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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BESHALAH - SHABBAT SHIRAH
February 11, 2006 - 13 Shevat 5766

Annual: Ex. 13:17 - 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 14:15 - 16:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 403; Hertz p. 268)
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 - 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

This week we read about the great crossing of the Sea of Reeds (sometimes translated as the Red Sea).The Israelites flee from Egypt and encamp by the sea. God leads them, taking the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues the Israelites with 600 chariots. The Israelites find themselves trapped, with the army of Pharaoh on one side and the sea on the other.

Moses prays to God. God says, "Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel, that they go forward." There is a time for prayer and a time for action. Moses holds his hand over the sea and a great wind comes, splitting the sea and opening up the dry land. Moses and the Israelites cross in the dry land. The sea then comes crashing onto the pursuing Egyptians, drowning them.

The Israelites sing the beautiful Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Miriam takes the women and they sing their own song. The song joyously describes in poetic form the crossing of the sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, and the great power of God. A phrase from the song has entered our daily liturgy - "Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?"

After they have crossed the sea, the people complain about the lack of food; God answers by providing manna for the wilderness trek. The people are to collect the manna each day, taking a double portion on Friday, but they are not to collect any on the Sabbath. The people complain about the lack of water, so God tells Moses to strike a rock and bring forth water. Finally, Amalek attacks the weakest of the Israelites. Israel is victorious over Amalek, but that nation becomes the epitome of evil and the eternal enemy of Israel.

Issue #1 - Miracles

"Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split" (Exodus 14:21)

Discussion

  1. Many faiths require their adherents to believe in miracles. Do we have to believe in miracles to accept Judaism? Did the parting of the Sea of Reeds really happen? If it did happen, did it take place exactly as the Torah describes? Or could it be that the event was a totally natural event in which the Israelites saw the hand of God?
  2. The word nes, translated as "miracle," actually means "sign" or "wonder." It also means "banner." What do we mean by miracle? Is a miracle:
    1. God changing the laws of nature for some divine purpose?
    2. God working within the laws of nature for some divine purpose?
    3. Something from the spiritual dimension affecting the physical dimension?
  3. According to many thinkers in the Jewish tradition, a miracle is not an event outside of nature or a change in the laws of nature. Rather what appear to be miracles actually were designed into Creation and the laws of nature from the very beginning of time. This view is best shown by a famous passage in Pirke Avot. "Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath of Creation at twilight: The mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the speech of the ass, the rainbow, the manna, the rod, the shamir, the script, the writing instruments, the tablets" (Avot 5:7). Keeping this opinion in mind, we easily could say that miracles are a part of nature. Is this a useful view for those of us who are troubled by nature shifting? If we cannot accept that view of miracles, is there another or a better one for us?
  4. Perhaps the best piece of advice is in the Talmud: "Do not depend on miracles" (Pesachim 64b). What does this mean for us today? Does that help define personal responsibility for us?

Issue #2 - World of Action

"The Lord said to Moses, Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward" (Exodus 14:15)

Discussion

  1. Action is the keystone of Judaism. When the Israelites received the Torah, they said, "We will do and we will understand." The "doing" comes before the "understanding." Action comes before faith. The Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke about his Christianity as a "leap of faith." In response, the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of a "leap of action."
  2. That concept is hardly new. Perhaps the best example of a leap of action is the famous midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav at the shore of the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites, pursued by the Egyptians, had come to the edge of the sea. Moses stood at the shore, praying, when God spoke to him, saying, "Enough prayer, go forward already. There is a time for prayer and a time for action." At that moment, one of the leading Israelites, Nachshon ben Aminadav, plunged into the sea. When the water was up to his neck the sea parted, and the Israelites were able to cross.
  3. How can we apply this lesson in our own lives? What comes first, feelings or actions? Should we behave in certain ways, even if we do not want to? In other words, are we happy at a party because we dance or do we dance at a party because we are happy?
  4. The Kabbalah, Judaism's vast mystical tradition, speaks of four worlds in which we humans live. The worlds are situated one inside another, like Russian nested dolls. What happens in the lower worlds affects what happens in the higher worlds. The lowest world is called Olam HaAsiya, literally "The World of Action." It is the world most connected to the world of physical things, the material world in which we live. We act in this physical world, doing certain things and avoiding doing other things. Ultimately, our actions and our behavior affect everything else, including our emotions, our intellect, and our faith. That is why our tradition calls for a leap of action.

 
 
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