Parshat B’Shalach

What Did the Nations See at the Red Sea?”
By Dr. Marvin Sweeney, AJRCA Professor of Tanakh


This past week AJRCA was pleased and honored to host a speaker who must remain anonymous due to concerns for safety in his own country.  Our guest spoke on Parshat Bo and texts from Amos and Isaiah.  He pointed to the commands to teach our children about what G-d had done for us in Egypt and cited the teachings of Martin Buber to call for dialogue, not only with our children, but also with the other religious traditions of the world, to build peaceful interreligious relationships among the religions of the world.

Our guest’s exposition of Parshat Bo is important to keep in mind as we study the following Parshat BeShallaḥ this week.  Parshat BeShallaḥ presents the narratives concerning G-d’s deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea, the first murmurings of Israel in the wilderness, and the despicable attack launched against Israel by the Amalekites.  The accompanying Haftarah portion presents the account of Israel’s defeat of Sisera’s army under the leadership of Deborah and Barak.

Rabbinic interpretation emphasizes the need to read the account of the parting of the Red Sea with all the perspectives of Jewish exegesis, i.e., Peshat, the plain meaning of the text; Remez, the allegorical meaning of the text; Derash, the homiletical meaning of the text; and Sod, the mystical meeting of the text in order to enter Pardes, the Garden or Paradise, to behold the Holy Presence of G-d.  According to the Zohar (I 26b) and other traditions, Rabbi Akiba taught his students concerning the piled up waters of the Red Sea, “When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say ‘Water! Water!’ lest you place yourselves in danger, for it is said, ‘One who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes.’”  As one who successfully entered and exited Pardes, the intent of R. Akiba’s statement was to instruct his students to consider all the dimensions of the text in order fully to understand the Divine Presence and Purpose.  It thereby served as an introduction to the study of the Heikhalot, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic literature.  With such an agenda in mind, the Mechilta states that, “A servant girl saw at the sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold.”

  1. Akiba’s and the Mechilta’s teachings focus on what a Jew should see in the experience of the Red Sea. But what should the nations see?  The Song of Moses recounts that in addition to Egypt, four other nations witnessed the event at the Red Sea, namely Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan. They responded to the experience with terror, dread, and awe at the sight of G-d’s power in delivering the people of Israel.  In the immediate aftermath of the parting of the Red Sea, none of these nations molested Israel.  Amalek, however, which did not witness the event at the Red Sea, did try to destroy Israel in the Wilderness at the end of the Parashah, and they were defeated for attempting to do so.

In the last few weeks, there have been horrendous attacks and defamations against the Jewish people and others throughout the world, for example, the deliberate murder of four Jews in Paris in addition to Charlie Hebdo staff members and police officers; an assault against Israeli passengers on a Tel Aviv bus by a knife-wielding Palestinian; a news photo of Pakistani protestors holding a sign that read, “We need another Hollow Cost [sic]; Hitler was right”; obscene statements by an al-Qaida-affiliated cleric calling for would be jihadis to launch attacks against Americans rather than travel to Syria, and many others that point to the growing, virulent anti-Semitism sprouting up throughout the world.

Such experiences should remind us to trust in G-d and in our own strength to protect us against such attacks.  But we must also keep open the path of dialogue with those in the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist worlds who desire peace and who “see” – who represent the true faces of their respective traditions.  The United Nations General Assembly met this past week to consider for the first time the growing menace of anti-Semitism in the world.  Such an act is important, but as our guest urged us, it is just a beginning, and much more must be done in interreligious dialogue throughout the world.

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