The song of the see

There is a well-known Mechilta that describes the events of the splitting of the Red Sea, (read this Shabbat being the seventh day of Pesach) in a striking manner. In expounding the iconic phrase in the Song of the Sea, זה אלי ואנוהו “This is my God and I will extol Him”: R. Eliezer says: Whence is it derived that a maid-servant beheld at the Red Sea what was not beheld by Ezekiel and the other prophets, of whom it is written (Hoshea 12:11) “And to the prophets I appeared (in various) guises,” and (Ezekiel 1:1) “The heavens opened and I saw visions of G d”? 

Rather than pondering the remarkable prophetic capacities achieved by the Isrealites, I wonder why it was this particular spectacle that brought the ability to see and experience that ‘Radical Amazement’ that eluded  the greatest of prophets? What did they see at the sea? What was perceived to spontaneously bring forth such a profound declaration;  “THIS is my God…”

Was it a Tashlich moment of looking down into the waters but essentially looking at the reflection above, seeing the heavens? The symbolism of the splitting of the sea is galvanizing; it evokes the birth of a new being, in this case, it is the birth of a people. The story of an enslaved people becoming free. It is a moment of spiritual cleansing, perhaps a form of therapy from the abuse of servitude. 

Unlike the ten plagues which were directed at the Egyptians, this extraordinary miracle changes the paradigm. It is no longer the Outstretched Arm solely striking the enemy, rather the loving embrace of God to and for His people, His children. Whereas the angels are rebuked for praising God for drowning the Egyptians;  “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b) the singing and praise of the Jews is seemingly received favorably, being focussed on the acts of loving and kindness towards them. They are not singing for joy at the death of their foes, rather in immense gratitude to their new and ultimate Master. In this sense, the people not only outdid the prophets they also surpassed the angels! 

This balancing act is a constant struggle. Evil must be called out for what it is and eradicated. As Elie Wiesel taught us; “Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.” Yet, if we are not distressed at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened. Perhaps this is the march “in between” that was epitomized in the crossing of the Red Sea, the middle path between these two extremes – Justice and Mercy. This is the God and the attributes we witnessed, a God who is (Shemot 34:6-7); “…compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and He pardons”. These were the transcendent qualities beheld by the Jews, this was the moment of Zeh Eyli- This is my God.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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