Well not actually raging, but it was “upset”.
Last week we discussed Lashon Hara, based on sources in tractate Ayrchin. That Talmudic portion continues to recount ten events whereby the Jewish people tried God. One account was the Jews ascension from the Red Sea after God had drowned the Egyptian’s. The Jews rebelled saying, “Just as we ascend from this side, the Egyptians ascend from the other side.
Although they were drowned in the Red Sea, the Jews did not see the Egyptians dead, and it was evident that they required this visual, if they were to truly be emancipated from their psychological subservience to Egypt. The Talmud cites a metaphor:
“God thereby said to the officer of the Red Sea, “Spit up the Egyptian corpses on the shore”. The sea refused, “Shall a Master give a gift [food for the fish] to His servant, and then retract it?” God said, “I will give you one and a half times more [bodies] in the future.” The sea again refused saying, “Can a servant ever make a claim on a Master?” God thereby guaranteed His promise with the brook of Kishon.”
God guaranteed the officer of the sea through this brook that when Sisera’s army came to cool off their spears in its waters in the future, the brook would engulf the army with waves, swallowing his 900 officers. This was one and a half times more men then Pharaoh’s 600 chariot drivers mentioned in the Torah. But how do we understand such a story and all its details? What can be a first step to unlocking the underlying message? Let’s first isolate the main questions:
Why did the Jews disbelieve the drowning of the Egyptians?
Why did God desire to respond to this disbelief?
What is the meaning behind the sea’s arguments?
What were God’s responses?
What is the idea behind the need of God placating His creations, the sea? Can’t God simply force the sea to vomit the corpses?
Why does God make offers that are rejected? Certainly He knows the response!
Why did this message require a metaphor?
A Rabbi once taught that when we are engaged in any study, we should investigate first what bothers us most. For when we do, we have the assistance of our full energies to propel us forward, with the most promise of success detecting clues and answers. But if we dismiss this advice, and engage other questions first, we will not be fully immersed, but distracted by the most annoying problems we discarded. We will not give our studies all of our energies: something essential for uncovering deep ideas.
The first thing that should catch our attention is the “”conversation” between God and the Red Sea. A body of water is inanimate. It cannot speak! So there was in fact, truly no conversation. What then does this dialogue mean?
We next notice that God does not address the sea itself, but the “officer” of the sea. So if God does not address the physical waters, what else can “officer” mean?
What is an officer? It is that, which enforces laws. Therefore in our metaphor, “officer” must refer to that which enforces the laws of the sea. It refers to “natural” laws. God was not talking, but He was “addressing” natural law, that it suspends its natural course. God created a miracle. This is an essential step towards unraveling this metaphor. Let’s move ahead…
Once we unmask the “prince of the sea” and discover his true identity to be “nature”, we can, and must, reinterpret the dialogue to unravel the mystery.
Had the waters sustained their nature, the Egyptian corpses would have remained below the surface, out of sight of the Jews. It is clear that God deemed this visual of Egyptian corpses most essential to the formation of the Jewish people. For if they still carried a fear of the Egyptians, this would retard the Jews’ relationship with God Who is to be the ‘exclusive’ authority. Therefore, God altered nature so the sea would vomit up the corpses. Now let’s explain this dialogue…
The dialogue personifies the sea, as reluctant. How can we explain this trait, knowing that the sea is inanimate and cannot talk, and really represents nature? It must mean that the sea “prefers” not to alter its nature, but to keep the corpses at the bottom. In other words, God’S creation – nature – “desires” to remain functioning naturally, expressed as the sea refusing to vomit the corpses. In other words, God desires nature remains in tact. (Of course, as soon as God desired, the sea operated exactly as He wished…there was no conversation, or delay.)
God’s then offers to reward the sea with 1.5 times more bodies. This indicates that God favors nature, over miracles. God is working within the sea’s nature (fish need food) by making this offer. God thereby endorses nature. Our Rabbis who crafted this metaphor express this by saying that the sea will eventually be nourished in a plentiful manner.
What is meant by the sea saying, “a servant has no claim on his Master”? This means that the “future” drowning of Sisera’s army carries an element that “dissatisfies” the sea. Although 900 – and not merely 600 – men will eventually be washed into the Red Sea via the brook Kishon, it is not something real at the present, and not something God tolerates. God does not wish that natural law experience any delay whatsoever, and natural law dictated that the sea should have retained 600 Egyptians. So if it is going to give them up, it wants a replacement “now”. Otherwise, it is not following nature for a period of time. But why must nature be sustained…without break?
Nature embodies God’s laws, and it is precisely from these very laws that man derives an appreciation for God – nature’s designer. Otherwise, nature fails in its objective. Again, the “officer of the sea” is really nature…which in turn is really God behind the veil. Nature is none other than God’s creation: God’s means of conveying His wisdom to mankind. It is God’s wish – not the seas’ – that nature be sustained. This is because God desired man to study God…through nature! So the future event of Sisera’s army falling into the sea is great, as it returns to the sea what it naturally owned after Pharaoh’s army drowned. But it’s a delayed prize, causing nature to be off kilter.
God then guarantees the future bounty by citing the brook of Kishon. This means that Kishon is in existence “right now”. There is no delay in nature returning to its natural course, since the river is in existence. This brook is sufficient to set nature back “on course”.
The Talmud then says, “Immediately, the sea vomited the Egyptians.” This means that based on all these considerations, God allowed the sea to suspend its nature, and perform a miracle of spitting up the Egyptians at that moment: even more…it spat out only the Egyptians, and not aquatic life.
In essence, the “conversation” really refers to the “considerations” which were addressed. The Jews’ disbelief stemmed from decades of servitude, which broke their spirit. They needed tangible proof that their tormentors were dead. God deemed it more crucial that the Jews’ fears be vanquished, than nature functioning as designed. This is because without the Jews possessing peace of mind, the study of God through nature cannot come to be. God addressed the priority. But God also wishes nature to be sustained, expressed by the sea’s “reluctance” to change.
We now see that none of God’s offers were “rejected”. This part of the fictional dialogue means that God prefers not to alter nature. But why not make the final offer first, obviating the need to make offer after offer? Again, we have answered this. But when we first asked this question, we were bothered it. And we may still retain a feeling of dissatisfaction with our explanation if we didn’t revisit each question. This is a good practice in general. It is always proper to return to our questions and confirm we have answered each of them, if we wish the full satisfaction of an answer, and not live with doubts. So as to this question, there were in fact no “offers”, since there was no dialogue. The offers and responses merely teach the considerations made by God in planning this event.
We must apply this approach to all amazing stories that cannot, and must not be taken literally. Unfortunately, many students are taught, by teachers who were taught…that such stories are true. It’s an endless line of repeating what’s heard, bereft of any investigation or thought. “If it sounds amazing, repeat it!”
Amazing stories were a thrill to hear when we were youngsters with wild imaginations, especially at such a time when we were so impressionable by the words of adults. We’ve carried inside us the sense of reality these fables offer, and we in turn seek this type of fantasy life in out own day-to-day living as adults. But miracles don’t happen. What follows, is our attachment to “miracle workers”, Kabbalists, and “powerful” Rebbes, who in our minds replace this childhood enchantment we sorely miss. So we live blindly, encouraged to so by youthful memories, and equally wishful, current-day peers.
But this was not the way of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We just finished reading of Abraham and Sarah’s passing. What do we recall from God’s Torah records of their lives? Did they ever once seek out the “miraculous” path? No...not one of them did. Abraham subscribed to nature when he felt his lineage would go to Eliezer. He didn’t have a child, and even said this to God! Amazing! If talking to God, would one of us say, “I am destined not to have a child”? Or would we feel “God can do anything?” In a dialogue with God, Abraham still cleaved to nature and felt nature would continue, and he would not have a child. Of course he believed God when he was told he was going to have a son. But the point is that Abraham loved, and lived by nature, as it was a perfect system reflecting the utmost wisdom…reflecting God. That is why Abraham laughed when he was told he would have a child. It was amazing that God would suspend natural law. Sarah too laughed, but hers was disbelief. But even this teaches how firmly she too subscribed to nature.
Abraham waged war with experienced soldiers to rescue Lot. He attacked at night, again following the natural laws of human psychology, using ‘surprise’ as his ally. On other occasions, he told the two kings his wife was his sister, lest he be killed for being her husband. He knew they would decorate him as a bribe to allow “his sister” to marry those kings. And he did this [as was taught to me] since he knew they would honor him, and one of high political ranking would not become the target of assassination. Abraham again uses his wisdom of human nature to save his life. He recognized the famine had to be addressed, so he entered these foreign countries, but he used a plan, all crafted around natural laws and psychology.
Most of all, Abraham’s discovery of God – the reason for God’s appointment of his seed – was totally based on natural considerations. Sarah too saw how Ishmael might negatively influence her Isaac, and God told Abraham to listen to Sarah’s advice and send Ishmael away with his mother Hagar. No miracle workers…just intelligence and natural law. Jacob also followed natural law, that of psychology when approaching his twin Esav, of whom he feared for his life. Joseph counseled Pharaoh based on natural law as well. The list is endless.
Our metaphor about the “raging sea” and many others are to be taken metaphorically. For if taken literally, they are ridiculous: who ever heard of a talking body of water?!
And hundreds of literal examples of our Torah leaders teach this primary lesson. So we must not simply repeat stories over, otherwise we either accept as literal what is not literal, or we miss the perfections of our patriarchs and matriarchs. This lesson is embodied in this week’s Parsha when Rashi quotes Rabbi Acha who said, “More precious is the speech of our forefather’s servants before God, than the Torah of their children.”