Parashat BeShalach: Not powerless pawns

The splitting of the Red Sea has fired our imagination for 4,000 years.

The splitting of the Reed (Red) Sea has fired our imagination for 4,000 years, up to the films of Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments) and Steven Spielberg (Prince of Egypt). But as usual, the Book is far better than the movie. The Bible not only describes the event, but also expresses the emotions felt by the Israelites, and sets down the divine lessons which God wanted to teach. In this way, the splitting of the sea becomes not only a once-in-history extrasensory experience, but rather a watershed which helped move the psyche of our nation from slavery to freedom. Chapter 14 of Exodus, the central account of the Splitting of the Sea in this week's portion of Beshalah, is actually divided into two almost equal parts (verses 1-14, 15-31), as magnificently analyzed by Rabbi Elhanan Samet in his Studies of the Biblical Portions. The first half catalogs Pharaoh's military initiative to return the Israelites to Egypt, the stark fear of the Israelites, and Moses's ringing promise: "God will fight for you; you must silently hold your peace" (14:14); the second half describes the miracle itself and the stunning victory of the Israelites. But the biblical text is far more profound. Twice in the first half of chapter 14 we are told the precise location of the Israelites: the very opening verse (14:1) has God telling Moses to "turn back [the Israelites] and camp before Pi-hahiroth (probably "per heru," a generic term for the shrines of the idol Horus), between the tower and the sea, facing the master idol of the North…" and then again, only nine verses later, "the Egyptians overtook them while they were camping at the sea, near the Temple of Horus, opposite the master idol of the North." What is most remarkable about this twice-told geographic location is that it is related to two major idolatrous centers - a rare occurrence for the Bible of ethical monotheism. Added to this is the total paralysis of the Israelites. Even after God informs them that He "will triumph over Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am God" (14:4), the Hebrews seem virtually resigned to death (14: 10-12). What adds to the reader's frustration is the biblical report that Pharaoh took "600 chosen chariots as well as the whole chariot corps of Egypt, three times the amount of all of these" (14:7). Does this mean another 1,800 chariots? Josephus writes that besides the 600 war chariots, there were 50,000 horsemen and 200,000 footmen (Antiquities 2:15:3). But the Israelites numbered 600,000 men, and had emerged from Egypt armed (Exodus 13:18). Why didn't they turn on the Egyptians? This is the devastating question of the Ibn Ezra, and it must be our question as well. Why does the possibility of fighting back not even seem to be an option? The sad truth is that fighting isn't even on Moses' radar: "God will fight for you; you must silently hold your peace" are the words of the prophet. Enter the second half of chapter 14, with a divine rebuke to Moses and a divine charge to the Israelites: "And the Lord said to Moses: 'Why are you crying out to Me in prayer? Speak to the children of Israel, and let them go forward" (Exodus 14:15). It is not by accident that the Israelites are between the Shrine of Horus and the master idol of the North, and that in Hebrew the Shrine of Horus is "pi hahirot," which can also be translated "at the mouth, or cusp of freedom (herut)." God is telling Moses as well as Israel that they are no longer slaves to Egypt, and neither are they enslaved to Egyptian idols! Idol worshipers believe that human beings are powerless pawns, played with by the all-powerful gods whose petty feuds control what happens on earth; the most that people can do is bribe or propitiate those gods! The message of Israel is very different. Our God is a God of love and justice, who has created us in His image and as His partners. He is the God of history - "I will be what I will be" - and history is a partnership between God, His chosen nation and the world. God may be the Composer and leader of the orchestra, but we humans must play the instruments; whether there is silence, cacophony or a magnificent symphony depends in great measure upon us. Hence God charges Israel with diving into the Reed Sea if they truly wish to be free; active partnership with the Divine means risking your lives in unchartered depths. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.