A Perfect Balance
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam) is a quintessential moment in our history. It is filled with praises for God, acknowledging the destruction of the Egyptians and redemption of the Jews. Our recognition of God as King is apparent throughout, culminating in the “request” that God reign forever. Due to the poetic style, many ideas and concepts are challenging to understand. The Sages see the complexity in language as a gateway to uncovering a deep level of wisdom. As an example, the Torah states (Shemot 15:12):
“You inclined Your right hand; the earth swallowed them up.”
On the surface, the verse seems simple to understand. The idea of God “stretching His right” implies an expression of strength. In this context, the Torah is speaking about the destruction of the Egyptians. The second part speaks of their ultimate doom, “swallowed by the ground”. Of course, this is a bit cryptic, as the “earth” swallowing anybody is not a simple matter.
There are a series of explanations offered by the Midrashim that bring out an entire narrative based on the idea of “the earth swallowed them up”. The story goes as follows (amalgamating the different narratives): The earth and the sea entered into a major debate. The sea had drowned the Egyptians, and was now seeking out a method of disposing of the bodies. It threw the bodies to the earth, who returned the favor by throwing them right back to the sea. The earth responded, referencing the fact it was cursed by God for receiving the blood of Hevel (harking back to the story of Kayin’s murder of Hevel). The Midrash cites the verse from Bereishit (we will see the specifics shortly), where God appears to level a curse on the earth. If the earth was cursed for receiving the blood of Hevel, imagine the increased curse for taking all the Egyptian bodies. God responds by ensuring the earth that cursing was no longer on the menu.
The above explanation paints a bizarre scene. Naturally, we must try and develop some idea from this description. The starting point would be to investigate the source of this curse. The earth references Hevel, but the verse cited is not the one associated with the subsequent curse. When we look back to the third chapter in Bereishit, we read of the story of Adam and Chava, along with their ejection from the Garden of Eden. When God metes out the various punishments, He says to Adam (Bereishit 3:14):
“And to man He said, "Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.”
From that point on, mankind would need to work the land for sustenance.
What of the curse concerning Hevel? After Kayin murders Hevel, God addresses Kayin with the following (ibid 4:10-11):
“And He said, "What have you done? Hark! Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the earth. And now, you are cursed even more than the ground, which opened its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand.”
While the Torah states Kayin will be more cursed than the ground, there is some implication things were not getting better for the earth. Thus, we see two incidents of cursing taking place regarding the earth. Moving back to the original explanation, one can therefore surmise that the earth did not want to continue down this path.
While viewing the textual source of these curses helps establish a framework of understanding, we have not answered the critical question: what idea is the Midrash conveying?
The life of Adam and Chava prior to the sin was one of the ideal existence of the species. Humanity only saw the world through the lens of truth and falsehood, and there was a complete synchronicity with the surrounding physical world. One could even say the physical world posed no “threat” to Adam and Chava, as they related to it in the proper manner. Post-sin, mankind’s relationship to the surrounding world changed. The physical world could now be destructive, and God sought to restore a balance. The first idea was attached to the danger of indulging in the physical world. The exile from the Garden of Eden brought with it the need to work the land. Before this took place, the needs of man were provided with ease. However, after the sin, work was required for food to be produced. Had the world continued to be one where no work was required, mankind would recede into a life of hedonism and indulgence. He would be destroyed over time, consumed by the constant feelings of physical pleasure being provided. The restraint on this comes from the idea of needing to work the land. The surrounding world, and its enjoyments, are readily available. As long as man is required to place effort in the process, there will be a natural obstacle between the enjoyment and the potential indulging. The first “curse”, then, changes the relationship of humanity to the physical world by creating a barrier to pleasure, ensuring that indulgence would be curbed.
There is another problem one faces when engaging with the surrounding world. Kayin was a farmer, as noted in the verses, and his punishment for murdering Hevel focused on severing his bond with that type of work. Kayin’s flaw was tied to a different aspect of our relationship with the physical world. When a person puts in the effort to work the land, a very dangerous relationship can emerge. He plows, plants, harvests, and enjoys the fruits of his labor. Of course, the emphasis here is on “his” labor. The surrounding world lends itself to a high degree of ego gratification. Man sees himself as the primary cause of outcomes, and the idea of any external force being part of the process becomes more and more remote. The surrounding world is thus structured in a manner where while there is some degree of human-centric satisfaction, there is still a balance, as he can be stymied and thwarted in his desire for conquest. In the second phase of adjustment, God established a balance between a healthy expression of ambition against complete ego gratification.
Thus, we see God “compromising” with the relationship mankind has with the physical world. We should enjoy it. At the same time, certain checks were placed within it to ensure we either do not overindulge, or become infatuated with a bloated sense of self importance attached to accomplishment. How does this relate to the Midrash? The earth, being the physical world, is expressing a concern. With all the checks God infused into the earth, one would assume mankind would elevate and live a proper existence. The destruction of Egypt said otherwise. Here was a civilization considered to be the greatest in the known world at that point in history. Their evisceration through the plagues and the splitting of the sea demonstrated their failure. This chain of events reflected a greater message about mankind. Maybe it was time for God to divorce humanity completely from the enjoyment the physical world provides. Maybe mankind should embrace ascetism, forbid itself from any possible temptation. Maybe the physical world should become harsh and barren, where no discernible pleasure could be extracted. The earth saw this possibility, and pleaded with God not to sever its ties with mankind, as it would be considered intrinsically evil. God responds that while it is true so many people still succumb to the allure of our surroundings, the status quo will be maintained.
When we look at the world around us today, it is quite difficult not to empathize with the concerns levelled by the earth. Hedonism is a way of life for millions. There is a constant push to lower the barrier to indulgence. As well, mankind is constantly trumpeting its own achievements. Our ambitions are unchecked, and while the universe shows us we are a mere speck, so many believe ourselves to have conquered the world around us. Would we be better off severed from any possible relationship with the physical world? Thankfully, God gave the Jewish people a path. We must constantly acknowledge the good God gave us, as through the Torah, we are able to navigate properly and maintain the correct balance between us and the world around us.