If you have seen Cecil B. Demille’s 1956 movie, “The Ten Commandments”, it is impossible to remove the image of the red sea rising up to the left and right like sides of steep cliffs allowing the Israelites to pass along dry land as if they were at the bottom of a canyon. The parting of those waters and the departure of the Israelites from Egypt is the major subject of this chapter.
Here are the passages in the text that speak to me (this year):
1. Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt. (EX 13:17-18)
Rivers (seas?) of ink have flowed trying to make sense of these lines. Why would Gd not choose the shorter route? Why make the people suffer along a longer route to arrive at their promised destination. The great, late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says simply this: Jews (and everyone) were (are) forced to learn that lasting achievement takes time. You can never get there by the shortest road. Amen!
John Lennon and Paul McCartney (that makes three Englishmen with Jonathan Sacks) also commented on this passage with their brilliant and beautiful song “The Long and Winding Road”
2. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” (EX: 13:19)
This passage is very moving. Moses is taking care of Joseph, honoring Joseph’s dying wish to be buried with his people and keeping his, Moses’s, promise. Remembering and respecting those who have died before us (and for us) is vital for the preservation of our sanctity and humanity.
3. The Israelites flee Egypt and are soon pursued by the Egyptians. The Israelites are very frightened. As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the LORD.And they said to Moses, “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? (EX 14:10-11)
A beautiful comment on this passage comes to us from Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, c. 1698) thanks to Rabbi Nahum Sarna: Just as the Israelites fled Egypt only to find the Egyptians pursuing them, “often in life we think we can escape our problems by running away only to find our problems running after us”.
4. Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (EX 14:21-22).
I am not copying the longer passages regarding the arrival of the Egyptian army behind the Israelites. But please read here. To cut to the chase (pun half intended): even the Rabbis did not believe the sea parted in this way. And for very good reasons: Gd, the Rabbis argued, does not control nature no more than nature controls Gd. And that is important in our understanding of both. Here is the (hilarious) image from the (hilarious) movie, “The Ten Commandments”.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut recalls that “Benjamin Franklin suggested a picture of the liberation of the Israelites for the reverse side of the official seal of the United States. However Congress adopted only Franklin’s proposed motto, E Pluribus Unum, and (the image of the) “Eye of Providence”. Ironically, (Congress) substituted a pyramid for the sea of reeds”. So, who has or had the last laugh?