Parashat Beshallah, Egypt as a Metaphor
This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of Raymond Roditi (Raymond ben Yehuda and Malka Z"L), beloved father of Lynn Karen Elovic, Chair of CAJE's Leo Martin March of the Living.
A nine year old boy named Joey was asked by his mother what he had learned in Hebrew School that day. "Well, Mom, our teacher told us how G!D sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When Moses got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge, and in the end, all the Israelites were saved."
His mother replied in a horrified voice, "Joey, is that really what your Hebrew School teacher taught you!?!"
"Well, not exactly, Mom. But if I told it to you the way the teacher told it to us, you'd never believe it!"
How many of you are Joey's?
For so many people, the parting of “the Red Sea” as told in this week's Parashat Beshallah is simply unbelievable and illogical.
Perhaps you are a Discovery or History Channel devotee who loves to watch those reenactments of Biblical stories with the attendant "experts" pointing out how...
Maybe it was a volcanic eruption in Italy that triggered a tsunami that sped across the Mediterranean at just the moment the Israelites were leaving Egypt giving them the ability to walk across “The Red Sea”.... Whew.
Sure! That's certainly more believable and less "miraculous" than the Biblical story... NOT.
Or maybe a really strong hurricane force wind blew all the water from the sea leaving dry land (and a big wind is certainly mentioned in the text).
Problem is if you've ever been to Universal Studios (LA) you might notice that in the Biblical story the “Red Sea” is split so there's a wall of water on the right and the left... not just on one side.
Read the passage below. Note that the wall of water was on the right and the left and that's mentioned twice.
Exodus Chapter 14 שְׁמוֹת
What's so important about the waters being split with a wall on the left and right?
First, this doesn’t happen in a natural way. Water doesn't split like that naturally. So it has to be supernatural... otherwise known as a miracle. That's of course what our commentators have said for centuries.
Or perhaps it's symbolic, a metaphor for something, since it's the culmination of the entire Exodus story starting with the plagues.
What's the metaphor?
Rabbi Mitch Chefitz once taught me how to understand the Exodus in a way that transformed how I saw it and the entire notion of miracle.
He taught: From the plagues to the parting of the Sea is one big metaphor that helps us thousands of years later understand what it means to be a Jew today.
Here is how we can understand it.
The Hebrews are a people enslaved in Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim the Hebrew word for Egypt means a very narrow, restricted, limited place [Mem- makes a noun out of a verbal root/place; Tzar - narrow/restricted/limited; Yim - plural/multiplied].
The first plague is water turning to blood. The next 9 plagues occur, making 10 altogether. This is the process of gestation/ pregnancy, which in ancient times was counted according to 10 lunar, not 9 solar, months.
Then the Hebrews are allowed, even urged, to leave Mitzrayim, the dark womb that has both sheltered and trapped them for so long.
When they are almost out of Mitzrayim, they are stuck right at the exit, unable to leave, pursued by death in the form of Pharoah's army.
Suddenly the waters part and a channel opens up and miraculously the Hebrews are able to burst through the channel to the other side. Death is defeated! From that point on they are not known as Hebrews (their slave name, the name others know them as), but rather as the people of Israel- Bnei Yisrael. They are reborn.
According to many modern scholars, this Exodus story is the master story of the Jewish people. It's a story of birth/ rebirth.
Christians tell the story of the Resurrection. Jews tell the story of the Exodus.
It's the story we must relive every 6 months without fail (Pesach & Sukkot) or we will forget who we are (so claims Rabbi Yitz Greenberg). It is the master story metaphor from which we Jews perceive the world, and the master story metaphor we gave to humanity (note African-American spirituals).
It's a story of giving birth. A deliciously female/ feminine image. The birthing of Bnei Yisrael, the people eventually to be known in post-exilic times as Jews.
Rabbi Laura Geller wrote:
...[The] Passover [story] works on many levels at the same time - historical, political, and spiritual.
The historical level reminds us that because we were slaves, we must fight against all forms of oppression.
The political level is best captured in the famous words of the political philosopher Michael Walzer (Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution):
First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.
There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
As Rabbi Laura Geller illustrates, every person has an Egypt, a narrow place that keeps us from being free...
So here are the questions we each must ask ourselves:
On a historical level: What do we need to be reminded of today?
On a political level: What is/are our society's Egypt(s)? What should we be joining together and marching about (to reference Michael Walzer)?
On a spiritual level: What is your personal Egypt?
In the end, it's one powerful story that has sustained our people from its inception until now and G!D willing for thousands of years to come.