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Home » Beshalach, Life Is Beautiful, Passover

Beshalach: Beneath the Mighty Sea

Submitted by on January 3, 2007 – 8:38 pmNo Comment | 1,435 views

The Gardens

Seeking an escape from the fast pace of the big city, I used to visit the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Strolling along quiet lanes, I would breathe in the fragrance and enjoy the scenic beauty. Sitting peacefully by the pond, I would close my eyes and try to leave the city behind.
The gardens were expansive, but not large enough. The escape was lovely, but not total. Even from a distance, the din of New York traffic was always audible. The muffled cacophony of honking horns and screeching tires always disturbed the serenity of my botanic oasis.

Deep Sea Diving

The other day I met a friend, an enthusiastic scuba diver. He invited me to dive with him and encouraged me to explore this radically new experience. “It’s a different world down there,” he gushed. “Utterly peaceful and quiet. You feel as if you have left the world behind. Life’s nagging problems fade away as you escape into the depths of the underwater kingdom.”
Ah, at long last. The elusive escape. I grant that Scuba diving is not a typical rabbinical activity, but the promise of escape is enticing. A new world. A radical departure from all I know. Should I try it?

Splitting the Sea

This might be precisely what G-d had in mind when he split the Sea of Reeds for our ancestors. After their Exodus from Egypt, G-d charted a course of travel that led our ancestors to the Reed Sea. Tracked and chased by the Egyptians, they were trapped between a vicious army and a ferocious sea.
At the last moment, just before disaster struck, G-d split the sea into twelve open lanes and enabled our ancestors to cross. The Egyptians gave chase and plunged forward into the sea, but the walls of water gave way, drowning the army in an aquatic grave.
The Torah doesn’t tell history for the sake of story telling. As readers of this column know, every biblical episode holds relevance to our modern day. What is the modern significance of this ancient story?

Seeing G-d

Our sages taught that G-d revealed himself to every Jew at the Reed Sea. In the words of our sages, “Even the angels do not merit the vision that was granted to every Jew at the Reed Sea.”  (1) What was the nature of this vision and why was it revealed to every Jew? (2)
The sea bed, a kingdom unto itself, is concealed beneath its surface. Penetration of this concealed kingdom is possible, but it requires a complete break from dry land. Descent into its murky depths leaves us at the sea’s mercy.  Light fades, sound and smell disappear. We are held in the sea’s powerful grip
Once we descend a new world emerges. An exciting world. Novel creatures, exotic fauna and coral reef; myriads of treasures await us below. So enthralling is this world, that confronted by it, the other simply fades. The sea bed becomes real, dry land, but a distant memory. The worries, fears and concerns of every day lose their meaning in the sea’s alluring beauty.
Alas, we cannot remain for long. Thrilling as it is, we must keep our eye on the clock. An extra minute in the water can spell doom. We are attracted to the beauty, but we also want to live. It’s a death trap; we cannot straddle both worlds for long. We must choose.  We could drown in the beautiful sea or abandon its beauty, for life. On the surface we could revisit its throbbing beauty by conjuring up the images in our memories, but survival always come first.

The Hidden World

When G-d created the physical world he concealed his own presence. If we could see G-d, we would be transfixed. Forever rooted in his inexorable beauty. We couldn’t gaze upon G-d and then return to the prosaic and mundane. G-d wanted us to function in this world and therefore concealed himself from it.
Yet, he charged us with the mission of illuminating the mundane with his radiance. He took our ancestors out of Egypt, gave them the Torah at Sinai and instructed them to be a light unto the nations. How can we shine G-d’s light unto the world when that very light is concealed from us?
Enter the Reed Sea. The vibrant aquatic world that lies concealed beneath the ocean’s surface is a metaphor for the divine presence that lies concealed from us. G-d split the sea, exposed its hidden bed and made it available to our ancestors. In metaphoric terms this means that G-d opened their eyes and showed them for, but a moment, his otherwise concealed, but compelling beauty.
Standing at the sea they were entranced. The petty concerns and meaningless challenges of every day  faded from their minds. They found themselves face to face with G-d and absolutely nothing else mattered. It was a complete escape. A total separation from worldly affairs. They were in another world; enthralled by the beauty of the concealed kingdom.
Our ancestors were permitted a brief glimpse, but they could not remain for long. Should they have remained longer they would have been unwilling and perhaps even unable, to return to the prosaic materialism of our world. They could not straddle both worlds for long. Our ancestors left the sea and the waters collapsed. Burying its beauty beneath the gleam of a shining surface.
Now they could march forth to Sinai and accept their mandate. They could introduce G-d into creation for they had already seen that he exists. They saw him and knew he was there. Though he was once again concealed, they could conjure up their memories and know that he was there.

Modern Day

In life we have moments of inspiration. Moments when we feel, more than know, that G-d is with us. When our faith in humanity is, for the moment, restored. It might be when fortune smiles upon us or when a great tragedy is averted. It might be an epiphany revealed in ecstatic joy or solace offered in a moment of grief. Those moments are precious, but fleeting. A sense of a greater and deeper awareness comes upon us and then disappears.
What are we to make of these moments? How are we to treat them? The Chassidic masters tell us that these moments are purposeful. They are directed by G-d above to inspire us, here below. Like our ancestors at the Reed Sea, these moments should not arrest us, but compel us. We must retain the aura, if not the detail, of the experience and use it’s momentum to catapult us forward.
When the wheel of fortune turns and we are besotted by tribulations, we must turn to these moments for strength. When enthusiasm wanes and confidence fades, these moments inspire us. They are vital and dynamic; they are made to carry us through.

Footnotes

  1. Shemos Rabba 23: 15. In their ode to G-d after the sea splitting, Moses proclaimed, “This is my G-d and I shall beautify him.” A principal of Hebrew grammar posits that the word, this, denotes something that you see before you and can point to. That Moses and the people who sang with him, said, “this is my G-d,” teaches us that they saw G-d before their very eyes and pointed to him.
  2. If the angels did not merit seeing this vision than surely we cannot pretend to understand it. Yet we are required to seek knowledge and understanding, even if we will never grasp the fullness of its meaning.

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