Michael S. Diamond
Torah Obscura

Shirat HaYam: An encryption in Parshat Beshalach

Vintage engraving of Passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea
Vintage engraving of Passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea

First, I need to tell you about the Ovstrovster Rebbe, an obscure though revered sage from the early days of the 20th century. The Ovstrovster, a holy ascetic, fasted daily for the entire 40 years of his rabbinic reign. Each evening he would break the fast with a crumb of hard tack and a glass of water, then begin again the fast of the next day. His father was an uneducated baker who recited psalms and shed tears into the bread as he kneaded the dough. His son, the future Rebbe, developed a revulsion for food. At several points in time other learned souls attempted to dissuade the young rebbe from further self-mortification, among them the great and holy Gerer Rebbe. The Ovstrovster remained undeterred. He was known far and wide for his simplicity, his purity and his learning. Now to the point. By the Ovstrovster Rebbe’s mystical calculations, he determined that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the eve of the political liberation and birth of the people Israel, the event we celebrate as Passover, coincided precisely with the the Blessing of the Sun, Birkat HaChama. For those unfamiliar with this little known holiday, Birkat HaChama is recited by the entire Jewish community, or at least those who are aware of it, every 28 years. Most recently it occurred on April 8, 2009, converging again with the eve of Passover, an exceedingly rare event. The only other years in which this convergence has occurred in the last two millennia were 1309 and 1925. The Blessing of the Sun will not intersect with Passover again until the year 2121, and then with the seventh day of the holiday.

During Temple times Birkat HaChama was performed by the Levites in the Temple courtyard as the sun poured through the Shushan Gate, or as some claim the Golden Gate, due East of the Temple doors. The idea of the Blessing was simple: every twenty eight years the sun returns to its original position in the cosmos on the day of its creation, the fourth day as per the Book of Genesis, therefore always on a Wednesday. The calculation is based on the fact that the dates of the annual calendar shift by a quarter of a day every year. Because of that, the dates shift by a full day every four years, only returning to the same day of the week after seven cycles of four, or twenty eight years. Each time it rolls around we give the great orb our blessing to continue with its work of sustaining life on our planet. The original convergence of the two holidays, as the Ovstrovster Rebbe determined, would have occurred roughly three and a half millennia before his lifetime. He was aware that the same convergence was set to recur in 1925. The Ovstrovster was convinced that Moshiach and the final redemption from the bonds of materiality would arrive precisely on April 8, 1925, the day of the Great Convergence. The day came and went, a day like any other day. His disappointment can only have matched his messianic fervor. Three years later, at the point of death, according to one modern midrashist, the Rebbe’s skin turned to paper and his bones to the spines of books.

Though the Ostrovster’s calculations did not presage the immediate arrival of Moshiach, they do provide us with an interesting clue to a hidden message in Moses’ Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Arguably the oldest example of Hebrew poetry in existence and the centerpiece of Parshat Beshalach, the written representation of the Song in every Torah scroll jumps off the page in its unique scribal formatting. Rather than the usual column of text, the words are set out in short blocks whose successive layers overlap each other like rows of bricks, or more saliently, as stylized waves of the sea. If we accept the calculations of the Ovstrovster Rebbe which place the original Erev Pesach, the eve of Passover, on a Wednesday, then the chronology of the Exodus story locates the singing of this song on the shore of the Sea of Reeds seven days later, on a Tuesday. What does this matter, you may ask? For good reason Tuesday has always been considered an auspicious day in Jewish culture. On the third day of creation, as written in the Book of Genesis, the Creator declares not once but twice that this is ‘tov’, i.e., good, first after the appearance of dry land and second after the sprouting of plant life. The third day is a banner day, indeed in contrast to the second day, the day of the separation of the waters below from the waters above, which receives no such approbation at all. So the splitting of the Reed Sea provides yet another reason to hold Tuesdays as auspicious. But there’s more.

The Song, oddly, tells the sea crossing story out of chronological order. First we are told of the drowning of the Egyptians in the ‘deep'[Ex 15:5], the word tehomot. Only then comes mention of the splitting of the water[Ex 15:8]. And near the end of the song there is a curious image, where Moses foretells that the Creator will “plant” His people “in your own mountain”[Ex 15:17]. What’s all this about? Why the non-chronological retelling of the story and why the metaphor of the Israelite people as plant life? The answer lies in the Book of Genesis. These three sentences, though they tell the sea crossing story out of order, correspond precisely to the first three days of creation. The first day there was darkness over the deep[Gen 1:2], the same word tehom. On the second day was the splitting of the waters, above from below[Gen. 1:7]. And on the third day of creation, the Creator gathers the lower waters into one area and allows dry land to appear. Then comes the sprouting of vegetation[Gen 1: 11-12], the first sign of life in the creation story. Thus we can interpret Shirat HaYam, not only as Moses’ song of joy at the ‘victory’ of the Israelites over the pursuing Egyptian army, but as a birth announcement, the birth of the Israelite people. What better depiction of birth than the splitting of waters! The Song of the Sea is a song of the planting of new life on a new shore. It is therefore no coincidence that the Song is divided into exactly eighteen passages, eighteen being the numerological value of the Hebrew word for life(chai). And the mountain in question where the new life will sprout? Just over the horizon, Sinai. A vision so ecstatic that it could not be contained in a simple narrative, but had to be encrypted in a braided fabric of allusion within allusion, a glimpse into the holographic mind behind Creation. What then might the holy Ostrovster say standing by the sea at the intersection of the seventh day of Passover and Birkat HaChama in the year 2121?

About the Author
Michael Diamond is a writer based in the Washington, DC area. He practices psychiatry there and is a doctor of medical qigong. He has published verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; in New Mexico Review, The Deronda Review, The Atherton Review, The Blood Project, Ars Medica and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, two cats, a cockatiel named Peaches, a tank of hyperactive fish and ten-thousand honeybees. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, a glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.
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