The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beshalach: The Song of the Sea

This week's Torah portion starts the Exodus in earnest. Moses leads the Children of Israel to the Sea of Reeds (יַם-סוּף), rather than by the Philistine Highway, which would have been the quicker route. Taking the highway would have been shorter, but it also would have allowed the Egyptians to catch up with them more quickly. As we shall see, God hardened Pharaoh's heart one more time, and made him summon his army to retrieve or kill the Israelites in the desert.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. As I noted earlier, Midrash informs us that Serah bat Asher took special care to make sure that the Children of Israel remembered to take Joseph's bones with them. God went before them as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, as their guide. This cloud/fire pillar stayed with them the entire time they were in the Wilderness. God told Moses to let them camp, to appear to the oncoming Egyptian army is if the Children of Israel were lost in the desert, to spur the army to come get them. Pharaoh sent 600 of his own chariots, along with the entire chariot corps of Egypt, with enough infantry to support them, and spurred them on to catch up with the Israelites in the desert.

The Egyptian army catches the Israelites with their backs to the sea. They are trapped. The Israelites complain to Moses (not for the last time): "Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness." [Exodus 14: 11-12].

My rabbi likes to remark that this is one of the oldest Jewish jokes ever recorded. Egypt is a land of pyramids, tombs and sarcophagi. If they were all going to die, wouldn't it have been better to die where all the graves were?

God tells Moses to raise his staff and extend his hand over the sea, splitting the sea into two walls of water, with dry land between them. Moses does so, and the Israelites escaped through the parted sea to the other shore. God put the pillar of fire between the Israelites and the Egyptians to block the army. Once the Israelites were on the other side, the pillar of fire moved to the other shore, allowing the Egyptians to enter the narrow channel of dry land, but preventing them from reaching the other side. Their chariot wheels and horses' hooves began to stick to the muddy ground, and were stuck. Then God told Moses to move his hand and allow the sea to move back to its natural position, filling the channel with water and drowning the Egyptian army. Everybody drowned.

There is a lovely Midrash that Pharaoh was the sole survivor, but having lost his entire army, could never return to Egypt again, and wandered the earth as a destitute. Many years later, he settled in Nineveh and eventually became their king. When he was King of Nineveh, the prophet Jonah appeared and warned the city of Nineveh that if they did not repent their wicked ways, in forty days they would be overthrown. The former Pharaoh, hearing the prophecy, immediately repented and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes in penance. He had tangled with the Hebrew God once before, and was not stupid enough to try a second time.

In triumph, Moses and the Israelites sing a song, later to be called the Song of the Sea [Exodus 15: 1-18]. This is one of the most special and important liturgical songs in Judaism. The tune could be one of the oldest tunes still known. When this passage is recited in the Torah in a synagogue, the congregants stand up and sing along with the chanter. When this passage is written in a Torah scroll, it uses a special brick-like pattern that is very striking.

The song is also sung every morning during Orthodox services. One of my rabbis likes to recite Exodus 15: 2 as a nigun.
עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה

In English: "The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation."

Exodus 15: 3 always gave me trouble, in the King James Version: "The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name." In Hebrew, Rashi interprets this as "The Lord is a master of warfare; YHVH is His name." This makes more sense. The idea that the One is a man of war is repugnant. No offense to my friends in the armed services, but the idea that the Great Architect of the Universe is (not "is like", but is) a man of war is too severe a diminishment of His being, and paints too destructive a metaphor. But the Master of All is a Master of War as well, but that is just one tiny facet of the Being named with the Ineffable Name.

Exodus 15: 11 is said before the Amidah prayer, the most sacred prayer in the prayer cycle, to be recited morning, noon and night, and an extra time on the Sabbath, and yet an extra time on Yom Kippur. "Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?".

After this first song, Miriam, Moses' sister, took a hand drum and took all the women and danced and sang with them. Midrash has it that they also sang the Song of the Sea.

After this, Moses led the Children of Israel into the Wilderness. They traveled for three days without finding any water, and the people grew very upset. moses found them a spring of bitter water, and God showed Moses a certain type of wood that would render the water drinkable, and they were able to drink. They camped for a while in Elim, in an oasis of twelve springs of water and seventy date palms. After this, they entered the Wilderness of Sin (this has nothing to do with the English word sin, but is the Hebrew name of the area). There in the desert, the Israelites began to complain again, again wishing that they were back in Egypt: "Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." [Exodus 16: 3].

God and Moses respond with the gift of manna. In Exodus 16: 4-36, a passage that has an important meaning today, the Torah describes how manna is to be the food for the Israelites in the Wilderness. Jews who are out of work, or who are worried about subsistence, recite this passage aloud every morning (except on the Sabbath). It is meant to summon God's aid in times of hardship.

I do this when I am unemployed, or low on funds. In a sense, this behavior could be interpreted as a desperate superstition, and I am not of the opinion that reciting this passage magically makes food appear. But it does reorient my consciousness around survival issues in a way that I find comforting and sustaining. I recite the passage after my usual morning prayers, while still wearing my tallit, and there is a prayer in the Orthodox prayerbook that goes with this passage that I recite as well.

That evening, a flock of quail swarmed the area where the Israelites were camping, providing enough meat for everyone to eat until sated. The next morning, the dew covered the camp, and when the dew evaporated, there was a fine layer of grains on the surface of the ground that almost looked like frost. Under Moses' direction, the Israelites collected the grains, which were manna, and doled out an equal portion for each person. Everyone got their fill of food. No matter how much each individual gathered, there ended up being about two quarts for each person. Moses warned them to eat their fill that day, and to leave nothing over until the next morning, exhausting their supply. Some faithless people hoarded their portions only to find that the next day it was full of worms and putrid. The next day, the manna appeared again. The manna that nobody gathered melted in the hot noonday sun. On Friday, the people found that they had gathered a double portion, about a gallon for each person, and they came and told Moses. Moses let them know that the second portion was for the Sabbath, which they were all to observe from now on.

On the Sabbath morning, the manna was not putrid and was without worms, and no new manna appeared, even though some stubborn people went out to collect it, violating the Sabbath.

Manna looked like white coriander seed, but it tasted like dough kneaded with honey. Moses told Aaron to collect a jar of it as a keepsake so that future generations could see what the Israelites ate in the Wilderness. Legend has it that the jar stayed in the Temple of Solomon until it was sacked by the Babylonians, and then lost to history.

Pretty soon afterwards, they traveled further into the desert, ran out of water, and the people began to quarrel with Moses. God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and it flowed with water. The rock is called Meribah. This is a different incident than the rock of Meribah in the Book of Numbers, where God tells Moses to touch his staff to the rock, and instead Moses strikes the rock, and for which God refuses to allow him to enter the Promised Land. I always thought that was a bit harsh, but I also understand that Moses is the prophet of the transition, and that it required Moses to die and Joshua to take over before the Israelites could enter Canaan. This requires a lot of thought, and I will discuss it later when we get to the Book of Numbers.

Finally in the Torah portion, the tribe of Amalek launched a surprise attack upon the Children of Israel. They are considered to be the descendants of Esau (I've said a lot about Esau previously), and have become a symbol for every group that has ever tried to exterminate the Jews. Thus Agag was the King of Amalek whom Saul destroyed with the prophet Samuel. Haman was said to be a descendent of Amalek. The Romans were considered Amalek by the Zealots, and the Spanish Jews regarded the Inquisition as Amalek. Twentieth century Jews regarded Hitler as Amalek, and there are extremists among the West Bank settlers who regard all Palestinians as Amalek.

Moses had Joshua assemble an attack force to respond to Amalek's attack, and Moses went to the top of the hill with his staff. As long as Moses held his hands up, Israel would prevail against Amalek, but whenever he would lower his hands, Amalek would prevail. Moses grew too tired to raise his hands, so they placed stones for Moses to sit on, and Aaron and Chur reached under his elbows to prop him up.

At this point, the Torah veers into genocidal sentiments. God tells Moses that He will totally obliterate the memory of Amalek from "under the heavens" [Exodus 17: 14].

There is one mitzvah (commandment) to blot out the memory of Amalek, and another to never forget their perfidy in attacking when Israel was weakest, and a third to remember Amalek. How do you resolve this? Especially since God commands Saul to exterminate every man, woman and child, and all the livestock of the tribe of Amalek? In fact, God punishes Saul for not exterminating everyone of Amalek.

The nice, liberal, touchy-feely way to resolve this is to decide that Amalek was indeed wiped out millennia ago, and that Amalek no longer exists, but is a memory about previous oppression and resistance.

I prefer to use the mitzvot about Amalek to remind Jews that we too exterminated a whole race of people, just as the Spanish did with the Arawaks of Jamaica. We were genocidal once, and we can be again if we are not careful.

No comments:

Post a Comment