Dvar Torah given at Ramah Darom Passover Retreat April 5, 2018
On seder night we experience leaving Egypt, on the 7th day of Pesah is the day of crossing the Red Sea. We tend to think of this as a celebration. Shirat Hayam, the poem glorifying God for performing this miracle is part of our daily liturgy. And it tends to be through this lens that we think back on this event.
But in the leining that we just read we see that this is not exactly how it happened. The Israelites, at the shore of the sea saw the Egyptians coming after them what do they do? They complain:
הַֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר מַה־זֹּאת֙ עָשִׂ֣יתָ לָּ֔נוּ לְהוֹצִיאָ֖נוּ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
“Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?
What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? (Exodus 13:11)
Moses reassures the people that G-d will deliver them and the midrash fills in more of the story.
So here’s one of the accounts of that story from the Talmud Masekhet Sotah (36b and 37a)
ר”מ אומר כשעמדו ישראל על הים היו שבטים מנצחים זה עם זה זה אומר אני יורד תחלה לים
וזה אומר אני יורד תחלה לים קפץ שבטו של בנימין וירד לים תחילה
Rabbi Meir said: When the Israelites stood at the sea, the tribes were arguing with one other.
This one was saying: I am going into the sea first, and that one was saying: I am going into the sea first.
Then, in jumped the tribe of Benjamin and descended into the sea first.
אמר לו רבי יהודה לא כך היה מעשה אלא זה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים
וזה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב וירד לים תחילה
Rabbi Yehuda said to Rabbi Meir: That is not how the incident took place. Rather, this tribe said:
I am not going into the sea first, and that tribe said: I am not going into the sea first.
Then, in jumped Nachshon ben Aminadav, and descended into the sea first, …
Though Rabbi Meir’s and Rabbi Yehuda’s accounts of exactly what happened differ, what is consistent between both of their takes on the story is that at this pivotal moment in our people’s history, the people, instead of being in the moment, are arguing. Whether it’s about who will be first or who will be last, at least according to the Talmud, the picture isn’t exactly as rosy as is painted in Shirat Hayam.
A more modern midrash about the same event and picking up on this the same tendency to see the negative side of a situation was depicted by cartoonist Paul North and published in the New Yorker. Maybe you’ve seen it? It shows two Israelites walking behind Moses, his staff raised in one hand as he leads them and the rest of the Israelites through the Red Sea. Their conversation is captioned: “He’s alright, I just wish he were a little more pro-Israel.”
Our people have somewhat of a propensity to disagree, and to find the negative in even a miraculous situation. This goes back to those who, in our reading today, were preferring to die as slaves in Egypt than experience their freedom.
And again, just three days after the splitting of the sea, the Israelites are already complaining that they have no fresh water. How have they not learned by now that they are under G-d’s care?
In Bava Kamma (82a), the Talmud sees this as a source for establishing torah reading three times a week. To understand this, you have to know that water is often seen as an analogy for Torah. If only 3 days ago, our people experienced the most paradigmatic of miracles and already they are complaining about lack of water (Torah)! Clearly without intervention three days is the outer limit for how long the impact of a miracle like splitting the sea lasts. Therefore, according to the Gemara, we shouldn’t go three days without experiencing Torah, thus keeping Torah’s impact, and our connection to the Divine fresh in our minds. Thus the cycle of torah reading during the week was set up.
Torah, according to the Gemara is, in effect, an antidote to our impulse to see the negative side of and to complain about our situation. One key to understanding why is to go back to the analogy of Torah as water. Without water, we wouldn’t be able to live. So too, Torah is crucially important to us as a people. Yet, we don’t think our need for water–or for Torah most of the time. We take them for granted unless we get so deprived that we get sick. We know that being deprived of water leads to dehydration. Deprivation of Torah can lead to, perhaps, to a over focusing on the negative, for example, criticizing a worthy leader or organization for their Israel politics, or despairing about the likelihood of millennials bearing Jewish grandchildren because we can’t relate to the way they practice Judaism.
By actively reminding ourselves of the importance of Torah, we can, perhaps, put our complaints into perspective. In reading about the miracles, our history, and what is demanded of us, we can refocus on our values and priorities instead of engaging in our initial inclinations to complain.
As we head towards wrapping up Pesah, we are in a process of counting up towards receiving Torah at Shavuot. What if we allow ourselves, this year, to be changed by our acceptance of Torah? What if we can remain focused on the awe and impact of miraculous experiences both in our history and in our lives?
May we all find opportunities to engage with Torah so that we stay connected to our values and priorities as a people between miracles.