Torah makes Jews and Jews make Torah. The rabbis never read the Bible as the simple, literal word of God. They studied Holy Scriptures as a complex, multifaceted, revelation of the Holy One. The rabbis followed the teaching of King David: “One thing God spoke; two things I heard” (Psalms 62:12) as glossed in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a).
In other words, multiple interpretations of each verse of Scripture can be correct, and the words of God, even if they contradict one another. The term for this concept of pluralistic interpretation is; Shivim Panim LaTorah (each verse of Torah has 70 different facets)
Of course, we know of no verse that has 70 different interpretations; yet. After all, if we knew all 70 glosses to a verse, we would understand it as well as it author; which is impossible.
Also, what would be left for future generations of Jews to do. But, most verses have at least three or four different glosses and some have five or ten different insights. Take as an example two verses in Exodus 14 that describe the situation of the Jewish People when their escape from Egyptian bondage is blocked by the water barrier of the Sea of Reeds.
15: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to march forward.
16: And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.
All good lovers want to know everything about their beloved. Good lovers are sensitive to their beloved words, acts and even the unspoken feelings within their beloved.
So our Torah loving rabbis noticed that this text says, “lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea” but it does not continue and YOU shall split it; it simply says “and split it.” Of course, everyone knows that Moses alone cannot split the waters. That is God’s part.
But they also noticed that in verse 15 God tells Moses: “Tell the Israelites to march forward.” and in verse 16 the Torah says: “so the Israelites may go into the sea”. From the double mention of the Jewish People’s going forward into the sea, the rabbis perceived that there was another miracle involved.
How are recently freed slaves motivated to take the risk of walking into a watery, reed filled swamp? After all, they did not know how deep it was; and none of them could swim.
Rabbinic midrash provides several answers.
Rabbi Meir said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another, each wishing to descend into the sea first. Then sprang forward the tribe of Benjamin and descended first into the sea. Thereupon the princes of Judah hurled stones at them. For that reason the righteous (tribe of) Benjamin was worthy to become the host of the All-Powerful, (the Temple was erected in Benjamin’s territory).
Rabbi Meir teaches that courage and risk taking come from spiritual leaders who live their lives emotionally close to the Temple/Synagogue/Beit Midrash; while political leaders (from Judah came Israel’s kings) throw rocks at the religious leaders for being unpractical.
But according to the Talmud, this view was opposed by Rabbi Meir’s colleague, Rabbi Judah (bar Ilai).
Rabbi Judah said to (R. Meir): that is not what happened; but each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon the son of Amminadav (a prince of the tribe of Judah, Numbers 7:12), and descended first into the sea… he descended (into the sea because his trust was) with God. (Talmud Sotah 36b-37a:)
Rabbi Judah teaches about the importance of a good personal example to inspire people. If Moses had entered the waters first, the people might not have followed, because they did not feel they were his equal. Nachshon ben Amminadav, the brother in law of Aaron, was one of them, so if he could do it so could others.
The Talmud juxtaposes the two opposing views of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, to force us to delve further into the issues.
Rabbi Meir, who was a son of righteous converts who had the courage to jump into Judaism, can’t imagine that Jews, on their way to Sinai, would have hesitated before a barrier as small as a watery, reed filled swamp.
Judah bar Ilai thinks that leaders usually hesitate to jump out in front of the crowd, fearing they will not be followed. A modern example is Rosa Parks who inspired thousands of people, including many hesitant leaders, to jump into the fray.
The Talmud took Rabbi Judah’s original statement from the Mechilte de-Rabbi Ishmael. There Judah also taught that there is a time for deliberation and a time for action.
Rabbi Judah says: When the Israelites stood at the sea, one said: “I do not want to go down to the sea first,” and the other one said: “I do not want to go down to the sea first,” While they were standing there deliberating, Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped up first and went down to the sea and fell into the waves. (Mechilte de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate BeShallach, chapter 6)
Rabbi Judah teaches here about individual people (psychology) not tribes (politics) and the importance of relying on an emotional impulse to inspire individual people. Nachshon, who could not wait any longer while others dithered, jumped up and fell (nafal literally) into the swamp. Yet he kept on splashing forward making waves until others joined him.
Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah bar Ilai were among the five closest disciples of Rabbi Akiba yet both of them differed from their Rabbi’s view..
Rabbi Akiba (whose father was also a convert) says: Israel went to enter into the Red Sea, but fell back because they were afraid that they would drown in the water. The tribe of Benjamin wanted to go in the sea. Thereupon the princes of Judah hurled stones at them.
Nachshon jumped up first and ran to the sea and sanctified God’s great name (was willing to martyr himself) in front of everyone! And by the leadership of a son of Judah, Nachshon, all Israel entered into the sea. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41)
After the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt the Romans prohibited the study of Torah. Rabbi Akiba continued teaching Torah and was executed by the Romans. Akiba sees in this verse the value of risking your life to protect your beliefs.
Judaism will not survive unless there are faithful Jews who are inspired to risk their lives to preserve the Torah.
Akiba died a martyr; Meir and Judah his disciples did not (unless Rabbi Judah is Rabbi Judah ben Baba who died delaying Roman soldiers so that his newly ordained students could escape. (Sanhedrin 14a and Avodah Zarah 8b)
Did they adapt different interpretations of this verse because the time for martyrdom was over and Jews had to overcome their losses in new and positive productive ways? Is this why the Talmud does not mention Akiba’s gloss of this verse?
Centuries later, in very different circumstances, for a different group of readers, the editor of Midrash Tehillim (chapter 86, siman1) an anthology of midrashim for the pious book of Psalms, presents Rabbi Judah’s midrash as:
Rabbi Judah said: At the moment that Israel was standing at the sea, they were arguing with one another. One said. “I will go into the sea first.” and another one said, ” I will go into the sea first.”
In the midst of this, Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped into the waves of the sea, and they covered him. Because of this it is said: “Rescue me God because the water comes up to (claim) my life.” (Psalms 69:2-3)
In this view, everyone seems very pious, but all they do is talk; no one acts. Trust in God must be acted upon.
One last question. How did the Rabbis know the name of the first person to enter the sea? See Numbers 7:10-12