools for the expression of the Egyptian soul.

Despite the fact that they stubbornly adhered to their own strict moral traditions, their own language and mode of dress, the Jews of Egypt lacked access to a culture that would enable them express their Jewish souls. To express the uniqueness of his soul, to utter his innermost beliefs, a Jew needs to immerse himself in his own culture, the Torah. He needs Jewish schools, Jewish universities, Jewish books and Jewish media that are focused on Torah. But these were precisely the items that the Jews in Egypt were lacking. We did not yet have our own culture in Egypt. We lived there for 210 years without the Torah. We had no alternative to Egyptian culture. Our faculty of "speech" was in exile.

Without the benefit of our own unique Torah culture, we could only express our innermost Jewish selves in Egyptian terms. If nothing in the Egyptian culture could supply the ideological infrastructure for accepting the idea that the sea could split miraculously, Jews were unable to express the belief in such a miracle even to themselves. Your ideas have to give you permission to believe and we simply did not possess the conceptual tools required. Whether or not we worshipped idols in fact, our cultural concepts were those appropriate to a society of idol worshippers. We were unable to imagine the sea splitting and therefore the sea was truly incapable of splitting for us.

The heavenly angels marveled and said: "How can people who are idol worshippers walk on dry land in the midst of the sea?" (Exodus Rabba 26:4]

A SONG OF RESURRECTION

How did God help us overcome the limitation? How does one go about instilling a belief in infinite possibilities into the mind of an idol worshipper? The Torah gives us a hint.

"Then Moses and the children of Israel chose to sing this song to God ..." (Exodus 15:1)

The verb "to sing" is spelled as yashir, which is the way to write the verb in the future tense according to the rules of Hebrew grammar. The Rabbis found a hint to the resurrection buried in this apparently inappropriate selection of the future tense to describe a past event. Taken literally, the text says that Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song in the future.

Our Sages interpret this as a prophecy; Moses and the children of Israel actually will sing this song at the time of the resurrection of the dead. Thus the song of our Parsha, a song of thanksgiving to God offered by the Jewish people for having been granted the miracle of the splitting of the sea is actually the song of the resurrection; the very same song that the people experiencing the resurrection will be inspired to sing (See Mechilta, Beshalach as quoted by Rashi)

To help us get a grip on what this implies let us examine another aspect of the revelations that accompanied this miracle pointed out by the commentators (see Rashi and Nachmanides.)

The second verse of the song reads:

"This is my God and I will build Him a Sanctuary; the God of my father and I will exalt Him." (Exodus 15:2)

God appeared to them in person, as it were; they were able to point Him out to each other with their fingers. Every maidservant who was on the scene had a prophetic vision that was on a higher level than the prophetic vision of the latter prophets. (Mechilta, ibid.)

The maidservant serves as the symbol of intellectual underdevelopment in rabbinic literature, whereas the prophet stands at the very pinnacle of intellectual development and achievement (see Maimonedes, Yad Hachazaka, Fundamentals of the Faith, Ch.7]. The degree of intellectual clarity required to catch a glimpse of the Ultimate is way above the capacity of the average person. A maidservant having a prophetic vision is equivalent to a person with an elementary school education coming up with a new theory in quantum physics.

If the maidservant can nevertheless experience the vision that the prophet manages to glimpse in his mind's eye by straining his vast intellectual capacity to the utmost, there is only one way to account for it. She must have been existentially transported to some higher world. Once we are physically transported somewhere, we can perceive our surroundings by making use of our ordinary senses. There is no need to use our minds or imaginations to observe our surroundings. If a person with the grade school education could go for a stroll in a forest of subatomic particles he or she would understand more about them than the greatest physicist.

A SONG OF FAITH

In other words, in order to acquire the level of emuna required to accomplish the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Jewish nation had to be bodily lifted and transported to the world of techiyas hamesim, the world as we shall experience it at the time of the resurrection.

The word shir in Hebrew does not only describe musical song. 'Song' is used whenever feelings and ideas that are beyond the ability of ordinary words to convey are being discussed. The person who catches a glimpse of himself as a resurrected being can also imagine that the sea will split at God's command. If the grave itself can open and release new life, the waters of the sea can also part. The song of the resurrection is also the song of the parting of the waters. This brings us right back to emuna.

"On that day, God saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore ... and the people revered God, and they had faith in God and in Moses, his servant." (Exodus 14:30-31)

We use the word faith to refer to things that we believe are out there even though we cannot see them. If you can actually see something then you know that it's there, and we no longer speak of having faith in its existence. This conception of faith is contrary to the view expressed in the passage quoted. The Jewish people who had just experienced all the marvels of the exodus including the splitting of the sea are described here as finally rising to the level of having faith in God's existence.

We have arrived at the point we are trying to make in this essay. Seeing is not believing.

SEEING IS NOT BELIEVING

Human beings can only make sense of the world they see around them by filtering the information presented by their senses through the intellectual lenses provided by their cultures. Living through events doesn't guarantee that we see them in the proper perspective.

The idol worshipper lives in a physical world that exists separately from the beings that he worships. His Gods cannot tamper with the fundamental rules of reality. Plato sincerely felt that even God could not make the sides of a square equal to its diagonal. He did not feel that he was imposing a limitation on God's power when he made this statement. His God was a part of the same reality as his own and therefore was also subject to the rules and limitations imposed by logic.

When a person's cultural background teaches him that there cannot be miracles that violate natural law, he can actually experience the splitting of the sea and not see it for what it is. He will think that there must be some natural explanation. For him the miracle can never happen even when it happens. This principle is behind the spiritual rule we have developed in this essay; for such people the miracle of splitting the waters cannot happen by definition. Anyone who cannot see a miracle even when he experiences it never experiences it. He can easily drown in the sea that has been miraculously parted.

Now that we have fully developed this concept we can easily understand the association between the splitting of the sea and Jewish marriage and livelihood.

THE JEWISH SPOUSE

The Jewish spouse is not someone you live with for a few years as long as it is pleasant or convenient - he or she is an integral part of the same whole with you; you will experience the resurrection together. Your spouse and you are parts of a single soul. A Jewish spouse is a much more integral part of the self than physical arms or legs.

When we find our mates we usually think we know what attracts us. People marry because they fall in love, or because it is an advantageous connection, or some other reason or all of them combined. But these are only the apparent reasons. None of them would suffice to make the marriage survive through eternity, but the Jewish marriage does survive forever. The true reason for a Jewish marriage is that God arranged the match in advance. To have the proper attitude to a Jewish marriage one must know that his or her perceived reasons for getting married are illusory. The reasons exist to make it easy for him or her to carry out God's will. It takes faith to appreciate the reality of a Jewish marriage. You need emuna to be able to see your own marriage in this eternal light.

LIVELIHOOD

God designed the world so that earning a living usually requires a great deal of effort. It is almost beyond one's imagination to conceive that the intensity or quality invested in the effort has no bearing on the outcome. Yet Judaism teaches precisely that; no amount of effort can enable a person to get hold of a single farthing more than God allotted him or that was intended for someone else.

Thus, even as a person immerses himself totally in his labors, he must believe that his intense striving has no bearing on the success of the outcome. God decides how much he should have, and no matter what he does, that is all he will manage to earn. The effort is necessary for its own sake, not to change the result.

To the extent that he internalizes this lesson, a Jew is rescued from the temptation to work the sort of hours that leave him with insufficient free time to learn a bit of Torah or to attend prayers in his synagogue, or to remain in close touch with his wife and children.

Once again we are in contact with a phenomenon that requires faith in order to see it properly even as you live through it. Once again we are involved with splitting the sea.

THE LESSON OF UZO

The story of Uzo the Levite recounted in Samuel II, Chapter 6: is a perfect illustration of the basic idea.

David went to fetch the Ark of the Covenant that had been captured by the Philistines. Instead of the Levites carrying it on their shoulders as required by Jewish law, he mistakenly had it transported on a wagon. The wagon hit a bump, the Ark seemed to slip, and Uzo, the chief Levite present, put out his arm to support it and keep it from falling. God instantly struck him dead and the entire venture was abandoned.

The Rabbis point out Uzo's sin. He should have realized that despite appearances, man does not support the Ark. It is the Ark that supports man.

To us this may seem like a trifling error. But this conclusion is the very crux of the Exodus. It was the Jewish soul that was liberated from the bondage to Egyptian culture and finally released to sing its own song. The Jewish body was only liberated because it accompanied the soul. It is not man's body that supports his spirit; it is his spirit that supports his body. That's why the final step of the Exodus was the establishment of a connection to the resurrection.

The soul never dies; it is no great matter to supply it with a new pair of shoes with which to walk the earth. The knowledge that the soul supports the body brings the idea of resurrection within easy reach. The person who has this knowledge can also imagine that the sea can split. Reality is fundamentally spiritual. The person lacking it can never split the sea. The connection to the resurrection was born with the miracle of splitting the sea. That is why the two events share a common song of thanksgiving.

THE MODERN EXILE OF 'SPEECH'

But experiencing the splitting of the sea generated much more than the ability to sing new songs. It gave birth to an entirely different sort of human being. The entire world knows that Jews are different from other people. Although they are only a tiny part of the overall population they are highly visible at the forefront of all human movements for a better world. They win an incredible number of Nobel prizes. They write a disproportionate number of books. They constitute a ridiculously large percentage of the student body in universities. They contribute to charity out of all proportion to their numbers. They are a people full of consuming ambition and fiery zeal. The Exodus produced a human being with an all-consuming drive to express his soul.

Modern Jews are the victims of a terrible cultural tragedy. The inner passion of the Jewish soul cannot be expressed in the cultural language of the nations. Once again we the Jewish people are reliving the exile of the spiritual power of "speech". We are so estranged from our own culture and so immersed in the culture of the nations that we have lost the ability to verbalize our own Jewish souls.

The difficulty of transcending the physical and connecting to the realm where miracles originate should rightfully belong to the past. We received the Torah at Mount Sinai. We now have our own Jewish culture. We have the means at our disposal to be able to speak out our souls. We should have no trouble surmounting our physical difficulties. The means of connecting to the realm of miracles, the culture of Torah, is in our possession.

But a Jew without knowledge of Torah is like an outsider looking in as far as the expression of his own Jewish soul is concerned. He is like an Egyptian attempting to walk through the parted waters. He observes without comprehension. He sees without believing the evidence of his own eyes. He cannot bring himself to enter the parted waters.

Published: February 19, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 4

(3) Kenneth Weintrub, January 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Cultural Prejudice?

In the commentary on Beshalach the Rabbi states that English has only one word for God. This is not so. Almighty, Creator, Lord all come to mind immediately. (He also conveniently leaves out the number of words in other languages for the self-propelled vehicle.) To be sure, English does not have as many words for God as the Eskimo languages do for snow, but we certainly have more than one.

A few weeks ago a commentator made a negative allusion to alleged American materialism. This sounded much like the aspersions cast at us Jews by gentiles. It was distorted, unfounded and undefensible. (In all fairness, I don't recall whether it was a comment by Rabbi Weisz or not).

What is distressing is the undercurrent of what might bed perceived as anti-American attitudes on Aish.com. This is a site in English with branches throughout the U.S.; it seems counterproductive to alienate the very people one is trying to reach by exhibiting such self-righteous bias, whether by intention or not.

Anonymous, March 31, 2013 3:28 PM

Almighty, creator and lord are not different names of god rather are nicknames given to god because he is almighty he is the creator and he is our lord but those are not his names. In hebrew you have really different names.

(2) gayle bauer, January 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Profound

This Portion is profound and delightful,I am rejoicing at reading it like a person who has found something of great importance that they had misplaced.
Many thanks for sharing your Portion
Gayle Bauer

(1) Anonymous, January 22, 2002 12:00 AM

wow, you rocked my world with this one - Thanks - it truly resonated

wow, you rocked my world with this one - Thanks - it truly resonated

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