Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's probably no Biblical event more exhilarating or famous than the splitting of the Red Sea.  This remarkable miracle dominates any retelling of the exodus legend.  Witnessing this phenomenon was so overwhelming for those present that our Sages report that all of them attained spiritual enlightenment greater than even the greatest of the later Prophets.  It must have been awesome.  I'd like to think that even our generation whose senses are so overwhelmed and numbed by super media bombardment would be blown away.  And the importance of this event has continued impact, because we recite the Song of the Sea everyday in our prayers.  Plus, the Sages report that anyone who remembers this incident every day is assured a place in the World to Come.  Before the whole assembly broke into sublime song, there is a very understated expression of the enormity of the marvel.  The verse records:  And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant (Exodus 14:31).  I'd like to suggest that this last idea about belief in both Moshe and God is the key to understanding the significance of this miracle.

            First of all, I'd like to convince you that we must view the actual departure from Egypt and the splitting of the Sea as two distinct stages of the redemption process.  There's a famous Midrash at the beginning of parshat Va'era which describes the four languages of redemption (v'hotzeiti, v'hitzalti, v'go'alti, and v'lokachti) as four steps in the process.  The second and third steps are identified with leaving Egypt and crossing the Sea.  Plus, many commentaries explain the fact that we have a day of yom tov, with cessation from work, on the seventh day of Pesach is to commemorate the splitting of the Sea.  This also explains why this event is basically missing from the Seder, because it's viewed as a separate entity.

            Okay, now we have to figure out what are the ideas behind each event.  Leaving Egypt is a necessary component of becoming a free and independent nation.  We needed to remove the constraints of Egypt to grow and develop.  The Hebrew name of Egypt, Mitzrayim, actually means a constricting place, from tzar meaning narrow, and gives us the Yiddish tzoros for troubles.  So, when the Jews finally leave Egypt they face a new world of options and choices so long denied them.  They were free.  But freedom is not only a great privilege, it's also an awesome responsibility.  Even Pharaoh noticed that they weren't sure what to do with this new freedom, because they were wandering (14:3).  I think that this term implies more than just the lack of a GPS.  They not only didn't know the direction; they lacked direction.  We see this clearly from the panic they exhibited.  Just a few days earlier they left Egypt with joy and gratitude to God.  Now they scream that it would have been better to die in Egypt than in this miserable desert.

            At what point does this chaos become order, this terror turn to composure?  I think that this happens before the Sea splits.  The turning point takes place when God tells Moshe to stop engaging the Deity in conversation, and begin instructing the nation. I believe that the seminal moment was Moshe's speech:  Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is only today, but you shall no longer continue to see them ever again (14:13).  This changed the equation for both the Jews and, perhaps even more importantly, for Moshe.  Now we can begin to understand the famous expression:  And they believed in God and Moshe, His servant.

            Let's take another look at the four step process of the salvation described by the four languages of redemption.  According to tradition, the first step was the cessation of slave labor with the beginning of the plagues.  This probably took place six months earlier, when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah today.  Then they actually left Egypt on the first day of our Pesach.  Next they crossed the Sea, on the seventh day of Pesach.  Finally, they received the Torah on Shavuot.  Each step took them further from Egyptian sovereignty to Divine control.  By step three they not only had faith in God, and celestial power, but were willing to accept God's agent, Moshe, as well.  With the fourth and final stage we accept God's word, embodied in the Torah, as eternally binding.

            The second Gerrer Rebbe (Rabbi Aryeh Yehudah Leib Alter, 1847-1905) explains this phenomenon in a slightly different way.  He explains that the Jews were going from negative forces towards positive energy.  This is based on the famous verse:  Turn from evil and do good (Psalms 34:13).  We must depart from the evil represented by Egypt, before we can move towards good, represented by faith and loyalty to God.  So, the first two stages of the salvation were not only physical departure from Egypt but were also an egress from the evil it stood for.  Only then could we move in the direction of goodness and commitment to God's principles.  This forward movement took place during the latter two steps of the redemption process.  Now we can see that this third step which included belief in Moshe is the crucial turning point when we've ascended from the minus numbers into the plus column. 

            We have to observe similar patterns in our own lives.  Before we can demonstrate constancy in our relationship with God, we must desist from behaviors deplored by God.  Similarly, it's hard to get healthy, while we're still stuck in the unhealthful habits which made us sick in the first place.  The Torah isn't just describing historical events, but also instructing us about eternally beneficial behavior patterns.  Hopefully, when read this awesome poem we are inspired by the story's majesty to impact our lives.                    

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