Beshellach: Shivering at the Reed Sea

April 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 25, 2010.)

And Israel saw the great hand (i.e. power) that God used against Egypt, and the people felt awe and fear of God, and they trusted in God and in God’s servant, Moshe.  Then—Moshe was moved to sing, along with the children of Israel, this song to God …  (Exodus/Shemot 14:31-15:1)

Vayiyre-u = and they feared/were awestricken/shivered at

This week’s Torah portion, Beshellach (“When he sent away”), follows the Israelites and the assorted fellow-travelers who joined them when they were sent out of Egypt.  They cross the Reed Sea on dry land, but the Egyptian soldiers pursuing them are drowned.  After this miracle, the consciousness of the Israelites changes in four steps:

First they see the power of their god.  Their eyes have been registering evidence of miracles all along, but now they “see” in a metaphorical way; they “get it”.

Next they feel awe and fear (a single emotion, expressed by the Hebrew verb yira in the form vayiyre-u).

Then they feel trust; they give up their reservations, at least for the moment, and put themselves in the hands of God and Moses, God’s servant.

Finally they join Moses in singing.  According to 19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, the verb the Torah uses here for singing, shiyr, means singing that gives emotional expression to an inner revelation.  Moses and the Israelites feel moved to sing.

Why do they finally recognize the power of God now, when they have already observed and lived through the ten miraculous plagues?  The answer may lie in Pharaoh’s reaction to those same ten miracles.  Pharaoh operates out of fear for the future—not only the fear of the plagues that Moses predicts, but his bigger fear of an Egypt without slaves.  This kind of fear hardens his heart, and makes him unable to recognize the hand of God.

The Israelites, on the other hand, experience a shattering emotional release when God saves them from the Egyptian army.  They were expecting death, and asked Moses if there weren’t enough graves in Egypt, that he had to bring them out to the Reed Sea to die.  Now the people stand shaking, panting, as relief washes over them.  A shock of joy cracks their hearts open, and they see the power of God.

They also fear God, but it is a different kind of fear than Pharaoh’s frightened clinging to the status quo of Egypt, unwilling to accept any change.  The Israelites are awestricken.  I imagine their eyes round and their mouths open, goosebumps on their skin.  Their whole world has changed, and they stand staring in utter amazement.

Next the Israelites put their trust in God.  But surely they trusted God when they left Egypt, and when they stepped into the Reed Sea?  Not necessarily.  In both cases, they had nothing to lose by obeying Moshe.  When slavery becomes so harsh that life is unbearable, why not risk escape?  When the enemy is right behind you (and a wind has been pushing the water of the Reed Sea back all night), why not step in?  But after the Egyptian army is destroyed, the Israelite attitude changes from “I’m doomed anyway, I’ll take the risk” to “I am committed to this God.”  This trust and commitment comes not from desperation, but from awe at being saved.

Then Moses begins to sing.  Some midrash says Moshe’s song does not celebrate the miracle at the Reed Sea, but rather the commitment he sees on the faces of the Israelites.

The Israelites feel moved to sing with him.  Shemot Rabbah suggests that they were elevated by the ruach ha-kodesh, the spirit of the holy, and they sang prophecies.

In a small way, I’ve experienced a similar quick progression:  recognition, awe, commitment, and joy that comes out in singing.  And I’ve never seen a miracle.  Here’s how I believe I sometimes get a tiny taste of the transformation the Israelites felt on the shore of the Reed Sea: I keep reminding myself of the holiness in everything.  Some people find holiness in beauty, others find holiness in people around them.

Since I keep looking for holiness, I often see it, however dimly.  So my eyes are sometimes open at the moment when my inner heart shifts, and I catch a glimpse of the mystery.  I think the practice of looking for holiness softens my heart, so I don’t turn into Pharaoh, and I am able to feel awe.  And when awe comes, the sense of commitment and the urge to express joy follows.  And then I’m glad I know songs of praise!


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