Saturday, January 31, 2009

Parshat B’shalach

Parshat B’shalach
© 2009 Rabbi Ari Kahn

The Eleventh Plague

With the ten plagues behind them, the Jews leave Egypt and head to Mount Sinai. In fact, Sinai had been on the itinerary from the outset of the Exodus story; a critical stop on the way to the Promised Land, Mount Sinai was one of the objectives of the Exodus.

שמות פרק ג
(ח) וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא אֶל אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ אֶל מְקוֹם הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי:…(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְזֶה לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת הָעָם מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה:
(Shmot) 3:8 I will come down (or, I am descending) to rescue them from the grip of Egypt and bring them up out of that land to a good, spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, the territory of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Yevusites….3:12 'Because I will be with you,' replied [God]. 'And this will be the sign that I have sent you: When you take the People out of Egypt you will all then serve God on this mountain.'

When God first spoke to Moshe and empowered him to act as His messenger, the events that would unfold at Sinai were foretold. But after Pharoh relents, and before they reach Sinai, another major event occurs, an event whose nature is unclear. How are we to understand the splitting of the sea? Each step they take from the moment they are freed leads them both one step further from Egypt and one step closer to the Revelation at Sinai. How, then, should we view the events at the sea? Is this an introduction to the Sinai experience or the final chapter of leaving Egypt?

While the topic of this week’s parsha is a direct continuation of the preceding chapter, there is nonetheless a shift. This ambiguity requires the modern reader to shed some rather ingrained preconceptions: At no time, in no way does the Torah state that there will be ten plagues. This is a man-made categorization. We are so accustomed to seeing ten plagues, that the splitting of the sea is automatically assigned a category of its own, sui generis, unique and separate. The events of Parshat B’shalach are assumed to be distinct from those of the preceding parsha, apart from the ten plagues that are organically connected to leaving Egypt. But why? Why is the splitting of the sea seen as a separate event and not as the eleventh plague?

It may be instructive to take a step back and view the larger framework: The events at Sinai are conceptually divided between two elements: the Revelation itself, and the content of that Revelation - the experience of seeing the heavens open and hearing the voice of God, on the one hand, and the concepts which were imparted through that experience, on the other. Similarly, at the splitting of the sea we may discern two distinct elements. The Egyptians experienced punishment on a scale previously unknown to them, while the Israelites experienced revelation:

ספר שמות פרק טו
(ב) עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמֲמֶנְהוּ:
My strength and song is God And this is my deliverance; This is my God, I will enshrine Him, My father's God and I will exalt Him. (Shmot 15:2)

Rashi explains:

רש"י על שמות פרק טו פסוק ב
זה אלי - בכבודו נגלה עליהם והיו מראין אותו באצבע ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו נביאים:
‘This is my God’ – He was revealed to them in His glory, and they saw and pointed to Him with their own finger. A maidservant at the [splitting of the] sea saw what the prophets did not see. (Rashi Shmot 15:2)

The splitting of the sea was not just a devastating blow for the Egyptians, nor was it exclusively a moment of salvation for the Jews. The Jews, as a Nation, saw a vision of God, a manifestation of His might. This was a moment of confirmation, a “pre-Revelation revelation”, as it were. The hand of God was clearly seen, as God appeared ready for battle as a “Man of war”, and they pointed to Heaven in awe:

ספר שמות פרק טו
(ג) ה’ אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה’ שְׁמוֹ:
God is the Master of war, God is His name. (Shmot 15:3)

This week’s parsha is therefore a conduit, a corridor of history, in which punishment is transformed into revelation. Cause and effect, God’s active involvement in human history, the unique relationship between God and His Chosen People all become clear in this crystallizing moment, as the Jewish People inch closer to Sinai.

The parsha begins…

(יז) וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה: (יח) וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (יט) וַיִּקַּח משֶׁה אֶת עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף עִמּוֹ כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם:
13:17 When Pharaoh let the people leave, God did not lead them via the Philistine land, although it was the shorter route. God's consideration was that if the people encountered armed resistance, they would lose heart and return to Egypt. 13:18 God therefore made the people take a roundabout path, by way of the desert to the Red Sea. And the Israelites were armed when they left Egypt. 13:19 Moshe took Yosef's remains with him, for Yosef had bound the Israelites by an oath: 'God will grant you special providence, and you must then bring my remains out of here with you.' (Shmot 13:17-19)

When the Jews start their journey, apparently they are not quite ready to go, for God takes them on a circuitous route, lest they see war and turn back to Egypt. Ironically, they leave armed; the Israelites thought they were ready for battle, but God knew better.[1]

Verse 19, though seemingly somewhat out of context, may in fact reflect upon the “armaments” with which the Jews were equipped: While the Children of Israel take up their primitive arms for protection, Moshe takes Yosef’s remains, which, as we shall see, were more likely the catalyst for the splitting of the sea.

The next two verses seem to foreshadow the giving of the Torah:

(כ) וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם בִּקְצֵה הַמִּדְבָּר: (כא) וה’ הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ לְהָאִיר לָהֶם לָלֶכֶת יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה: (כב) לֹא יָמִישׁ עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן יוֹמָם וְעַמּוּד הָאֵשׁ לָיְלָה לִפְנֵי הָעָם:
13:20 [The Israelites] moved on from Sukkot, and they camped in Etam, at the edge of the desert. 13:21 God went before them by day with a pillar of cloud, to guide them along the way, and by night with a pillar of fire, providing them with light so they could travel day and night. 13:22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire at night never left [their position] in front of the people. (Shmot 13:20-22)

The connection between these verses and those surrounding the giving of the Torah is both symbolic and linguistic. First, the clouds hovering above remind us of the clouds that engulfed the mountain at the Revelation. Second, the word yamush (depart) used here is a word which is rarely used in Tanach, but more often than not is associated with Torah, [2] as in describing Yehoshua’s dedication to his master Moshe:

ספר שמות פרק לג
(ט) וְהָיָה כְּבֹא משֶׁה הָאֹהֱלָה יֵרֵד עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן וְעָמַד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְדִבֶּר עִם משֶׁה: (י) וְרָאָה כָל הָעָם אֶת עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן עֹמֵד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְקָם כָּל הָעָם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ אִישׁ פֶּתַח אָהֳלוֹ: (יא) וְדִבֶּר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ וְשָׁב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וּמְשָׁרֲתוֹ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן נַעַר לֹא יָמִישׁ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֹהֶל:
33:9 When Moshe went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the tent's entrance, and [God] would speak to Moshe. 33:10 When the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tent's entrance, the people would rise, and each one would bow down at the entrance of his tent. 33:11 God would speak to Moshe face to face, just as a person speaks to a close friend. [Moshe] would then return to the camp. But his aid, the young man, Joshua son of Nun, did not leave the tent. (Shmot 33:9-11)

This passage, in which we find both the symbol of the cloud and the expression of constant dedication, yamush, also includes elements that we see in the splitting of the sea, as well as elements we later find associated with the experience of Torah learning: Later in the parsha, after the revelation at the sea, after the song of joy and thanks Moshe and all the people sing to God, the Jewish People receive their first taste of Torah.

ספר שמות פרק טו
(כב) וַיַּסַּע משֶׁה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם סוּף וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל מִדְבַּר שׁוּר וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא מָצְאוּ מָיִם: (כג) וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ מָרָה: (כד) וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַה נִּשְׁתֶּה: (כה) וַיִּצְעַק אֶל ה’ וַיּוֹרֵהוּ ה’ עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ:
15:22 Moshe led the Israelites away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the Shur Desert. They traveled for three days in the desert without finding any water. 15:23 Finally, they came to Marah, but they could not drink any water there. The water was bitter (marah), and that was why the place was called Marah. 15:24 The people complained to Moshe. 'What shall we drink?' they demanded. 15:25 [Moshe] cried out to God, and He instructed him [regarding] a certain tree. [Moshe] threw it into the water, and the water became drinkable. It was here that he was given law and statute, and here he was tested (uplifted). (Shmot 15:22-25)

רש"י על שמות פרק טו פסוק כה
(כה) שם שם לו - במרה נתן להם מקצת פרשיות של תורה שיתעסקו בהם שבת ופרה אדומה ודינין (סנהדרין מ):

Immediately following the splitting of the waters and the “Song of the Sea”, a national event occurred, which reverberates in our collective experience to this very day. The People of Israel receive Torah, and share a collective learning experience. At this juncture, the Jews have traveled three days’ distance from the site of their first revelation – the splitting of the sea – and they are thirsty. What they seek is more than physical sustenance. They beg for a continued revelation, an ongoing dialogue with God, and they are given certain Torah laws – hok u’mishpat. From that day forth, Jews do not allow an interval of three days to transpire between public readings of the Torah. This spiritual sustenance uplifted them, allowed them to face the trials and challenges that lay ahead.

This reading of the verse associates water with Torah. Yet the text remains somewhat impenetrable: The water they found was bitter, and became sweet after God’s instructions were followed. The Zohar draws a parallel to the bitter waters used to test woman suspected of infidelity. According to the Zohar, the very foundations of Jewish life had been shaken by the servitude in Egypt. A cloud of suspicion hung over the community, as husbands and wives suspected their spouses of sexual misconduct as a means of personal survival during the period of their slavery. The atmosphere of mistrust and guilt was paralyzing, embittering. At Marah, the bitter waters of the sotah ritual were administered to all of the people, and they emerged with a clean bill of spiritual health. What began as a ritual of blame and suspicion gave way to reconciliation, rapprochement, family and communal healing and unity. The water was sweetened, and the first precepts of Torah were received. Here, too, a spiritual corridor is created, moving the People from punishment to confirmation, from jealousy and distrust to a highly personal understanding of Torah law as the Word of God, from personal and communal estrangement to a unique perception of God’s involvement in personal and national history.

This transformation had to take place on their way to Sinai, for in order to receive the Torah, unity is required. When they stand at Sinai, the Jewish People stand as one. The core of this unity is the Jewish family. Suspicion and jealousy are contrary to the atmosphere needed for the Torah to be brought down from heaven.[3] The text points this out with a dramatic shift from the plural to the singular (which is imperceptible in translation):

שמות פרק יט
(ב) וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר:
19:2 They departed from Rephidim and arrived in the Sinai Desert, camping in the wilderness. And Israel (literally, he – singular form) camped opposite the mountain. (Shmot 19:2)

רש"י על שמות פרק יט פסוק ב
ויחן שם ישראל - כאיש אחד בלב אחד אבל שאר כל החניות בתרעומות ובמחלוקת (מכילתא):
And Israel camped there: As one man with one heart. But in their other places of encampment, there was argument and discord. (Rashi Shmot 19:2)

Arriving at the foot of Mount Sinai, they have come a long way spiritually. They have experienced a revelation, they have received laws and statutes, and re-established the foundations of their personal and national relationships. All along this route, the terminology used to describe the processes they undergo is reminiscent of the Revelation at Sinai.

We should not overlook another telling use of the language of unity describing the pre-Sinai encampment: The Israelites were on their way out of Egypt, perhaps hoping and praying that they would never lay eyes on their abusive masters again. Then, it happens: Pharoh is closing in on them, with what looks like all of Egypt in pursuit:

ספר שמות פרק יד
(י) וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל ה’:
14:10 And Pharoh drew near, and the Israelites looked up and saw Egypt riding after them, and they became very frightened and the Children of Israel screamed to God. (Shmot 14:10)

Once again, the translation of this verse does an injustice to the interplay of plural and singular: Pharoh is closing in on them and Egypt, referred to in the singular, is in hot pursuit. The text might more properly have read “the legions of Egypt” or “the chariots of Egypt”. Why refer to Egypt in the singular? Here, too, Rashi explains:

רש"י על שמות פרק יד פסוק י
נוסע אחריהם - בלב אחד כאיש אחד.
‘Riding after them’: With one heart as one man. (Rashi Shmot 14:10)

Rashi’s allusion is unmistakable: The glorious unity experienced by the Jews as a prerequisite to receiving the Torah - “As one man with one heart” - is here, too, among the Egyptian pursuers – but in reverse, “With one heart as one man”.[4] The Egyptians are unified by their hearts’ desires and unite to achieve that goal, while the Israelites are united as a People and are therefore willing to put aside their desires to maintain their unity. The encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai was unique, for here we became one.

An earlier encampment, between Egypt and the sea, also draws our attention:

ספר שמות פרק יד
(א) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיָשֻׁבוּ וְיַחֲנוּ לִפְנֵי פִּי הַחִירֹת בֵּין מִגְדֹּל וּבֵין הַיָּם לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן נִכְחוֹ תַחֲנוּ עַל הַיָּם: (ג) וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם הַמִּדְבָּר:

14:1 God spoke to Moshe, saying, 14:2 'Speak to the Israelites and tell them to turn back and camp before Pi haHirot (Freedom Valley?), between Migdol (Tower?) and the sea, facing Ba’al Zefon (Lord-of-the-North?). Camp opposite it, near the sea. 14:3 Pharaoh will then say to (i.e., regarding) the Israelites ‘They are lost in the area and trapped in the desert.’ (Shmot 14:1-3)

Here they are told to encamp at a place called “Pi haHirot”, which is most literally translated as “the mouth of freedom”. Rashi explains:

רש"י על שמות פרק יד פסוק ב
ויחנו לפני פי החירות - (מכילתא) הוא פיתום ועכשיו נקרא פי החירות על שם שנעשו בני חורין והם שני סלעים גבוהים זקופים והגיא שביניהם קרוי פי הסלעים:
[Pi haHirot] is Pitom, and at this point it is called Pi haHirot because here the Israelites became free men. They are two tall upright rocks, and the canyon between them is called “the mouth of the rocks.” (Rashi Shmot 14:2)

Rashi identifies the specific locale as Pitom, one of the areas built by the sweat of Jewish slaves and now known as ‘the mouth of freedom’, the place where the slaves became free. Passing through this place allowed the erstwhile slaves to achieve emotional or existential freedom, traveling as a free nation through a towering symbol of their servitude. Now, they would not build, would not obey a slave-master; now they could admire, reminisce, sigh - and move on.

The name given to this new-old landmark, Pi haHirot, is similar to the word used to describe the engraved writing on the Tablets given on Sinai, harut. When discussing the verses that describe the Tablets of Stone, the Talmud teaches that we should not read harut (engraved), rather herut (freedom), “for only one who is involved in Torah is truly free”.[5] The linguistic similarity in the case of the Tablets is clearly a Midrashic rendering of two words that sound similar despite their different root spellings (the root of the word for engraving is spelled with the letter ‘tet, whereas the root for freedom is spelled with a ‘taf). In our present case, the similarity is more firmly grounded –hirot and herut are spelled with the same letters, and are thus more closely related. We have alternative definition of this word, no other more convincing reading of this place-name: Here, as they pass through, they become free.[6]

There are several elements of the description of this place that are disturbing. Rashi describes the pi (“mouth”) as a formation of two tall upright rocks forming a canyon or natural outlet, a mouth. While this seems innocuous enough, Rashi’s comments on the verse do not end there. The next few words of the verse, “before Baal Tzafon” leave the reader with a more troubling image:

רש"י שמות פרק יד פסוק ב
לפני בעל צפן - הוא נשאר מכל אלהי מצרים, כדי להטעותן, שיאמרו קשה יראתן. ועליו פירש איוב (איוב יב כג) משגיא לגוים ויאבדם:
Before Baal Tzafon: For he was the last remaining god of Egypt, so as to mislead the Egyptians so that they should say their deity is durable. Regarding this (continued existence of Baal Tzafon), Job explained, “He leads nations astray and He destroys them.” (Rashi Shmot 14:2)

Pi haHirot is before Baal Tzafon – the last of Egypt’s various gods left standing. The Mechilta[7] examines the geological formation of this area in terms of the Egyptian pantheon: These rocks had a very specific connotation, appearing as male and female. The shrine to Egypt’s hold-out deity is a fertility symbol. And it is there that the Israelites find freedom.

It is no accident that the enslavement of the Jews took place in Egypt. Egypt was more than just a superpower in that era; it was the epicenter of immorality. Sinking to the “49th level of impurity” is not surprising in a place like Egypt. Time and again, the Torah enjoins us not to follow the practices of Egypt.[8] Egypt was a place of sexual depravity, as far back as our ancestors’ experience reaches: In our first visit to Egypt, Sarah is wrested from Avraham. In the next visit, the wife of Potiphar throws herself at Yosef; Talmudic tradition teaches that Potiphar himself had designs on Yosef[9] (which may explain why Potiphar’s wife was lonely and forlorn).

This was the crucible into which the Children of Israel were thrown. If the Jews are to make a difference in the world, they must make an impact in a society like Egypt. Alternatively, so long as Egypt prospers, the impact of Jews will be limited.

The Torah framework for the rejection of immorality is quite telling:

ספר ויקרא פרק יח
(ג) כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ:
18:3 Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow [any] of their customs. (Vayikra 18:3)

The ways and mores of Egypt and Canaan are to be rejected. This should come as no surprise, for these nations share a common denominator, in quite a literal sense. Egypt and Canaan are descendents of brothers, sons of Cham, another individual whose morals were corrupt.

The Sages offer details as to the specific types of behaviors included in the prohibition to reject Egyptian and Canaanite ways. The Sifra lists the corrupt behaviors common in Egypt: men would marry men, women would marry women, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, a woman would marry two men.[10] Significantly, all the examples are in the realm of sexuality. In fact, the verse which commands us not to follow the ways of Egypt is the introductory statement to the Torah chapter dealing with forbidden relationships. The Midrash[11] traces the roots of sexually deviant behavior back to the generation of the flood; eventually, the flood formed a huge mikvah[12] to purge and cleanse the world of these sins.

Egypt is corrupt. One manifestation of this corruption is the slave economy, the empire built on feet of clay. The despotism of Pharoh, the evil and inhumane treatment of the slaves and the genocidal decrees imposed upon a subservient population are economic expressions of deep-rooted corruption. Leaving Egypt means uprooting this immoral socio-economic construct. But there is another element to leaving Egypt: the Jews were extricated from a society built around sexual depravity.

Freedom came in stages: walking out of Egypt, walking through the sea, drinking the sweetened waters, standing at Sinai. Each of these steps freed them from another aspect of their servitude in Egypt, and each brought them one step closer to complete liberation.[13] Passing through Pi haHirot, facing the Egyptian god with its image of male and female, was another step toward freedom - freedom from the corrupt sexual mores of Egypt.

This observation brings us full circle, back to the beginning of the parsha. When they left Egypt, the Jews were “armed”; they thought they were ready for battle. In fact, they did not know what battle they would be fighting. They may not have been fully aware of the extent to which Egyptian morality had made inroads; they were unaware of the different facets of slavery from which they would have to be freed. God took them on a circuitous route, one that would walk them through various stages toward true liberation - knowing that they were not prepared for the battles they would face.

God continued to protect them until the penultimate scene of the parsha. Here, they once again find themselves without water, and experience a spiritual crisis of a different sort. They begin to question whether God is in their midst or not. On this backdrop, Amalek arrives on the scene.

ספר שמות פרק יז
וַיִּסְעוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּדְבַּר סִין לְמַסְעֵיהֶם עַל פִּי ד' וַיַּחֲנוּ בִּרְפִידִים וְאֵין מַיִם לִשְׁתֹּת הָעָם… וַיִּצְמָא שָׁם הָעָם לַמַּיִם וַיָּלֶן הָעָם עַל משֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת בָּנַי וְאֶת מִקְנַי בַּצָּמָא...(ז) וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה עַל רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת ד' לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ ד’ בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ אִם אָיִן:(ח) וַיָּבֹא עֲמָלֵק וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּרְפִידִם:
And all the congregation of the People of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, in their journeys according to the commandment of God, and camped in Rephidim; and there was no water for the people to drink.3. And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moshe, and said, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? 7. And he called the name of the place Massah u’Merivah, because of the quarrel of the People of Israel, and because they tested God, saying, Is God among us, or not? 8. Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.

In Moshe’s retrospective of this episode, in Devarim, we are offered further insight into the mindset of the people. The feeling that God might not be with them, which precipitates the attack, is projected onto Amalek:

ספר דברים פרק כה
(יז) זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: (יח) אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים: (יט) וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ ד’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ד’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּח:
17. Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came out of Egypt; 18. How he happened upon you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and did not fear God. 19. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. (Dvarim 25:17-19)

Rashi offers three explanations of the word used to describe what exactly Amalek did: korcha is a singular word, appearing nowhere else in Tanakh, a verb which Rashi posits may be derived from three different roots. One is from the word kar, meaning cold: the Amalekites “cooled” the Jews off. After leaving Egypt and witnessing miracles, receiving their first dose of revelation, embarking on the path of Torah observance, the Jews were “red hot” with enthusiasm and zeal. The Amalekites cooled off their enthusiasm.

The second interpretation of korcha is related to happenstance, from the word mikreh: Amalek “happened” upon them. The Jews began to see the world as happenstance; they experienced a moment of doubt regarding God’s continued involvement in history. They felt God was not an active part of their day-to-day lives at this point; the world was one of mikreh –chance or coincidence.

The third interpretation is from the word keri, which means a seminal emission. This is based on a Midrash which teaches that Amalek’s attack included deviant sexual practice, which culminated in mutilation of the male organ. Although grotesque, this view articulates a more profound idea: The timing of Amalek’s attack was not random. The Jews stood at the cusp of Sinai. A new age of morality was about to descend on the world. Amalek, the descendent of Esav, rejected limits, rejected rules, rejected the very idea of self-restraint upon which morality is built. Circumcision, the ultimate symbol of self-control, was abhorrent to Amalek, and it was this symbol they attacked.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they armed themselves with primitive weapons, under the illusion that they were ready to fight. Moshe took something else, something that would provide victory in this type of war; something that represented morality and self-control. He took the remains of Yosef.

The Yalkut Shimoni teaches that the sea was split due to the merit of Yosef: When he ran out of the house of Potiphar, escaping the advances of his master’s wife, the term used is vayanas: he fled. This is precisely the phrase used to describe the splitting of the sea:[14]

בראשית פרק לט
(יב) וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה:
She grabbed him by his cloak. 'Lie with me!' she pleaded. Leaving his cloak in her hand, he fled and ran outside. (Bereishit 39:12)

תהלים פרק קיד פסוק ג
הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס הַיַּרְדֵּן יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר:
The sea saw it, and fled; the Jordan was driven back. (Psalms 114:3.)

ילקוט שמעוני בראשית - פרק לט - רמז קמו
ותתפשהו בבגדו וג' וינס ויצא החוצה. קפץ בזכות אבות כד"א ויוצא אותו החוצה. שמעון איש קטרון אומר בזכות עצמותיו של יוסף קרע הים לפני ישראל שנאמר הים ראה וינוס בזכות וינס ויצא החוצה.

Just as Yosef fled the grasp of Mrs. Potiphar, the sea fled at the sight of Yosef’s remains, receding and exposing a dry path for the Jews. This is not some sort of magical response to the remains of Yosef. The impact Yosef’s spiritual identity still had on the community is what turned the tide – literally and figuratively. Yosef left an invaluable spiritual legacy behind: He displayed tremendous spiritual fortitude in the various unenviable situations in which he found himself after being sold into slavery. In fact, it was the sale of Yosef that brought the entire family to Egypt. Yosef’s life, then, was both a model of moral integrity and a challenge, a constant reminder of the dangers of divisiveness and disunity. Redemption from Egypt must necessarily address both of these elements: Salvation stems from recognition and internalization of Yosef’s moral heroism. At the same time, the sale of Yosef by his brothers must somehow be reversed. Unity must be achieved, healing the division in the community most acutely expressed by the sale of a brother.

Going into Egypt, the Jews were a family divided. The harsh image of the brothers breaking bread as Yosef screamed from the pit is one of the most tragic scenes in the Torah. The Passover seder, when we sit and break bread as a family and tell the story of the slavery and the Exodus, must be part of a Tikkun, rectification of the division within the community. At Pi Hahirot, Egypt was united, with one heart: they were united in passion, for this was a place that represented the passion of idolatry wrapped up with sexual licentiousness. The Jews will need to pass through this place in order to become free: They will need to be tested, just as Yosef was tested and as Yosef’s brothers were tested.

In fact, they are successful in both aspects of the test. They pass through Pi Hahirot and arrive at the sea, and nature is upended: The sea yields in the presence of Yosef, who withstood his own human nature in his extraordinary escape from temptation. Significantly, it is Moshe who carries Yosef out, invoking this great moral role-model. Moshe is from the tribe of Levi, who along with Shimon were Yosef’s greatest adversaries. This is an important step toward healing the rift, reuniting the family of Israel, and becoming whole.

Leaving Egypt was not easy. It required physical, emotional and religious transformation. The path through Pi Hahirot may at first glance have seemed a counter-intuitive choice: it might have empowered the Egyptians, for it was the focal point of their depravity. But this is precisely why this route was the most appropriate corridor, leading to our collective transformation: Here, the Jews saw the work of their own hands at Pitom, and as they crossed near the symbol of Egyptian depravity, in fact it was the Jews who were empowered. They became impervious to this idolatry. This was the path from Egypt to Sinai. It was paved with liberation, revelation, and transformation.

From Pi Hahirot the Jews crossed through the waters of Yam Suf, immersing in what would normally have been a mikva. But because of the route they had travelled to arrive there, the Jews had already achieved holiness and did not need the waters to purify them. Significantly, the events at the sea take place on the seventh day after they left Egypt, the day husband and wife are reunited after she immerses in the mikva. The Zohar[15] takes this idea even further, describing the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot, between Exodus and Revelation, as a time of purification and preparation, linking the counting of the omer to the counting of a woman’s seven clean days before immersion and reuniting with her husband.

At Sinai, each family, each husband and wife, and consequently the community as a whole, stood, once again, “as one person with one heart”. They had corrected the interpersonal rift at Marah, and the tribal rift at the splitting of the sea. And at the foot of Mount Sinai, at that very moment of unity, Moshe relays a strange law: Husbands and wives are to separate in preparation for the Revelation. For Sinai will symbolize a new marriage, both between man and God, and between each couple. They will begin again, begin anew, in a union based on holiness. Through this act of separation, through this act of self-restraint, they all become holy – they all become like Yosef. They are all ready to receive the Torah, one unified nation, conceived in holiness – and completely free.

[1] Rashi offers two interpretations for chamushim: first, that they were armed, and second, that only one of five Israelites (one fifth of the total Jewish population) left Egypt.
[2] See Yehoshua 1:8
יהושע פרק א
(ח) לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכָל הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת דְּרָכֶךָ וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל:
[3] It is interesting that when the Jews sin with the Golden Calf, they are made to drink the ground up pieces, which is also reminiscent of the bitter water ordeal. See Shmot 32:20
[4] See the Shem M’shmuel who notices the term and explains that the Egyptians were given this unity for a holy purpose, namely to induce the Israelites to repent and come closer to God.
ספר שם משמואל פרשת וישלח - שנת תרפ"א
ודומה לזה הגיד כ"ק אבי אדמו"ר זללה"ה בהא דכתיב על הים וישאו בנ"י את עיניהם והנה מצרים נוסע אחריהם וייראו מאד וגו', שלכאורה איננו מובן מה היתה היראה הלא כבר ראו אותות ומופתים למכביר. אך ברש"י והנה מצרים בלב אחד כאיש אחד, וידוע שזה לא נמצא בטומאה שהם ענפין מתפרדין, ע"כ כשראו שהמצרים הם בלב אחד כאיש אחד, חשבו שבודאי יש אצלם עתה כחות קדושה ומזה נתיראו, אך האומנם שהי' כן שכ"ז הי' מפאת כחות קדושה, אבל הי' זה כדי לקרב לבם של ישראל לתשובה ולא ח"ו לעזור למצרים, עכ"ד. וכן י"ל נמי בהא דנתירא יעקב, מפני שחשב שבודאי יש כחות קדושה עם עשו, ובאמת שגם זה כך הי' בשביל שנתאוה הקב"ה לתפלתו של יעקב ע"כ נשלחו לעשו כחות קדושה:
[5] See Talmud Bavli Eruvin 54a and Pirkie Avot 6:2
תלמוד בבלי מסכת עירובין דף נד עמוד א
ואמר רבי (אליעזר) ]מסורת הש"ס: אלעזר]: מאי דכתיב )שמות ל"ב( חרות על הלחת - אלמלי לא נשתברו לוחות הראשונות לא נשתכחה תורה מישראל. רב אחא בר יעקב אמר: אין כל אומה ולשון שולטת בהן, שנאמר חרות אל תיקרי חרות אלא חירות:
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ו
ואומר והלוחות מעשה אלהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלהים הוא חרות על הלוחות אל תקרא חרות אלא חירות שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה וכל מי שעוסק בתורה תדיר הרי זה מתעלה שנאמר )במדבר כ"א י"ט( וממתנה נחליאל ומנחליאל במות:
[6] Certain mystical sources see the passage through the sea as a national rebirth experience, as they travel, physically and symbolically into a new stage of existence through a wondrous passageway between the waters.
[7] Midrashic sources describe the geographic formation of these rocks. See Mechilta Bshalach 5:1 for a description which evokes the image of the keruvim:
מכילתא פרשת בשלח פרשה א
וישובו ויחנו לפני פי החירות. מה חירות הללו לא היו משופעות אלא גדודיות ולא היו תרוטות אלא מוקפות ולא היו עגולות אלא מרובעות ולא היו מעשה אדם אלא מעשה שמים ועיני' היו להם לפותחו' כמן זכר וכמן נקיבה היו דברי רבי אליעזר. רבי יהושע אומר החירות מצד זה ומגדול מצד זה הים לפניה' ומצרים לאחריה'. דבר אחר פי החירות אין חירות אלא מקום חירותן של ישראל מקום מובחר להם מקום עבודה זרה שלהם. לשעבר היתה נקראת פיתום שנאמר שמות א' ויבן ערי מסכנות לפרעה את פיתום ואת רעמסס חזרו להם להקראת פי החירות שהיא מאחרת לעובדיה.

[8] Vayikra 18:3. See below.
[9] See Talmud Bavli Sotah 13b
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף יג עמוד ב
ויקנהו פוטיפר סריס פרעה - אמר רב: שקנאו לעצמו. (בא גבריאל וסירסו) בא גבריאל ופירעו, מעיקרא כתיב פוטיפר, ולבסוף פוטיפרע.
[10] Sifra Acharei Mot section 8.
ספרא פרשת אחרי מות פרשתא ח
ח) אי כמעשה ארץ מצרים וכמעשה ארץ כנען לא תעשו יכול לא יבנו בניינים ולא יטעו נטיעות כמותם תלמוד לומר ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו לא אמרתי אלא בחוקים החקוקים להם ולאבותיהם ולאבות אבותיהם. ומה היו עושים האיש נושא לאיש והאשה לאשה האיש נושא אשה ובתה והאשה ניסת לשנים לכך אמר ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו:
[11] See Midrash Rabba Vayikra 23:9
מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה כג פסקה ט
תני רבי ישמעאל כמעשה ארץ מצרים וכמעשה ארץ כנען לא תעשו וגו' ואם לאו אני ה' אלהיכם תני רבי חייא למה אני ה' כתיב שני פעמים אני הוא שפרעתי מדור המבול ומסדום וממצרים אני עתיד ליפרע ממי שהוא עושה כמעשיהם דור המבול נמחו מן העולם ע"י שהיו שטופין בזנות אמר רבי שמלאי כל מקום שאתה מוצא זנות אנדרלמוסיא באה לעולם והורגת טובים ורעים רב הונא בשם רבי יוסי אמר דור המבול לא נמחו מן העולם אלא ע"י שכתבו גומסיות לזכר ולנקבה ר' עזריה בשם רבי יהודה ברבי סימון וריב"ל בשם בר קפרא מצינו שעל הכל הקב"ה מאריך רוחו חוץ מן הזנות בלבד ואית ליה קריין סגיין שנא' (בראשית ו) ויהי כי החל האדם ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם וירא ה' כי רבה רעת האדם ויאמר ה' אמחה את האדם סדומיים ריב"ל בשם בר קפרא אמר כל אותו הלילה היה לוט עומד ומדבר עליהם סניגוריא כיון שבאו ואמרו לו (שם יט) איה האנשים ונדעה אותם בתשמיש מיד ויאמרו האנשים אל לוט עוד מי לך פה עד כאן היה לך פתחון פה ללמד עליהם סניגוריא אלא חתן בניך ובנותיך כי משחיתים אנחנו אני ה' אני הוא שנפרעתי משמשון ומאמנון ומזמרי ועתיד אני ליפרע ממי שיעשה כמעשיהם אני הוא ששלמתי ליוסף ליעל ולפלטי בן ליש אני עתיד לשלם שכר למי שעושה כמעשיהם
9. R. Ishmael taught: AFTER THE DOINGS OF THE LAND OF EGYPT... AND AFTER THE DOINGS OF THE LAND OF CANAAN... SHALL YE NOT DO, etc. (XVIII, 3), otherwise, I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD (ib. 4). R. Hiyya taught: Why is I AM THE LORD written twice? It implies: I am He who inflicted punishment upon the Generation of the Flood, upon Sodom, and upon Egypt, and I am the same who will inflict punishment upon any one who will act in accordance with their practices. The Generation of the Flood were blotted out from the world because they were steeped in whoredom. R. Samlai observed: In every instance where you find the prevalence of whoredom, an androlepsia1 comes upon the world and slays both good and bad. R. Huna says in the name of R. Jose: The Generation of the Flood were only blotted out of the world on account of their having written hymenean songs for sodomy. R. ‘Azariah in the name of R. Judah son of R. Simeon and R. Joshua b. Levi in the name of Bar Kappara say: We find that the Holy One, blessed be He, is long-suffering towards every offence except whoredom, and there are numerous texts to bear this out; as it says, And came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth... that the sons of God saw the daughters of men... and they took them wives... And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great... And the Lord said: I will blot out man (Gen. VI, 1 ff). What of the Sodomites? R. Joshua son of Levi in the name of Bar Kappara said: During the whole of the night in question Lot was busy pleading on their behalf, but when they came and said to him: Where are the men... bring them out unto us, that we may know them (ib. XIX, 5)--’know them,’ that is to say, carnally--then forthwith The men said unto Lot: Hast thou here (poh) any besides? (ib. 12). By ’poh’ they as much as said: Until this moment you had a pretext (pithhon peh) for pleading in their favour, but now Son-in-law, and thy sons, and thy daughters... bring them out of the place; for we will destroy this place (ib. 13 f). ’I am the Lord’ implies: I am He who inflicted punishment upon Samson, Amnon, and Zimri, and who will in the inflict punishment upon any one who will act in accordance with their practices. I am He who requited Joseph, Jael, and Palti the son of Laish, and I will in the future pay reward to any one who acts in accordance with their deeds.

[12] The third place which was included to form an unholy trinity with the generation of the flood and Egypt, was Sodom was cleansed with lava and fire, not water. Generally there are connections, thematic and linguistic, between Sodom and Egypt.
[13] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica in his Mei Shiloach Parshat Bshalach, suggests that the male/female image of Pi haHirot was an expression of the pagan perspective of freedom as a lack of law or structure. To the pagan mind, Pi haHirot was a place of freedom because there laws applied, sexually was not limited or regulated.
ספר מי השילוח - פרשת בשלח
וישובו ויחנו לפני פי החירות, ענין כח הטומאה של ע"ז הזאת היא קליפת זנות והיתה דמות זכר ונקבה, וע"כ קראו שמה פי החירות כי אצל האומות נראה שבמקום שיוכל להתפשט ולעשות כל תאות לבו שם הוא בן חורין, ע"כ נאמר ואמר פרעה נבוכים הם בארץ כו'. היינו כשיגיעו לפני ע"ז הלזו יהיה נראה שהם משועבדים מאחר שהם מוגדרים מאוד בזאת התאוה, אך באמת הוא להיפך שהם משועבדים לזה הדבר. שהרי מאחר שאין לבם ברשותם אשר השכל ימשול עליהם רק תאותם מושלת עליהם אין לך משעבוד גדול מזה:
[14] See Shem Mshmuel Bshalach 5675: Faith (emunah) is what causes the sea to be split, creating a parallel with the hands of Moshe, which are called emunah, in the defeat of Amalek.
ספר שם משמואל פרשת בשלח - שנת תרע"ה
ע"כ ויסב אלקים את העם דרך המדבר ים סוף, ואמצעות האמונה שהלכו אחריו למדבר בלי מזון ומחי', ואח"כ כששבו ויחנו לפני פי החירות ולא אמרו היאך נתקרב אל רודפינו כדי שלא לשבור את לב הטף והנשים אלא אמרו אין לנו אלא דברי בן עמרם, וכן על הים שנכנסו למים עד חוטמם, זה עצמו הי' מירוק לפגם השכל, במה שבטלו את שכלם לרצון הש"י, זה השלים מה שהי' חסר מפאת חוסר הזמן עד ד' מאות שנה, ונעשו ראויים למ"ת, ואלמלא העגל לא היו צריכין עוד לשום מירוק. אך אמונה זו לא כ"כ קלה היא ולא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם יבוא ויטול, אלא ע"י שהיו שומרי הברית, ובסוד (ישעי' ס') ועמך כולם צדיקים לעולם יירשו ארץ והבן. וזה ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף עמו, וזהו שבמדרש (פ' כ"ב) בזכות האמונה נקרע להם הים, ועוד אמרו בשביל ארונו של יוסף נקרע הים כי זה תלוי בזה:
[15] Zohar Vayikra 97b
Just as a woman then has to count seven days, so now God bade the Israelites count days for purity. They were to count for themselves, so as to be purified with supernal holy waters, and then to be attached to the King and to receive the Torah. The woman had to count seven days, the people seven weeks. Why seven weeks? That they might be worthy to be cleansed by the waters of that stream which is called living waters, and from which issue seven Sabbaths. When Israel drew near to Mount Sinai, that dew that descends from the supernal Point came down in its fullness and purified them so that their filth left them and they became attached to the Holy King and the Community of Israel and received the Torah, as we have explained.

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