Beshalach

The splitting of the Reed Sea was one of the most direct and open miracles in the history of the world. The Talmud relates that even the lowest person crossing through the sea saw more of the spiritual realms than the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) who received one of the highest visions of G-d’s throne of Glory. The verse says “This is my G-d” (15; 2), meaning that each person was able to physically point to G-d and say “Here He is!”. Yet only a few chapters later the Torah says about these same people who have just seen G-d “That they tried G-d, saying ‘Is G-d in our midst or not?’”. How could they have forgotten in such a short space of time the miracles that G-d had performed for them?

Consider the manna. Each morning the Jews would receive their daily food from the heavens. Not only did it arrive fresh and tasty, but it was also shrink wrapped in a layer of dew to preserve the flavour. This miracle begins in today’s Torah portion (16; 4) and continues throughout the entire forty years that they remain in the desert. This was a clear miracle, perceived by every individual person in the nation. Furthermore, it also shows that G-d is constantly involved with the world, and providing for his creations.

Imagine someone who was born during those forty years in the Sinai desert. The only way he knows of getting food is by waiting for it to arrive on the doorstep each morning. To him or her, this is the way the world works. If they would have had science textbooks then, surely there would have been diagrams showing exactly how to recognise manna, and showing how it falls from the heavens. We can picture his or her shock upon entering the land of Israel after forty years. They have never known any other way of life. All of a sudden they are told that by putting seeds in the ground they can grow their own food. Yet, at first, when they experiment, all they see is that the seed disintegrates. How miraculous it must have been for them to actually see grain growing from the ground. Not only are they amazed that dirt can sustain life, but they can plant as much as they like, and have a storehouse full of food, not having to rely daily on G-d’s kindness. They can grow a variety of crops, each with a unique taste and texture, and they can actually feel that they are earning and deserving their food, rather than just receiving a handout form G-d. To this person, which is the greater miracle, bread form the heavens, or bread from the earth?

We define miracles as those occurrences which apparently defy the laws of nature. But surely those very laws themselves are no less miraculous. We become accustomed to the way in which the world works, and therefore there is a danger that we may begin to take it for granted. G-d has given us the independence to provide for ourselves, and at the same time instructs us to maintain and acknowledge our dependence upon Him for everything we have. He has given us blessings before and after everything we eat, and for many other of the pleasures of the world. “Blessed are You, G-d, King of the Universe, who sustains the entire world with His goodness.3” This is our challenge, to continually recognise G-d in the world, not only in the extraordinary, but also, and even more importantly, in the mundane.

This is the mistake that the Jews made when they first left Egypt. They acknowledged G-d as the Worker of Miracles. They saw Him at the Reed Sea, as they had seen Him in the plagues that He brought upon the Egyptians. But when there were no more overt miracles, they questioned “Is the L-rd among usor not?” They had not yet opened their eyes to realise that the greatest evidence of G-d is His presence among us, in our daily lives. They had not forgotten the miracles, and had not lessened their belief in G-d, but they couldn’t see Him with them continuously. It is up to us to constantly try to find the miracles, both overt and hidden, which G-d performs for us.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Az Yashir Moshe ...”, “Then Moshe sang ...”. This explains the verse “Your throne is established from then (Az)” (Tehillim 93; 2), Rabbi Berachia said in the name of Rabbi Abahu: Even though You (G-d) have existed forever, Your throne was not sat in, and You were not made known in Your world until Your children sang the song [at the Reed Sea]. Therefore the verse states “Your throne is established from then (Az)” (Shemos Rabba 23).
How did the splitting of the Reed Sea and the Jews singing the Song of the Sea make G-d’s presence in the world more known than any of the other miraculous events seen so far? The Midrash implies that this miracle was in some way quite different from that which had gone before. Singing a song in praise had never happened until this time, as expressed in the following Midrash (ibid.):

“Az Yashir Moshe ...”, “Then Moshe sang ...”. This explains the verse “Her mouth is open with knowledge, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Mishlei 31; 26). From the creation of the world until Israel sang the song at the sea we never find any person who sang G-d’s praises. Adam was created but never sang praise. G-d saved Avraham from the fiery furnace and from the kings. Similarly He saved Yitzchak from the sacrificial knife and Ya’akov from the angel and from Esav and from the inhabitants of Shechem, and none of them sang a song of praise. However when the Jews came to the Reed Sea and it split for them immediately they sang praise before G-d.

It perhaps does not make sense that no one had ever been moved to praise G-d before in spite of the miracles witnessed. Rabbi Y. Y. L. Bloch explains in Shi’urei Da’as that the essence of a song is found in a new experience, and all other songs written about a normal event will be but pale imitations of the original. So, when the Midrash says that no one had ever sung G-d’s praise until this time, it implies that until now miracles could be regarded as understandable in spite of their greatness. The splitting of the sea was something qualitatively different, and not so easily explained.

When G-d created the universe he set up systems of laws, the physical laws which have been understood and explained by scientists, and the spiritual laws which are metaphysical. The ancients had a clear understanding of the spiritual laws, as we see from the Egyptian advisors, who could also replicate many of the plagues and miracles. The Talmud (Chagiga 12a) states: “When G-d was creating the world it was continually expanding like the thread of a loom, until G-d stopped it … This is the meaning of the name Sha-dai; G-d who said “enough” to His world”. G-d is infinite, the act of creation necessitated limiting His influence (Tzimtzum) in order to make a finite world. Sha-dai is the name of G-d which connotes His role as limiting, setting rules and laws by which the world functions.

According to the spiritual laws, a righteous person deserves to have miracles performed for him or her. Avraham had demonstrated his unquestioning faith and trust in G-d, so it was not surprising that he was saved from the furnace or from the four kings. Conversely the Egyptians had harshly enslaved the Israelites, and deserved the plagues with which they were punished. To the discerning observer none of these events would be worthy of song, because they merely follow the laws which G-d set up at creation, implicit in the name Sha-dai.

However the miracles at the sea were of an entirely different nature. The Zohar (Exodus 56) states that the sea didn’t want to split. It complained that the Jews were no worthier of salvation that were the Egyptians, they were both idolaters. G-d chose to save the Israelites not based on laws of reward and punishment, but on future events, that they would eventually accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. By judging based not on the present but on the larger picture of the purpose of the world, G-d was displaying His true essence in this world, which we know as the name Y-HV-H. Only through showing His favouritism to the Jews did G-d reveal His true nature, and His larger role in world history. This is the explanation of the verses “And G-d spoke to Moshe, and said to him, ‘I am Y-HV-H. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov by the name of G-d Sha-dai, but by my name Y-HV-H I was not known to them’” (Shemos 6; 2-3).

The Midrash, that G-d’s throne was not sat in until this time, nor was He known in the world is now clearly understood. Until this time everything could be attributed to the laws of creation, and Divine involvement with the world was concealed. But when the sea split before the Jews all of humanity witnessed and acknowledged G-d as the ruler of the world. This is why the Jews were moved to song, seeing a miracle, the like of which the world had never seen.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After the Israelites have passed safely through the Sea of Reeds, and seen the Egyptians drowned, they sang a song of praise to G-d. The majority of that Song relates the downfall and death of the Egyptians. “I shall sing to G-d, for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse and rider into the sea… G-d is master of war… Pharaoh’s chariots and army He threw in the sea… In Your abundant grandeur you shatter Your opponents...” (Shemos 15; 1 ff.). Here it seems that G-d is praised through wreaking vengeance on His enemies.

This is in contrast to the specific prohibition against seeking revenge, “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge...” (Vayikra 19; 18). The Talmud highly praises someone who does not seek revenge, “Those who are insulted, and don’t respond, that hear themselves being denigrated and don’t respond, who act from love, and rejoice in their suffering about them the verse states, ‘Those who love G-d are like the rising sun in its might’ (Shoftim 5; 31)” (Yoma 23a).

Furthermore, the song that the Israelites sang was forbidden to the angels to sing: After the Israelites had crossed through the Reed Sea the angels wanted to sing a song of praise of G-d. He said to them, ‘Should you sing a song while My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea? (Megillah 10b). It seems that the angels were expected to show compassion at the deaths of the Egyptians, despite the suffering that they caused to the Israelites. How were the Israelites themselves permitted to sing praises of G-d?

The Talmud also implies that revenge is not always a bad thing, “Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak, any Torah scholar who does not seek revenge and bear a grudge like a snake is not a true scholar” (Yoma 22b). Elsewhere it states, “How great is revenge, for it was written between two names of G-d, as the verse states, ‘G-d, Who seeks revenge is G-d’ (Tehillim 114; 1)” (Brachot 33a). Furthermore, the Midrash states that the revelation of G-d’s revenge that the nations witnessed at the Reed Sea brought great glory to G-d:

“Then Moshe sang...” (Shemos 15; 1). This is the meaning of the verse “Your [G-d’s] throne was established from then” (Tehillim 93; 2). Rav Berachiah stated in the name of Rabbi Abahu that even though You are eternal, but You were not seated on Your throne, and not known in Your world until Your children recited the Song of the Sea. (Shemos Rabba 23; 1).

The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that there are two kinds of revenge. The common usage of the word revenge implies something which is motivated by pride and a base desire for punishment for one’s enemies. The Talmud explains:

“What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour’s sickle, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow his axe. If he refuses saying, ‘Just as you wouldn’t lend to me’, this is revenge. What is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour’s axe, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow an item of clothing. If he responds, ‘You may borrow it, because unlike you I do lend out my possessions’ this is bearing a grudge. (Yoma 23a).

There is also vengeance which is solely a quest for justice. Though in English the word ‘vengeance’ has a pejorative meaning, in Hebrew does not necessarily have connotations of vindictiveness. It is this type of vengeance which a Torah scholar must possess, and which was written in the Torah between two of G-d’s names.

The world was set up in a constant balance between G-d’s mercy and His strict justice. Without mercy the world would not have been able to exist for a moment, at the first sin everything would have been returned to emptiness and void. However, without justice G-d is not a G-d of truth. Therefore He must meet out justice, and reward and punishment so that fairness is preserved.

It is through G-d’s carrying out of justice that He is clearly perceived in the world. Every time that a sin goes unpunished, because of G-d’s mercy, there is an opportunity to think that there is no Judge and no justice. When the wicked are punished we see the Heavenly Judge in action.

However, only the injured party can seek this revenge. If someone else seeks revenge on their behalf it cannot be solely a quest for justice. This is why the Israelites were permitted to sing G-d’s praises, because they had suffered under the Egyptians. But the angels who had only observed their suffering were not permitted to rejoice at the downfall of the Egyptians.

We can now understand why G-d was not ‘seated on His throne’ until after the splitting of the sea. For 210 years the Egyptians had persecuted the Israelites with apparent impunity. They forgot that there was a G-d who ran the world. At the time of their punishment all the nations witnessed the fact that everyone ultimately receives their just desserts.