October 14, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Beshalach

Table for Five

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

Then the children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left. –Exodus 14:22

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice President of Community Engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

As the rain poured, our kids ran outside, playing and dancing. Changes in nature captivate us. I can only imagine how mesmerizing the splitting sea was.

This verse describing this magnificent event seems like a contradiction in terms. How could the Israelites be simultaneously “in the midst of the sea” and “on dry land”?

The rabbis offer multiple resolutions to this contradiction. In Bereshit Rabbah, one rabbi explained that the Israelites were in the midst of the sea – until the water reached their noses – and only then did it become dry land. Rabbi Nehorai understood the verse to mean that they went into the midst of the sea as though they were on dry land — meaning that they had available in the sea what they had on land. He explained that when the daughters of Israel were carrying their children through the sea, if the kids cried, the moms would pick an apple or a pomegranate from the sea to feed them.

How wonderful of Rabbi Nehorai to be concerned that the kids had snacks along the way!

Yet perhaps, the contradiction in the verse is precisely the point. At the moment of the splitting of the sea, the separate categories of “on dry land” and “in the midst of the sea” converged.

Likewise, the real miracles in our lives change the way we view the world —  obliterating pre-established categories. Complex realities often don’t fit into simple binaries. Sometimes, what we consider impossible can become possible.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Fanaticism, philosopher George Santayana famously said, consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

Fanaticism and extremism are twins. Both camouflage themselves in the cloak of idealism. Both claim that they and they alone possess the key to truth. Both do not seek knowledge but only care to impose their own extreme views on others. For them, moderation is a vice, not a virtue. For the most part, they do not speak, they shout; they are motivated not by love but by hate; they do not discuss, they primarily denigrate those who disagree with them.

Tragically, their presence in contemporary society — politically, culturally and theologically — seems to be ever more noticeable. The right and the left move further and further apart and the moderate center appears to be disappearing. It is the sickness of our age, a sickness which ignores the warning of King Solomon, wisest of all men: “Do not be righteous overmuch, neither be over wise; why should you destroy yourself?” [Ecclesiastes 7:16]

Judaism, as Maimonides pointed out, is based on the principle of “the Golden mean.” It is the key to all mitzvot. It is the essence of wisdom. How remarkable that when the children of Israel miraculously walked through the Red Sea on dry land on the way to Sinai, they witnessed the wonder of the waters turned into a wall on either side of them. The path to freedom and greatness was in the middle, between the extremes of right and left.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

As our ancestors left Egypt, the Torah describes the greatest miracle ever. God parts the sea waters, paving the way to freedom and liberation. Defying nature and reason, the wet sea becomes dry ground. In “The Book of Miracles,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares the rabbinic story of two children, Reuven and Shimon, whose experiences were of anything but a miracle. As they cross through the great walls of the sea, all they saw was the mud on their feet. They never looked up to see the water miraculously divide as it is held on either side by the power of God. Consequently, they failed to see why everyone else stood on a distant shore singing and dancing. God had provided for their escape and they were freed from the oppression of their slavery. But, for Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never happened. 

“Their eyes were closed — they may as well have been asleep,” says the midrash (Exodus Rabbah 24:1). 

People see only what they understand, says Kushner, not what lies in front of them. We doubt, we question, we rationalize — closing our eyes and hearts to the unknown and the Unknowable. But, to be a Jew, Kushner teaches, is “to wake up and to keep your eyes open to the many beautiful, mysterious and holy things that happen all round us every day.” Imagine what might be our own experience — of meaning, connection, of transcendence — if only we open our eyes to our right and our left. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

Walls play very different roles in our lives. Sometimes they are used to keep people in a defined perimeter, as in the walls surrounding a prison. Other walls are used to define that perimeter, as the walls of a building determine its square footage. Yet other walls are used to keep people or other threats out. 

The walls in this passage are of this last, protective sort, keeping out the water that would otherwise engulf the Israelites passing from one shore to the other. Those walls, like many others, are beneficial, even life-saving. 

Others, though, are more controversial, keeping out people or goods that should be let in. Physical walls, though, are not the only kinds. Legal walls for generations kept out African-Americans, Jews and Catholics from some neighborhoods, and they separated blacks from whites in schools, restaurants and even bathrooms. Today, we are embarrassed by those legal walls of the past. Like physical walls, though, legal walls often serve important and good purposes, defining, for example, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. 

Similarly, economic walls, as in tariffs, may or may not benefit a nation’s best interests. Emotional walls, too, sometimes protect us from assaults to our welfare, as when we close off relationships with degrading or abusive people. Sometimes, though, we create emotional walls that keep us from healthy and nurturing relationships and experiences, stunting our growth and fulfillment. 

What are the walls in your life? Do they help you or harm you? 

Rabbi Yehuda Mintz
Recovery Through Torah

Was God inflicting the Ten Plagues upon the Egyptians in retribution for their 210-year enslavement of the Israelites or was God attempting to convince his children of his power and love? Perhaps it was both.

The vast majority of Jewish commentaries suggest that 80 percent of the Hebrew slave population said, “Thanks but no thanks” to God with regard to the Exodus; they preferred to stay with what they had and knew. The 20 percent who followed Moses were the reluctant believers. 

Our Heavenly Father had to have patience in transforming us from an enslaved, skeptical people to a free, believing nation. 

As we left Egypt and reached the sea, we panicked, looking back and seeing the mighty Egyptian army in pursuit of us. It was Moses who stretched his arms toward the raging water, but it was Nachshon ben Aminadav who took God at his word and leaped into the sea. Only when the water reached his nose did the sea part; and only then were the Israelites motivated to come into the sea on dry land. Only then did the waters form a protective wall for them on their right and on their left. Our covenant with God is not that we are his observers, but that we are his participants in the care of his creation. 

So I keep a saying on my desk that reads “Leap and the net will appear.”