Tags: Baal, Canaanite religion, henotheism, monotheism, other gods, polytheism, Psalm 29, Psalm 82, Psalm 97, Ten Commandments
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:
Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1
eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)
The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant. Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.
Yitro and the First Commandment
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)
elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)
Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.
I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)
(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)
Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.
A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel. Here are three examples:
Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:
Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,
Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!
Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,
Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!
The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;
The eil of magnificence is thundering. (Psalm 29:1-3)
Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.
Then the psalm declares:
And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!
Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,
And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever. (Exodus 29:10)
Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.
The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim”. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.
In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4
Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.
Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods. “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.
Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.
They neither know nor understand,
They walk around in darkness;
Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter. (Psalm 82:5)
Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:
I used to say to myself: You are elohim,
And children of the Most High, all of you.
Nevertheless, you will die like humans,
And you will fall like one of the princes. (Psalm 82:6-7)
Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.
On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.
The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;
All the peoples saw Its magnificence.
Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,
Those who boast of the elilim.
All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)
elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.
“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.
According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.
Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?
I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive. The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.
A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.
My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction. And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.
1 I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.
The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.
2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.
3 Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.
4 A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.
Tags: drowning Egyptians, Psalm 136, Red Sea, Sea of Reeds, Song of the Sea, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
After the tenth plague, the pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Then he has another change of heart, and sends a brigade of charioteers after them. At nightfall the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites at the shore of the sea—the Red Sea in English, the Sea of Reeds (yam suf—יַם סוּף) in the Hebrew Bible. Both parties camp for the night, with the Israelites trapped between the enemy and the water.
What happens next? The most familiar version of the story appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”).
The Prose Account
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind all night. Vayasem the sea dry land, and the waters split. And the Israelites entered the middle of the sea on dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left. (Exodus/Shemot 14:21-22)
vayasem (וַיָּשֶׂם) = and he/it placed, set, set up, put, put in.
Until I translated these verses, I had the impression that God simply splits the water down to the seabed, which becomes dry and firm enough for the Israelites to walk on. But the Torah says vayasem, as if there were no real bottom to the sea, so God has to install a strip of dry land. (Most English translations say God “made” or “turned” the sea into dry ground—which has the same implication.)
In the cosmology of the ancient Israelites, beneath the land lies a subterranean ocean of water called the tehom (תְּהוֹם —singular) or tehomot (תְּהֺמֺת —plural). This deep water bubbles up through the earth in the form of springs. Under the ocean, it’s water all the way down, with no ocean floor.1
And the Egyptians pursued, and all the horses of Pharoah, his chariots, and his horsemen entered after them into the middle of the sea. …And [God] made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously. (Exodus 14:23, 25)
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea settled before morning into its normal flow. And the Egyptians were fleeing from it, and God na-ar the Egyptians into the middle of the sea. And the waters turned back, and they covered the chariots and the horsemen of all the army of Pharaoh, the one coming after them into the sea; not one remained. (Exodus 14:27-28)
na-ar (נָעַר) = shook out, shook off. (The form of this verb used in verse 14:27 is vayena-eir (וַיְנָעֵר). This verb appears only 12 times in the entire Hebrew Bible.)
Safe on the other side of the sea, the Israelites are awed by God’s miracle, and moved to sing along with Moses and Miriam.
The Song of the Sea
That was when Moses sang, along with the children of Israel, this song to God… (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
The whole “Song of the Sea” that follows is a psalm written in archaic Hebrew, possibly the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible.2 The scribe who redacted this week’s Torah portion inserted the well-known hymn without changing its archaic syntax and spellings.
The Song of the Sea does not mention God splitting the sea or the Israelites walking on dry land. Nevertheless, one early verse matches the prose account:
Chariots of Pharaoh and his army
[God] pitched into the sea,
And the best of his captains
sank in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:4)
Twice the Song of the Sea says the Egyptians sank all the way down into the tehomot.
Tehomot covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15:5)
In the wind of Your nostrils the waters were dammed up.
They stood up like a dike [made of] waves,
Congealed tehomot in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8)
You blew Your wind; the sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:10)
This description led 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno to explain that the water at the bottom of the sea became solid, and the Israelites walked across the congealed or frozen water.
The Bible includes several briefer descriptions of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, all used as examples of God’s miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But the descriptions in Second Isaiah (51:9-10) and Psalms 77, 106, and 136 do not explain how the Israelites got across the water.
Psalm 136 does, however, refer to God as the one who split the sea, and like the prose account in Exodus it uses the rare word na-ar.
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
And let Israel pass through the middle,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness.
Veni-eir Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds,
Because forever is [God’s] loyal kindness. (Psalm 136:13-15)
veni-eir (וְנִעֵר) = And [God] shook off, shook out. (Another form of the verb na-ar— נָעַר.)
We do not know which text first used the poetic image of God shaking off the Egyptians into the sea: Psalm 136, or one of the stories woven into the prose account in this week’s Torah portion. 3
If we follow the prose account, the sea divides and a miraculous strip of earth appears over the tehomot. I can picture the earth getting soggy after the Israelites have crossed, so the chariot wheels of the Egyptians get stuck in mud. Then the bridge of earth buckles and shakes off the Egyptians, chariots, and horses into the water, before God’s second wind blows the walls of water down over them.
On the other hand, if we take the Song of the Sea as the oldest, most authoritative account, and follow Sforno’s explanation that the water congeals into a frozen roadway between dikes of ice, then I can imagine the chariot wheels skidding out of control on the slippery surface. This provides an alternate explanation of the detail in the prose account that God “made the wheels of their chariots swerve, and made them proceed laboriously”. (Exodus 14:25) Then the ice-dikes break and the sea rushes over the Egyptians.
Either of these two pictures of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is more vivid than most readers—and illustrators—of the Bible imagine.
Unless you are an eye witness, it takes vivid imagery to feel the impact of a miracle. The various Biblical accounts of crossing the Sea of Reeds are designed to make the descendants of the Israelites experience the feeling of a last-minute rescue, and to give them confidence that God has always been on their side. So for centuries the Israelites rejoiced over the miracle at the sea.
Yet after the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., some Jews questioned this attitude. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says God does not “rejoice in the downfall of the wicked”. He gives the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as an example, saying: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino translation, Megilah 10b)
I, too, feel sympathy for the Egyptian soldiers. They have no more choice about following the Pharaoh’s orders than the Israelite slaves did before Pharaoh let them go. And their orders were to round up the Israelites (shooting arrows if necessary) and bring them back for re-enslavement.
Suddenly the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of a situation they never imagined was possible. They are chasing the Israelites across a dirt bridge over the sea, or maybe down an ice canyon. They see the ex-slaves reach the far side, but their chariot wheels are either mired in mud or skidding on ice. Then the Egyptians are shaken off the path like crumbs. And the sea crashes down on them.
Today people still experience events they never imagined were possible. Sometimes what seems like a good miracle to one group of people is worse than a nightmare to another group.
May we all learn the humanity to refrain from singing out with joy when our opponents are dying. And may God save us all when we find ourselves trapped in a situation we never imagined was possible.
1 This detail supports Richard Elliott Friedman’s argument in his Commentary on the Torah (HarperCollins 2001) that although the body of water in question is called the Sea of Reeds, it is no shallow lake, but the Gulf of Suez–the western arm of the Red Sea.
2 The exodus from Egypt is set during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, which ruled during the 13th century B.C.E. The Song of the Sea mentions the Plashet (Philistines), who did not emigrate to Canaan until about 1175 B.C.E. Thus Moses could not have known or composed the Song of the Sea, but the writer of the Song of Sea might have known the story of the exodus. According to modern scholars, the prose version of the story in Exodus is a compilation of three different stories written in Biblical Hebrew sometime after 700 B.C.E. The redactor also inserted the ancient Song of the Sea.
3 Psalm 136 cannot be reliably dated. The language is consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Exodus (excluding the archaic Song of the Sea). But it could have been written much earlier, and rewritten centuries later with updated language. Or it could even have been written during the time of the second temple, 530 B.C.E.-70 C.E.
Tags: book of Judges, Deborah the Prophet, Exodus, Jael, Shoftim, Sisera, torah portion, Yael
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), and the haftarah is Judges 4:4-5:31.
The underdog triumphs in many biblical stories. Jacob, the beardless weakling, outsmarts his strong, hairy brother Esau. Joseph rules over the older brothers who once enslaved him. The boy David kills the giant Goliath.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he sent out”), the Israelite slaves leave Egypt as free people while Pharaoh’s army drowns behind them. In the haftarah from the book of Judges, two Israelite women triumph over the Canaanite general Sisera and his army.
How do you defeat an enemy stronger than you? In the Hebrew Bible, two effective ways are by receiving and using inside information from God, like Moses; and by taking action on your own initiative with intelligence, courage, and guile, like Jacob and Joseph.
The haftarah from Judges tells the story of two women, the ultimate underdogs in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, triumphing over Israel’s enemies through both methods. Devorah the prophet gets her people to act on God’s promise to help them defeat the army of their Canaanite overlord, and Jael/Yael the Kenite acts on her own initiative and kills the enemy’s general.
When this week’s haftarah begins, the Israelites are scattered tribes who have been ruled by the chief king of Canaan, Yavin, for twenty years. They are oppressed by King Yavin’s general, Sisera, who commands a force that includes 900 chariots, the most fearsome war technology of the time.
Still, instead of relying on the Canaanite king’s dubious justice, the Israelites go to their own judges, including one outstanding judge.
Devorah was a woman, a prophet, a woman of lapidot; she was a shoftah of Israel at that time. (Judges/Shoftim 4:4)
Devorah (דְבוֹרָה) = “Deborah” in English; honey bee. (From the same root as doveir = speaker, and divrah = legal case.)
lapidot (לַפִּידוֹת) = a feminine plural form of the masculine noun lapid = torchlight, torch, flash of light. (Some translations consider lapidot a place-name or the name of Devorah’s husband.)
shoftah (שֹׁפְטָה) = the feminine form of shofet = judge; a man who decides legal cases and resolves disputes.
The Bible emphasizes that Devorah is a woman, at a time when all other judges were elders among the men. Moreover, she is a prophet, a woman of flashes of light. Even her name is significant: she is a speaker, both for justice and for God.
And she was the one who sat under the Date-Palm of Devorah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Efrayim. And the children of Israel went up to her for the law. (Judges 4:5)
Unlike the judges of villages, Devorah serves as the authority for a wider area, and holds her own law court in a sacred place. In ancient Israel, many holy places were indicated by trees or groves with names, such as the Oak of Weeping (Genesis 35:8), the Grove of Teaching (Genesis 12:6), or the Grove of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). Devorah’s own presence is what makes this particular palm tree the marker of a holy site.
And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh in Naftali. And she said to him: Did not God, the god of Israel, command: “Go!—and draw up your position on Mount Tabor, and you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and Zevulun. Then I will draw up to you, to the wadi of Kishon, the commander of the army of Yavin, Sisera, and his charioteers, and his infantry; and I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 4:6-7)
If Barak musters troops from the two Israelite tribes of Naftali and Zevulun and marches them up Mount Tabor, God will arrange for the defeat of the enemy’s army. But Barak is afraid.
And Barak said to her: If you go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go. (Judges 4:8)
Devorah agrees to go with him, but prophesies that Barak will get no glory from the battle, because
… into the hand of a woman God will deliver Sisera. (Judges 4:9)
Devorah walks with Barak both to Kedesh to inspire the men to volunteer for the ad hoc army, and to the top of Mount Tabor to announce when the men should charge down. God panics Sisera’s army (through a flash flood in the wadi, according to the accompanying poem) and the Israelite foot soldiers kill every enemy soldier except General Sisera.
Devorah is supremely successful as the instigator of the battle because she is God’s prophet. Receiving divine communication and cooperating with God both inspires people to trust her and results in a successful campaign—even though she is a woman, who would normally be powerless.
Sisera gets down from his chariot in the middle of the battle and flees on foot. Where can he find refuge? He heads for the nearby camp of Chever the Kenite, a vassal of King Yavin.
Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite … (Judges 4:17)
Yael (יָעֵל) = a variant of ya-al (יָעַל) = he will ascend, he will climb, he will mount for mating.
Normally, a fugitive would go to the tent of the man who heads the household or encampment, the only person who can take the role of host and decide to shelter the unexpected guest. In that culture, a woman’s tent was her private domain that no man outside her immediate family would dare to enter. Why does Sisera enter Yael’s tent instead of heading straight for her husband’s tent?
One line of commentary claims that Sisera’s motivation was to rape Yael, and then claim Chever’s household as his own. By taking ownership of a chieftain’s women, a man signaled that he was the new chieftain. Later in the Bible, King David’s son Absalom shows Israel that he is the new king by having sexual intercourse with the concubines King David leaves behind in Jerusalem. Sisera might plausibly decide he would rather be the head of a camp of Kenites than a disgraced ex-general.
But I think Sisera is on his way to Chever’s tent when Yael appears and suggests a different plan.
And Yael went out to meet Sisera, and she said to him: Surah, my lord, surah eilai, do not fear. Vayasar to her, to her tent, and she concealed him with the curtain. (Judges 4:18)
surah (סוּרָה) = turn aside, go away, desert, avoid.
eilai (אֵלַי) = to me.
vayasar (וַיָּסַר) = and he turned aside, went away, deserted, avoided.
Normally a woman would warn an intruder who slipped past the sentries around her husband’s camp to get away from her. But since Yael says surah eilai, she must be saying either “turn aside to me” or “desert to me” (knowing that Sisera has already deserted his own army).
Yael is a quick thinker with a cool head. She may view Sisera as an enemy; the Kenites are usually allies with the Israelites in the Bible, and Chever might have sworn vassalage to King Yavin because he had no alternative. But now Yavin’s army no longer exists, and the time is ripe for change. Sizing up the situation, Yael steps out of her tent and tempts Sisera with an ambiguous sentence.
And he falls for it. Suddenly he imagines he can take Chever’s wife, and then take over his whole household. He steps inside her tent, and she lets the curtain fall behind him. He asks for water, and she brings him a yogurt drink and puts covers over him. He orders her to stand at the entrance of the tent and tell anyone who comes that there is no one inside. Then, secure in his belief that she is his and they will eventually seal the deal with sex, Sisera falls asleep.
Then Yael, wife of Chever, took a tent peg and took the hammer in her hand, and she came to him quietly, and she drove the peg into his temple, and she hammered it into the ground. And he was fast asleep, exhausted, and he died. (Judges 4:21)
Deborah’s prophesy is fulfilled; Sisera dies by the hand of a woman.
Yael acts on her own initiative, taking advantage of the situation and employing her sharp wits and her ability to deceive without actually lying. The text does not say whether Sisera carries a weapon on his body, but he is a career soldier, and under ordinary circumstances could overpower (and rape) any woman in his path. Yael courageously uses guile, the weapon of the underdog, to overpower and “rape” him with her tent peg.
Never assume you can take advantage of an underdog who has always held a rank beneath your own. People who have been slaves for hundreds of years might turn out to have God on their side, and defeat you, as in this week’s Torah portion from Exodus. And women who have been ordered around by men for hundreds of years might turn out to be prophets and judges, like Devorah, or extraordinary executioners, like Yael.
Never overlook the underdog.
Tags: Exodus, Moses and Miriam, religion, religion and singing, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Singing appears for the first time in the Torah as something missing. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob works as an indentured servant for his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, for twenty years. Then while Lavan is out of town, Jacob flees with his own wives, children, servants, herds, and flocks. Lavan catches up with Jacob on the road and says:
Why did you hide and run away? And you robbed me and you did not tell me—and I would have sent you off with gladness, and with shirim, with tambourine, and with lyre. (Genesis 31:27)
shirim (שִׁרִים) = songs. (Singular: shirah, שִׁירָה)
Although I think Lavan is lying, this first reference to song does tell us that musical celebrations of departure were customary in ancient Aram.
The first singing that does happen in the Torah is in this week’s portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”). God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over on the damp sea-bottom, the Egyptian army pursues them, and the wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud. As soon as all the Israelites and their fellow-travelers are safe on the other side, God makes the waters return and drown all the Egyptians. The Israelites see the dead bodies of the soldiers on the shore, and start to sing.
This is when Moses yashir, along with the children of Israel, this shirah to Y-H-V-H; and they said, saying:
Ashirah to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;
horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sings.
ashirah (אָשִׁירָה) = I sing, I will sing, let me sing.
(I am using “He” to translate the pronoun prefixes and suffixes in the “Song of the Sea’, since later lines in this hymn picture God as a “man of war”, i.e., warrior. For the name of God indicated by Y-H-V-H, see my blog post Va-eira: The Right Name.)
The hymn continues:
My strength and zimrat Yah, it is my salvation;
this is my god, and I extol Him;
the god of my father, and I exalt Him. (Exodus 15:2)
God is man of war; Y-H-V-H is His name. (Exodus 15:3)
zimrat (זִמְרָת) = the song of, the melody of, the praising-song of.
Yah (יָהּ) = a name for God, possibly an abbreviation of Y-H-V-H.
Since God has single-handedly defeated and killed the enemy, the Israelites sing a hymn celebrating God as the ultimate warrior.
(The Song of the Sea continues for 16 more verses, using a more archaic Hebrew than the text surrounding it. Modern scholars agree that whoever compiled and wrote down the first version of the book of Exodus, some time after 900 B.C.E., inserted a much older hymn here and attributed it to Moses.)
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with tambourines and with circle-dances. And Miriam ta-an to them:
Shiru to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;
horse and its rider He threw into the sea! (Exodus 15:20-21)
ta-an (תַּעַן) = she sang call-and-response; she answered, she responded (from the root anah, ענה).
Shiru (שִׁירוּ) = Sing!
Miriam appears to be leading singing, dancing, and percussion at the same time!
The next time the Torah reports singing is in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when it inserts a short archaic song in honor of a well of water into a list of places the Israelites traveled through.
This is when Israel yashir this shirah:
Rise up, well! Enu for it!
The well that captains dug,
That donors of the people excavated,
With a scepter, with their walking stick. (Numbers 21:17-18)
Enu (עֱנוּ) = let us sing call-and-response (also from the root anah, ענה).
The only other reference to singing in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible precedes a long hymn inserted into the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. To introduce this song, God tells Moses:
And now, write for yourselves this shirah, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, so that this shirah will be a witness for me against the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)
Although the hymn inserted at this point does praise God, it also criticizes the people for backsliding, and warns them about God’s vengeance. The overall message is that the Israelites do not appreciate everything God has done for them, and they had better behave, or else. The purpose of the song, according to the Torah, is to make this message easy to remember.
King David is the first professional musician named in the Bible. In the second book of Samuel, he composes and sings not only another hymn praising God, but also the first two dirges in the Bible, one for Saul and Jonathan, and one for Avner. Both dirges are introduced by a new verb, va-yekonein (וַיְקֹנֵן) = and he sung a lamentation.
Besides songs of celebration and lamentation, the Bible contains many references to hymns addressed to God; and all 150 psalms are the lyrics of hymns. There are psalms of praise and of thanksgiving. The majority of the psalms plead with God: to reward those who worship God and do good, and punish the wicked; to rescue God’s followers from poverty or enemies; to grant us long life and to kill our enemies; to teach us how to do good; and—a plea that moves me today—to stop being silent and remote, to answer and prove that our God exists.
I remember that when I was I small child, I sang spontaneously whenever and happiness came over me, making up melodies and nonsense words as I went along. When I was in elementary school, I learned a variety of songs, and sang both to entertain myself, and to have fun with other people. I was singing when it was the custom, and when I wanted to celebrate—like the singers in the first part of the Hebrew Bible.
I admit that as a young teenager, I sang “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” when I was consumed with frustration over someone who seemed to be my enemy. I did not know that many psalms also begged God to kill the singer’s enemies.
After that, I learned that when I was feeling down, singing sad songs lifted my spirits. I had discovered the equivalent of the Biblical dirge. When I needed to vent my romantic frustrations and thwarted physical desires, singing certain popular songs gave my feelings an outlet.
When I was over 30, and searching for God, none of the popular songs I once loved met my needs. Then I stumbled upon a Jewish Renewal congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, that supplied me with all the songs I wanted. Finally, I could sing to express the yearning of my soul for both a good direction in life and a connection with the divine. And many of those songs and chants come from the book of psalms.
Recently, I was singing a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold using two lines that appear in the Song of the Sea in today’s Torah portion, and are so evocative the Torah repeats them in Isaiah and Psalms:
Ozi ve-zimrat Yah, vayehi li liyshuah (עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה). Or in English:
My strength and the praising-song of Yah, it is my salvation. (Exodus 15:2, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 118:14)
At this stage of my life, what saves my spirit is my own strength (which is a divine gift), combined with the ability to sing my own songs (both literally and figuratively) in praise of Yah, of the divine as I know it.
May we all be blessed with such music in our lives.
Tags: manna, meaning of life, religion, torah portion
Food cannot satisfy us, when we doubt the meaning of our lives. Yet many people divert anxiety about their futures into craving for food—both today and in the Torah.
When the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks with them. They are never forbidden to use their livestock for milk or meat, so they are in no danger of starving. Yet a month and a half after they leave Egypt, they complain about food.
The entire assembly of the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness. The Children of Israel said to them: If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat beside a pot of meat, when we ate bread until [we were] sated; for you brought us out to this wilderness to put to death this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot 16:2-3, in the Torah portion Beshallach)
How could dying in Egypt with a full stomach be better than journeying with God’s protection? These are the people who choose to follow Moses and his god out of Egypt, who sing and dance after God rescues them from the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea. How could they feel so discouraged in the second month of their trek across the wilderness?
God diagnoses the problem, and solves it—temporarily—with manna.
Then God said to Moses: Here I am, raining down food from the heavens… (Exodus 16:4)
Manna satisfies the people for a while—not because they need additional food, I think, but because it reminds them daily that God loves them like a parent. They are already following the divine pillar of cloud and fire across the wilderness. Now they know that they are not wandering aimlessly; serving God gives them a purpose in life.
The Israelites forget their purpose and fail to serve God whenever they are idle or afraid during their sojourn at Mount Sinai. But they are in good spirits when they march away from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you raise up”) in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. They head toward their promised land supplied not only with the manna God provides, and the livestock they brought up from Egypt, but also with a splendid portable sanctuary and its numinous objects, as well as a set of God-given rules and principles to live by.
Alas, after only three days of marching they lapse into complaining again. The Torah does not tell us the content of their complaint at Taverah. It merely says God hears and reacts with anger, consuming the edge of the camp with fire. Then the people switch from complaining to sobbing.
And the riff-raff that was in its midst felt strong cravings, and they sobbed, and the Children of Israel also [sobbed], and they said: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, and the cucumbers and watermelons and leeks and onions and garlic. And now our nefesh is dried up; there is nothing except the manna for our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, throat, animating soul, life
Why, when they are on the verge of getting their own land, do the people yearn for the food in Egypt again? Psalm 78 answers: They tested God in their hearts by asking for food for their nefesh. (Psalm 78:18)
To me, this shows that the people are not complaining about dry throats, but about dry lives. They have not lost their appetite for food, but they have lost their appetite for being God’s people.
For the survivors of the Golden calf incident, life at Mount Sinai was both pleasant and meaningful. They had the pleasure of serving God by making donations, but their donations were the treasures they took from their Egyptian neighbors, rather than anything personal. They also had the pleasure of serving God by skilled creative work, as they made the sanctuary and its holy objects.
Now, as they march north, the people are approaching the border of Canaan. They know their next service to God will be taking over a land inhabited by other people. As we learn in next week’s Torah portion, Shelach, very few Israelites believe that God will single-handedly drive out the inhabitants and leave them empty cities and farms. Instead they are anticipating war, which means many hardships and deaths.
Now the thought of serving God fills them with anxiety instead of purpose. So, as the psalm says, they sob for Egyptian food to (unconsciously) test whether God will nourish their souls.
God correctly interprets the sobbing as indicating a lack of faith, rather than a desire for tasty food. But instead of reassuring the people that their lives will be filled with meaning, God takes a punitive approach, and tells Moses:
To the people you shall say: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; then you will eat meat … Not for one day will you eat, nor for a couple of days, nor for five days, nor for ten days, nor for twenty days. Until a month of days, until it comes out of your nostrils and you are nauseated because of it! For you rejected God, who is in your midst … saying: Why did we leave Egypt for this? (Numbers 11:18-20)
I confess I am like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. My life is full of meaning and purpose right now, while my material needs are met and I spend my days drawing insights and inspirations from the Torah, and sharing my life with people I love. Yet there are empty times in my day, when I need to rest or alleviate chronic pain. At those times, anxiety about the future haunts me. What if my sense of purpose is not strong enough to carry my through old age, when I must face hardships and the deaths of people I love?
My first impulse, as these times, is to comfort myself by eating something tasty. Yet I know that if I eat too much, I will make myself sick in the long run. I would rather keep faith that God is with me, and my life will continue to be worthwhile no matter what happens. But how can I do that?
The only solution I know is to refocus and cultivate gratitude for the good life I have now. Do you have another solution to the anxiety of the Israelite? Please comment!
Tags: blessing, Exodus, God, Moses, prayer, torah portion
What does it mean to raise one or both hands when they are empty?
Today, the gesture for “Stop!” is holding one arm straight out from the shoulder, with the hand bent back, palm forward. If you raise one arm straight up from the shoulder instead, with the hand in line, palm forward, you are “raising your hand” for permission to speak. When an authority figure says “Hands up!” you raise both arms, palms forward, to show you are not holding a weapon.
What if you raise both arms at an angle somewhere between straight up and straight out? Whether your hands are turned up or down, it looks as though you are making a religious gesture.
In many Jewish Renewal congregations, when we stretch out both hands with our palms down, we want to transmit a blessing to someone. (This gesture is derived from the Torah’s description of leaning one’s hands on the head of a man or boy in order to transfer holiness, as Jacob does to bless his grandsons in Genesis 48, and as Moses does to commission Joshua as his successor in Numbers 27.)
When we stretch out both hands with our palms up, it means we are prepared to receive a blessing. This is also one traditional posture of supplication to God; we reach forward and up toward “heaven” with empty hands, hoping God will fill them.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”), God tells Moses to split the Reed Sea by holding the staff that summoned the ten plagues in Egypt, and stretching out his hand over the water. After the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and seen the Egyptian army drown,
…the people were in awe of God, vaya-amiynu in God and in Moses, his servant. (Exodus 14:31)
vaya-amiynu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they trusted, and they had faith, and they believed, and they relied upon.
Because they have seen Moses signal the miracle by raising his arm, they believe that the god who split the Reed Sea is their god, the god of their leader Moses. So at that moment, they trust God.
The Israelites trek across the Sinai Peninsula unmolested, while God provides manna and quail for them to eat. Yet in less than three months, when they are camped only one day’s journey from Mount Sinai, the people complain to Moses that they have no water.
God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water comes out. But Moses notes that the people did not trust God to provide for them.
And he called the name of the place Trial-and-Disputing because of the dispute of the children of Israel and because of their testing God, saying: Hayeish, God, bekirbeinu, or ayin? (Exodus/Shemot 17:7)
Hayeish (הֲיֵשׁ) = Is it there? Does it exist?
bekirbeinu (בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ) = in our midst, inside us.
ayin (אָיִן) = not there, nothing.
A traditional translation of the people’s question is: “Is God in our midst, or not?” But another valid translation would be: “Does God exist inside us, or nothing?”
Immediately after the Israelites doubt God’s presence, the people of Amalek attack them.
Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Refidim. And Moses said to Joshua: Choose for us men and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill and the staff of God will be in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Chur went up to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)
At this point, Moses probably assumes that he and God will do their usual routine, in which Moses raises the staff and God sends a miracle. But God does not speak to him. And when the battle begins, Moses does not seem to be holding the staff.
And it happened, when Moses elevated his hand, then Israel prevailed; but when he rested his hand, then Amalek prevailed. And the hands of Moses were getting heavy, so they took a stone and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it. And Aaron and Chur held his hands, one on either side, and his hands were emunah until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)
emunah (אֱמוּנָה) = steadiness, dependability, faithfulness. (From the same root as vaya-amiynu above, 14:31)
Why do the Israelites prevail when Moses’ hands are raised? Is it because God is responding to Moses’ gesture and making it happen? Or is it because their faith in God’s presence is renewed and they fight better?
Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 29a says: “Did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? No; the text only teaches that as long as Israel turned their thoughts above and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed; but otherwise they failed.” In other words, there is no magic in Moses’ hands, and God performs no miracles. When Joshua’s men prevail against Amalek, it is only because the sight of Moses’ upraised hands encourages them.
Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in Particulars of Rapture, p. 245: “The role of Moses’ hands is to model for the people the attraction upward that is faith.” Moses demonstrates prayer and attachment to God by raising his hands toward heaven.
Maybe that is why we raise our hands for blessing in many Jewish Renewal congregations. Words are not enough. When we see upraised hands we remember in our bodies, not just our intellects, that we want to connect with the divine.
Raising our own hands, palms up and empty, completes the ritual link. Then we can—sometimes—feel that God is bekirbeinu, inside us. Then it is easier to prevail over our own internal enemies, our own psychological Amaleks that attack us when we complain too much.
Is it the feeling of God inside us that lets us prevail? Or is it God Itself?
Regardless of the answer, I am grateful for the inner strength that comes when I become aware of a deeper meaning in the universe and inside myself. I pray—with uplifted hands—for that strength, so I can prevail over my own internal enemies. And I am grateful when my friends help to support me as I reach upward.
I was a constant victim as a child, the target of any bully who needed to humiliate someone. So I can imagine how the Israelites might feel when they finally leave Egypt the morning after God’s tenth and final plague. Their god beat the pharaoh! They asked their Egyptian neighbors to give them silver and gold, and the Egyptians handed it over! Yesterday they were slaves, and today they are free!
They leave the city of Ramses unchallenged, in last week’s Torah portion (Bo), and they march for three days in military formation, in companies of 50, following God’s spectacular pillar of cloud and fire. For three days, they feel on top of the world.
Then God surprises them. This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, begins with the route God chooses for the Israelites after they leave Ramses.
It was, when Pharaoh was sending the people out free, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines … God circled the people around to the way of the wilderness of Yam Suf … (Exodus/Shemot 13:17-18)
when sending out free = beshallach
Yam Suf = Sea of Reeds, often referred to in English as the Red Sea
At the Red Sea, God arranges one last showdown with Pharaoh, who changes his mind again and sends a troop of charioteers after the freed slaves.
But God strengthened the heart of the pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and he chased after the children of Israel, while the children of Israel were going out beyad ramah. (Exodus 14:8)
beyad ramah = with a high hand
What does it mean to march “with a high hand”? When I first read this passage, I pictured the Israelites raising their hands as if they were trying to get the teacher’s attention. But this image is the opposite of the spirit of beyad ramah.
In both Biblical Hebrew and English, the word yad or “hand” is used in many idioms, often standing for the power to do something. After all, we accomplish things primarily with our hands. Elsewhere in the Torah portion Beshallach, Moses raises his hands, as well as his staff, in order to channel divine energy—first to split the Red Sea, later to help the Israelites win a battle with Amalek. Both times, the Hebrew uses the verb rum, “raise up”, which comes from the same root as ramah.
But the idiom yad ramah, “a high hand”, has a unique meaning. It occurs four times in the Torah, twice to refer to the way the Israelites leave Egypt (in Exodus 14:8 above, and in Numbers/Bamidbar 33:3). The other two occurrences help to clarify the idiom’s meaning.
But a person who does it with a high hand, whether citizen or foreign resident, is reviling God; so that person will be cut off from among the people. (Numbers 15:30)
In this passage, the Torah has just ruled that if someone inadvertently fails to obey one of God’s laws, he can atone by offering a goat for sacrifice. But if he does it on purpose, acting “with a high hand”, the consequence is cutting off, i.e. banishment and/or death. When someone transgresses with a high hand, he behaves as if he has more authority than the religious law.
The last occurrence of yad ramah in the Torah comes in Moses’ parting poem to the Israelites. In his long final warning, Moses quotes God’s response to their ingratitude and idolatry:
I said: I would have cut them to pieces,
I would have made the memory of them disappear from men,
If I had not feared for the provocation of enemies—
lest their foes would misinterpret
lest they would say: Our hand was high, and it was not God Who accomplished all this! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:26-27)
Here, the “high hand” is the arrogance of Israel’s enemies, who will falsely assume they have the power to destroy Israel.
In English, “high-handed” persons arrogantly ignore the concerns and rights of others, acting as if they have all the authority. In these last two translations from the Torah, those who act with a “high hand” also assume they have more power than they really do.
But what about the newly freed slaves in the portion Beshallach, who leave Egypt with a high hand? Dazzled by their new higher status, they may well feel arrogant. If they had a chance, they might even try to bully or enslave someone less fortunate. But God does not give them a chance.
In this week’s Torah portion, right after “the children of Israel were going out with a high hand” the test says:
The Egyptians chased after them, and they overtook them toward evening, at the sea; all the horse-chariots of Pharaoh and his army were at the mouth of the Chirot, before Baal-Tzefon (Master of the Hidden). And Pharaoh came closer, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and hey! Egyptians! Pulling out after them! And they were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to God. And they said to Moses: Are there no graves in Egypt, that you take us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us, to take us out from Egypt? (Exodus 14:9-11)
Imagine how the Israelites feel. Their first three days of freedom, they march out of Egypt into the wilderness “with a high hand”. Then they look up and see Egyptian chariots approaching. At once they are struck with the fear of their old owners, the bullies who tortured and subjugated them. They cry out to God, but there is no immediate response. Their belief in God’s protection is too new and fragile to withstand the cringing reflex. They despair. They are caught between the sea and the chariots. At that moment, they think they will always be victims.
Yet when they complain to Moses, they make a sarcastic joke: Are there no graves in Egypt, that you take us to die in the wilderness? Thus Jewish humor is born.
Would you rather be an arrogant bully, like the pharaoh in the book of Exodus, treating people with high-handed disregard, suffering through disasters yet too habitually hart-hearted to learn compassion?
Or would you rather live like an Israelite in the book of Exodus, or perhaps like a Jew in America, with your status and power always in flux, never knowing where you stand—but resilient enough to keep your sense of humor?
This is the d’var Torah I delivered as part of my graduation as a maggidah:
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Livestock disease. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.
Today’s Torah portion picks up with the plague of locusts, goes into darkness, and brings death to the firstborn. Then, finally, Pharaoh releases the children of Israel.
Why locusts? One morning when I was in college in California, I stepped outside and—crunch! The ground was blanketed with crickets. They covered the lawns, the sidewalks, the flowerbeds. Their bodies were so close together, you couldn’t see the ground. Every time somebody opened a door, crickets jumped inside the building.
Those crickets on campus didn’t eat a lot of vegetation before they died. They were a wonder, but not a plague. They were amateurs compared to the locusts in Egypt. The Torah says:
And Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a an east wind into the land, all that day and all the night … (Exodus/Shemot, Bo, 10:13)
And the locust-swarm went up over the whole land of Egypt … (Bo, 10:14)
It covered the sight of all the land, and the land went dark. It devoured all the vegetation … and all the fruit … that remained after the hail. And there was no green left, in the trees or in the field, in all the land of Egypt. (Bo, 10:15)
Now that’s a plague.
You can watch a locust-swarm flying on YouTube. When the sun shines on it, millions of locust-wings glitter like a sea of sparks. And when the locusts swirl in front of the sun, they make a dark cloud, like a gigantic billow of smoke.
This reminds me of how God manifests as a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, in next week’s Torah portion. While the pillar of cloud and fire is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army after them. They meet at the Red Sea. Then the pillar of cloud and fire circles back, to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, the Torah says,
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind, all the night … and split the waters. (Exodus/Shemot, Beshallach, 14:21)
Both times, God humbles the Egyptians and frees the Israelites with a moving, swirling cloud that sometimes glitters and sometimes darkens.
Both times, God also brings in a ruach-kadim. Ruach means wind—or spirit. Kedem means east—or the place of origin. So the “east wind” is also the “spirit of the beginning”.
The first east wind brings in a vast cloud of locusts that finishes off Egypt’s plant life, and dooms Pharaoh to rule over a dead land. This east wind is Pharaoh’s enemy because he cannot accept the “spirit of beginning”. He is unable to change his ways and make a fresh start.
The second east wind parts the sea so the Israelites can escape from the Egyptian army and live. The east wind is their ally because, once they get over their initial despair, they embrace the “spirit of beginning”. They leave Egypt, ready to make a fresh start.
I think the holy “spirit of beginning” touches our lives, too—whether we see the swirling cloud or not. When we are really stuck, unable to choose anything new, we risk being devoured by a cloud of locusts. But—we have the ability to cast aside that mood, and follow the pillar of cloud and fire instead.
May each one of us receive the strength to embrace the spirit of beginning, and make a fresh start.
(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!
(This blog was first posted on January 9, 2011.)
And God went before them; by day, a pillar of cloud to lead them down the road, and by night, a pillar of fire to give light for them, for walking by day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night will not withdraw from before the people. (Exodus/Shemot 13:21-22)
And the messenger of God pulled out, the one going before the camp of Israel, and it went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud pulled out from before them, and it stood behind them. Thus it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and it was the cloud and the darkness, and it lit up the night, so that this did not come near to this, all the night. (Exodus/Shemot 14:19-20)
And it was in the last night watch when God looked down on the camp of Egypt in a pillar of fire and cloud, and it put the camp of Egypt into an uproar. (Exodus/Shemot 14:24)
amud = pillar, column, upright support; from the verb “to stand, to take a stand”
Humans often hear God’s voice in the Torah, but there are only two verses where humans might be seeing God: when the elders climb Mount Sinai and behold God’s feet in Exodus 24:10, and when God lets Moses see his back in Exodus 33:23. The rest of the time, God becomes manifest through messengers (also called angels) who look like human beings; and through unnatural fires. Fires of God appear in a covenant with Abraham; in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later Korach; in Moses’ burning bush; on Mount Sinai; in the portable sanctuary or Tent of Meeting; and in the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites from the border of Egypt to the border of the promised land at the Jordan River.
This pillar first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he was sending out”). Pharaoh finally sends the Israelites out of Egypt, after the tenth plague. When they reach the edge of the wilderness, the Torah says God “went before them”, and it describes the pillar.
The commentary is divided on whether there is one pillar or two. But if the pillar of cloud is replaced by a separate pillar of fire for the night, what does the changing of the guard look like? The Torah never describes it. And in the third quote translated above, the Torah says that at dawn God was in “a pillar of fire and cloud”, which sounds like one pillar containing both elements. So I picture one pillar that looks like a column of fog in the daylight, but as it gets dark, people see sparks of fire in the cloud, and at night only the fire is visible.
The pillar of cloud and fire has several purposes. When the Israelites are traveling, rather than camping, the pillar is a guide showing them which way to go. It is also a reminder that God is with them—that God is “taking a stand” for them, and they must “take a stand” for their god.
The pillar can only be divine. A whirlwind can form a temporary pillar of cloud, a bonfire can make a pillar of flame and sparks, and an erupting volcano can do both, but a continuously moving pillar of cloud and fire is a miracle.
Furthermore, fire is already associated with the god of the Israelites, and it naturally inspires awe and fear. A cloud, on the other hand, is usually made of fog. In the desert, moisture is a welcome caress on the skin, a gentle gift, a reminder of God’s kindness. God’s kindness is confirmed later in the story by the fact that even after the Israelites do things that enrage both Moses and God, even after they make the Golden Calf, the pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead them.
In this week’s Torah portion, the pillar of cloud and fire is not only a guide and a reminder of God’s presence, but also a protection from the Egyptian army when it pursues the Israelites and catches up with them at the Reed Sea. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, a 16th-century Italian commentator, wrote that the angel, the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire were three separate things, and the angel came down to direct the two pillars, which both circled around to stand behind the Israelites, between their camp and the camp of the Egyptian army.
But since the word malach means both angel and messenger, I think the pillar of cloud and fire is God’s messenger. The message for both camps is that God stands up for the Israelites, protecting them from the Egyptians.
Nevertheless, in the morning, when the Sea of Reeds splits and the pillar presumably moves along with the Israelites across the dry seabed, the Egyptians foolishly follow them. And once the Israelites are safe on the shore, God looks down from the pillar of cloud and fire, and puts the Egyptian army in an uproar by making their chariot wheels get stuck or fall off. Only then, when it is too late, do the Egyptians recognize that God is waging war on them, and decide to flee.
It’s a replay of Pharaoh’s refusal to take the miraculous plagues seriously. No matter how visible the reminder of God’s presence in our world, people will ignore it if they are fixated on destroying something. When we are determined to solve a problem by eliminating it, we override any inner qualms, whether they appear as cloud, the heart-softening temptation of kindness, or as fire, the nagging fear that we are playing god or doing something wrong.
But if we try to be holy people, metaphorically taking a stand with God, we can recognize both kindness and awe as manifestations of the divine, inspiring us to take the right path. We have a better chance of noticing when we are fixated on killing a problem. We can look around for other solutions, other ways of dealing with the problem, even other ways of working with problematic people.
Instead of getting stuck in the muck and drowning, we can continue on our journey, guided by the pillar of cloud and fire within.