Wednesday, January 31, 2007

B'Shalach: The Parting of the Sea of Reeds

There are times when I read Torah and think to myself "yes! precisely!" It's the kind of revelation that creates creases at the lengths of my lips and inspires a smile, the crooked kind. The kind where the head tilts just slightly and then shakes left to right just so. And here, today, as I sit in my adopted coffee shop, it happened in the commentary to Ex. 13:17. I'll start off my Torah talk with this, because it's just one of those things.

"G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer." Rashi, Rambam, Ibn Ezra -- they all have thoughts on why G-d would lead the Jews on a longer route, especially after the hardship already endured. Maimonides said that G-d wanted to accustom the people to hardship, but hadn't they already become accustomed to hardship? Then, the Etz Chayim notes say: "Some commentators specifically spell out the implication that sometimes the harder way of doing something turns out to be the better way." Furthermore, "When something comes to us too easily instead of being hard earned, we don't always appreciate it." It was with this last line that the creasing, tilting and nodding happened.

I'm a fan of applying Torah lessons to just about anything and everything in my life. And isn't that what we should do? The classes I most cherish from my school days are those that I had to completely throw myself into. They're also the classes where I earned the best grades and retained the most information. And so it is in my romantic life. Nearly three years trudging along hoping for something to work out can really take it out of a person, especially with the trauma, pain and distance along the way. But I'm beginning to taste the fruits of my labor, and how sweet they are. So it is that the Jews entered the promised land. Of course the two things I compare here aren't by any means on the level, but in a way, I want to imagine that it could feel this good.

+ A note on the Red Sea (ים סוף). The Hebrew translates as yam suf. Yam being sea and suf deriving from the Egyptian word for the papyrus reed. The translation Red Sea arose from a translation of the Greek Septuagint, although I can't seem to pinpoint exactly how such terminology ended up in the Greek, considering the Hebrew. Some scholars suggest that the "Red" comes from the fact that some nearby mountains or the crossing's proximity to Edom, which means red. Interestingly, though, to this day no one has been able to locate a body of water with fresh water reeds, thus the location of the Sea of Reeds is unknown, although there's plenty of speculation about the locale.

+ Ex. 14:14: "The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace." The notes offer a poignant interpretation of this line: "G-d will support and defend you -- but only when you stop quarreling among yourselves. A united people merits G-d's intervention." It's that second line that strikes me, particularly. It takes a people united to gain intervention of G-d. Is this an allusion to Moshiach? But is this only the peace of the Israelites that grants intervention? G-d intervenes, saving the Israelites, but the rest of the world (assumingly) is not at peace. Is this a selective thing? Does it imply that perhaps when there is peace within the Jewish community that intervention will arrive? Perhaps G-d isn't just sitting idly by, perhaps he's waiting? "A united people merits G-d's intervention." Indeed.

+ I'm struck by the commentary on the parting of the sea. I'll admit it's a pretty complicated and difficult concept to grasp ... that is, of G-d intervening with nature to build a miracle for the Israelites. But I, the average everyday Jew, am not the only one who struggles with the parting. Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled with this and rely on "a strong east wind" to qualify the parting of the sea as a natural, rather than supernatural, event. However, in the 19th century, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev translated the words ruach kadim as "an ancient wind" rather than an east wind, explaining that
"G-d does not change or suspend the laws of nature in order to work miracles. The wind that divided the sea had been created for that purpose at the time of the creation of the world."
Of course this riles up the question of predetermination, but I've written on that before and it's for a different time. For me, this explanation is beautiful. Levi, my man, you're brilliant.

+ Note: "Mi Chamocha," (one of my favorites which is sung on Shabbat and other holidays) derives from Ex. 15:1-18.

+Ex. 17:16 " ... The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages." I had to backtrack to understand exactly what this was getting at. Amalek attacked the Israelites and in Torah, and Amalek is viewed as "pure malice, attacking without cause." Thus, this parshah ends with the unfortunate statement that Adonai will be fighting evil, in essence, for the length of days (le olam?), not the Amalekites/their actions.

And that concludes this week's Torah time. I have to say this is one of my favorite parshahs thus far. I'm a dork, though, and things like this get me all giddy and excited. Someone walked by and asked if I was in rabbinical school.

I wish!