Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

The birthing of the Jewish people

The Seventh Day of Passover
5781 / 2021

The seventh day of Pesach celebrates the anniversary of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. So momentous was this event, that the rabbis incorporated the entire Song at the Sea into the daily liturgy. Indeed, lines were composed to reenact the splitting of the sea in the blessings after the Shema, evening and morning. The evening liturgy includes these words:

God led God’s children through the divided parts of the Sea of Reeds, their pursuers and their enemies God drowned in its depths. And God’s children saw God’s mighty power— they praised and gave thanks to God’s Name, God’s sovereignty they willingly accepted; Moses and the children of Israel sang unto You with great joy, and they all said: Who is like You among the mighty, Adonoy! Who is like You? [You are] adorned in holiness, awesome in praise, performing wonders” Your children beheld Your sovereignty when You divided the sea before Moses. “This is my God,” they exclaimed, and declared, “Adonoy will reign forever and ever.

The morning service includes this version of the passage through the sea:

Truly, You are First and You are Last, We refer to God as First and Last only in order to preclude the notion that anything existed before God, and to repudiate the idea that there is an end to God’s existence. We do not assert that God has a beginning or a fixed term, and we have no king, redeemer, or deliverer besides You. You redeemed us from Egypt. Adonoy, our God, You liberated us from the house of bondage. You slew all their firstborn, and You redeemed Your firstborn. You split the Sea of Reeds, and You drowned the wicked. You caused the beloved ones to pass through, while the waters covered their enemies; not one of them remained.

The splitting of the sea finds equally powerful expression in Psalms, and in particular, in chapters that also have been included in the liturgy. Psalm 114, from Hallel, references the awesome power of this reversal in the natural world as an expression of God’s ultimate power:

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech / Judah became God’s -holy one, Israel, God’s dominion / The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward / mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep / What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled, Jordan, that you ran backward / mountains, that you skipped like rams, hills, like sheep? / Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob / who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flinty rock into a fountain.

Included in the Haggadah for the seder is the so-called, “Great Hallel,” Psalm 136, its greatness attributed to the many miracles and gifts it celebrates on behalf of the Jewish people. These include the exodus and revelation at Mt. Sinai. It also includes the splitting of the sea as a separate occasion, not merely subsumed by the general redemption from Egypt:

Who struck Egypt through their first-born / And brought Israel out of their midst / With a strong hand and outstretched arm / Who split apart the Sea of Reeds / And made Israel pass through it / Who hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds / Who led God’s people through the wilderness

God could have accomplished the exodus differently. The Israelites could have been redeemed through kevitzat haderech, a miraculous transportation from Egypt directly to Mt. Sinai, or even more dramatically, directly to the promised land of Canaan, without the necessity of a journey through the wilderness. All of these experiences, therefore, signify some aspect of human freedom, some dimension of the transformation and growth of the Jewish people from slaves to whole human beings.

The splitting of the sea, and the traversing through the narrow passage of walls of water present a clear, powerful image of childbirth. Beginning in Egypt, the Israelites were huddled in their homes, eating a nourishing meal together, but prepared to rush forth. There was blood on their doorways. They were pushed, gor-shu mimitzrayim, out of Egypt. They ran towards the sea. There was nowhere else for them to go. The wilderness lay on either side, the army behind them, and only the sea in front.

Indeed, birthing imagery forms a consistent motif throughout the slavery narratives. The Book of Exodus opens with Pharaoh’s paranoia, leading to his extraordinarily cruel pronouncement to murder infant boys. Hence, the narrative opens with the moral deliberations of midwives tending the future of the Jewish people. Shifra and Puach might have been Miriam and Yocheved, Moshe’s sister and mother, or they might have been Egyptian midwives committed to human life at the expense of their own well-being. I prefer that reading, emphasizing the shared humanity in nourishing and protecting life, particularly when it is at its most vulnerable. Moshe is then re-birthed from the Nile, taken from the womb of his mother’s basket out of the water. His name means, “I have taken him from the waters.” Indeed, the Nile was a source of all life for Egypt. When the first plague turns the waters of Egypt to blood, the entire civilization is surrounded by the water-blood imagery suggesting placenta and childbirth, which ironically the enslavement of other human beings rang the death knell for Egyptian civilization. The Midrash recounts the mixed imagery of life and death at the sea by noting that when Israel turned and looked, each Jew saw their particular oppressor drowned, washed up on the seashore. (Mikhilta Ba-Shalah 6)

Rachel Mirie Stone, in an article entitled, “Delivered through the Waters, captured the pathos of courage of these birthings. She quoted the deeply thoughtful scholar of Near Eastern culture and religion, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, and wrote:

Tikva Frymer-Kensky puts it in her book of prayers and blessings for pregnant women, making explicit the suggestion that the passage through the Red Sea can be envisioned as a passage through a symbolic birth canal. And Miriam, Moses’s sister, rejoices when they are delivered. Take note: the people echoing God’s deliverance, in this précis, this pithy preview, are women. They are midwives and mothers of a nation: matriarchs. They are the hands and feet and images of God, a mother God, a midwife God, braving suffering, moving strongly through the risk of death to the promise of life—of fruitful, flourishing life. (Stone’s article appears in the Christian Century, and captures the birthing imagery and its theological implications powerfully: Delivered through the waters. See also, Pesach is Literally the Story of a People’s Birth, by Orit Avnery of the Hartman Institute)

The blatant birthing imagery throughout the Shemot narratives, culminating in the splitting of the sea and reinforced liturgically in Psalms and daily prayers forces us to ask the question: What is our tradition teaching us by depicting the transition from slavery to freedom as a re-birth? In what ways was the origin of the Jewish people transformed, for birth is a transformational experience. The newborn has emerged from one world and enters another. This is threshold imagery, an exit and an entrance, and movement from one world to another. In this case, the Children of Israel were leaving the womb of Egypt and entering into an unformed, unshaped, predetermined world of midbar, wilderness, theirs to shape, to impact, and to experience directly.

The halachic, legal, requirement not to return to Egypt underscores the transformational aspect of the birth of the people through the splitting of the sea. The permissibility of entering Egypt temporarily, for business or short visits, is clear. The Rambam wrote: It is permissible to return to Egypt on business, or to expand real estate holdings. The prohibition applies only to settle there permanently. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:8) In the section of Devarim dedicated to the laws of Jewish kings, Rabbenu Bachya wrote:

The Torah is commanding us not to return to Egypt on this pathway. This is a positive commandment (!) so that Jews will not learn the corrupt ways of the Egyptians, for they were well-known for their corrupt, immoral behaviors….(Devarim 17:16)

The Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, is more explicit:

It is forbidden to choose to live in an idolatrous city, where there are many idolatrous temples. We, however, are forced to live here. (Avodah Zara 1; see, Torah Shelemah, Beshalach, Miluim, “Issur yeshiva bmitzrayim”)

Elsewhere, the Rambam wrote that their behaviors are “corrupt,” mequlqalim.” The Radbaz, Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra, (1479–1573), who assumed rabbinic leadership in what had been the Rambam’s community centuries earlier, wrote a personal justification for his living in Fustat, Old Cairo: I also have lived in Egypt for many years, learning and teaching Torah. In that way, it was permissible for me to live there, until I finally moved to Jerusalem. (Radbaz commentary on Mishneh Torah, laws of Kings, 5:8) There is much more to investigate halachically. I am particularly struck by the language of the prohibition not to “return to Egypt through the same pathway we left.” I read that halachic, legal language also metaphorically. The birthing from Egypt was intended to transform us. One the Jewish people emerged into this world from one that was corrupt, idolatrous, cruel, paranoid, oppressive, stratified with strict social controls delineating higher and lower status, and were commanded never to return to that path. God knew, as it were, that human beings can regress, can return to certain patterns of behavior, reinforced by certain false beliefs and idolatrous ideas. So God birthed a new generation of people with the explicit expectation that they never return to those ways, especially when they will have power themselves.

I read this moment of birthing through the sea as applying to all humanity; the Jewish narrative merely provides a human template, one that our liturgists felt was important to recite daily lest we return to other ways of behaving. In the song, the children of Israel chanted, Who is comparable to You, God, among all divinities? (Exodus 15:11) On that verse, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, (1740–1809), wrote:

God’s intention ‎in splitting the sea had been to humble the idol ‎worshippers and to reveal their idols as impotent. The ‎Egyptians’ major deity had been the river Nile (since it ‎was the source of their economic survival) According to ‎our sages (Shemot Rabbah 21,6) at the time ‎of the splitting of the sea of reeds all bodies of water, ‎world wide, experienced a similar “splitting.” The ‎‎Midrash derives this from the words ‎ויבקעו המים‎: ‎‎“the waters split, (plural form) instead of ‎ויבקע המים‎ ‎singular form. (Compare 14,21) If all the waters that ‎had been created during the six days of creation split, ‎the waters of the river Nile were included. What better ‎way was there to prove to the Egyptians (and other ‎nations) that there is only one Creator of all the ‎phenomena in the universe?‎ (Kedushat Levi, Exodus, Beshalach 41-42)

According to the Kedushat Levi, the splitting of the sea and the birthing of Israel had cosmic, international implications. This moment should have evoked such awe and mystery, like a physiological birth, that people world-over would all stop worshipping their own accomplishments. Humanity would embrace a shared humility. Economics would no longer drive social policy. Instead, leaders would ask, “What will nourish the life of these people? What will enable them to feel dignified and whole, without oppressing or exploiting some other group of people at their expense, for their benefit? It is significant that the Midrash notes that the splitting of the Nile, parallel to the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, was intended to transform the avarice of Egypt into compassion. No longer would greed form the foundation for human society, but birth and life and its mystery, and its preciousness as a sacred gift.

The transformational power of this event was emphasized by Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, (1696 – 7 July 1743), of Morocco. He commented on the verse in Exodus describing the waters returning to their “strength:”

We must perceive the condition or contract implied in the word איתנו, as an overriding condition applying to the work of creation as a whole, namely that all creatures, be they inert or alive, submit to the requirements of the Torah and the people who are its carriers. In fact the authority of the Torah scholars in this respect equals that of the Creator. This is the reason that individuals such a Joshua could order the moon and the sun to suspend their motion in the sky, etc. The statement we just made is the mystical dimension of Isaiah 43,1: “Jacob your creator, Israel who has formed you;” In commenting on this verse in Vayikra Rabbah 36,4 our sages claim that God asked the universe a rhetorical question: “who has created you, who has fashioned you if not Israel, and all this by means of the power contained in Torah.” I have dealt with this also in my commentary on the word בראשית at the beginning of the Torah. (Exodus 14:27)

The birthing of Israel through the sea represents the potential transformation of all humanity. If I universalize these comments, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar is saying that humanity creates the world, human beings birth the world we inhabit. We have the power to give life, or to kill, to build, or to destroy, to cause pain and suffering and anguish, or dignity and humanness, to fill the earth with hatred or with compassion and love. The rabbis always emphasize the importance of tipping the scales of justice and compassion in favor of compassion. Indeed, Rabbi Hayyim ben Solomon Tyrer, 18th-19th centuries, of Czernowitz, wrote that the splitting of the sea not only transformed the natural world, but imprinted upon humanity the possibility for compassion replacing judgment. The moment, therefore, was a moment of moral transformation in birthing the identity of the emergent Jewish people. The Egyptians had to be punished for their cruelty. However, the main point here is also that according to mystical traditions, nighttime is associated with cruelty (“we are living in a ‘dark’ time) and light beckons compassion and love:

And it happened, during the hour of the morning watch, that God looked down upon the Egyptian encampment….This verse captures the moment of Egyptian confusion. They exclaimed: “Look at how the world has turned upside down this night! Ordinarily, the nighttime is the time of judgment, but this night is characterized by rachamim, compassion and love!” Usually, nighttime is characterized by the ascendency of external, physical forces. This reality is described in Psalms 104 in the verse: “Once night falls, covered by darkness, all of the wild animals of the forests reign supreme….The rabbis taught this as well in the Talmud, Baba Kamma 141: Despite the sovereignty of pure judgment throughout the nighttime, God extended compassion to Israel that night, reversing the natural order of the world: “God moved the waters of the sea with a mighty wind all night, creating dry land in the sea as the waters split.” …The opposite occurred at daybreak. Usually, at dawn, when the world is filled with light, compassion overwhelms ferociousness, God looked down upon the Egyptians with harsh judgment….This is alluded to in the verse, “And God looked down upon the cities of Sdom and Amorrah….” (Bereshit18:16) …God judged the Egyptians during a moment of compassion, and showed compassion to Israel during the dangerous time of ferocity and suffering. (Be’er Mayim Hayyim Shemot 14:24)

Pesach, as the festival of our freedom, celebrates the optimistic possibility that humanity can change, that we can be reborn, that a world characterized by greed and self-interest, where that greed is justified through racist theories of inferiority or demonization, can be transformed into a humanity of compassion and sharing and respect. Perhaps this is why Pesach is filled with rebirthing narratives. On Shabbat Chol haMoed, the rabbis assigned the reading from Ezekiel 37, the narrative of the dry bones, and on the 8th day of Pesach, from the Book of Isaiah:

(1) But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, A twig shall sprout from his stock. (2) The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, A spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD. (3) He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the LORD: He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, Nor decide by what his ears perceive. (4) Thus he shall judge the poor with equity And decide with justice for the lowly of the land. He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth And slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. (5) Justice shall be the girdle of his loins, And faithfulness the girdle of his waist. (6) The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, With a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:1-6)

As the midrash quoted above taught, may we take responsible to create the world anew, filled with human dignity and compassion. May the nations of the world come and say: “Look at this wise and compassionate people. May we be like them.”

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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