At the Sea’s Edge
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the seventh of Shvat,
by her niece, Vivian Singer.
a. Ba’al Tzefon
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they turn and encamp before Pi Ha-Chirot, between Midgol and the sea, across from Ba’al Tzefon; you shall encamp before it, by the sea. (Shemot 14:1-2)
As suggested by its name, Ba’al Tzefon (literally, “master of the north” or “northern lord”) is a Canaanite god. A Ugaritic tradition that is also hinted to in Tanakh speaks of the northern side as the seat of the gods. Yeshayahu says to the king of Babylonia:
For you have said in your heart: I will ascend to heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the farthest north. (Yeshayahu 14:13)
We may assume that the Phoenician Canaanites (especially those of Tyre and Sidon), whose lives centered mainly around the sea, established a colony on the northern side of the Suez Canal in order to engage in trade with the countries of the Red Sea. A parallel situation is known to us from the days of King Shelomo:
And King Shelomo made a ship in Etzion Gever, which is beside Elot, on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. And Chiram sent in the ship his servants – shipmen who had knowledge of the sea – with the servants of Shelomo. And they came to Ofir, and fetched from there four hundred and twenty talents of gold, and brought it to King Shelomo. (Melakhim I 9:26-28)
And also the ship of Chiram, which brought gold from Ofir, brought in from Ofir a great amount of almug wood and precious stones. (Melakhim I 10:11)
Bnei Yisrael crossed through the sea at the point where they would pass the Canaanite temple housing the god that “helped” the pagan seamen in their voyages. We may assume that when the waves came crashing down, as the sea returned to its place, the Canaanite temple and the god inside it were swept way, adding to the fear felt by the pagan nations as described in the song of the sea: “… all the inhabitants of Cana’an melted away” (Shemot 15:15). At the Red Sea, God showed Israel His might against the king of Egypt and his gods – and also against the gods of Cana’an, the supposed power behind those whom Bnei Yisrael would soon confront in their battles to conquer the land.
b. The Different Groups at the Sea
Bnei Yisrael found themselves in a seemingly impossible situation at the Red Sea. Accompanied by their wives and children, they faced the sea on one side and the Egyptian army on the other. At the same time, they enjoyed close Divine protection: God’s cloud hovered over them and Moshe led them with confidence and surety.
It must be remembered that at this point, Bnei Yisrael were not consolidated as a nation. Some had merited to leave Egypt by virtue of their faith in Moshe’s prophecy in God’s Name, but others left Egypt simply because they were expelled by the Egyptians, while the “mixed multitude” (erev rav) that joined themselves to Bnei Yisrael left Egypt along with them in search of a new homeland after watching the utter destruction of Egypt in the plagues. Given this range of motivations and states of mind, it makes sense that the responses of different parts of the nation to the crisis at the sea would vary.
Indeed, Chazal read the verses – which at first glance appear to contradict one another – as a reflection of the different voices among the nation:
And when Pharaoh drew near, Bnei Yisrael lifted up their eyes, and behold, Egypt marched after them, and they were very much afraid, and Bnei Yisrael cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moshe, “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to carry us out of Egypt? Is this not the thing that we told you in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve Egypt? For it would have been better for us to serve Egypt than that we should die in the wilderness.” And Moshe said to the people, “Fear not; stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will show you today, for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them again any more forever. The Lord shall fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.” (Shemot 14:10-14)
On the one hand, Bnei Yisrael are crying out for God’s deliverance; on the other hand, they hurl accusations at Moshe: “What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?!” Chazal attribute these different voices to different groups – some praying to God and believing in His deliverance, others fearful and wanting to return to Egyptian subjugation.
However, a plain reading of the text does not necessarily entail a contradiction between crying out to God and expressing a lack of faith in Moshe. Bnei Yisrael believed in God. But they were lacked confidence in the man Moshe, and – as Moshe himself had predicted at the burning bush – they were not certain that God had indeed appeared to him. This lack of confidence would have become more acute after Moshe led them to a dead-end at the sea shore, rather than following the seemingly quicker and easier route to Cana’an via the land of the Pelishtim. The prayer to God was therefore that He save them from Moshe’s misguided leadership, along with salvation from Pharaoh.
Chazal discern four different groups at the sea, not just the two we have discussed so far:
There were four groups among Bnei Yisrael at the sea. One group suggested throwing themselves into the sea; another wanted to go back to Egypt; a third proposed waging war against Egypt; while the fourth said, “Let us scream at them.” Concerning the group that wanted to throw themselves into the sea, Moshe said, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” To those who wanted to return to Egypt, he said, “For as you have seen Egypt this day…” To the group that proposed waging war against them, he said, “The Lord shall fight for you,” and concerning those who said, “We shall scream at them,” he said, “and you shall hold your peace.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshalach, “vayehi,” 2)
Of these four groups, two have given up in despair, seeing no way out of their crisis. One group prefers death over slavery, and is ready to drown in the sea. The other group prefers slavery over death, and is ready to surrender and return to Egypt.
The other two groups seek some way out of their predicament. One group proposes fighting against the Egyptians. Six hundred thousand armed men, fighting for their lives and for their families, are surely a force to be reckoned with! The other group offers an opaque solution: “Let us scream at them” - or, in the words of a parallel midrash, “Let us go out against them.” The intention seems to be to go out and speak to the Egyptians and negotiate with them to see what compromise might be reached. To this Moshe responds with the words, “You shall hold your peace (or ‘be silent’).”
It may be that Chazal’s enumeration of four different groups arises from analysis of Moshe’s words following his general statement, “Fear not,” in which there are four separate clauses (14:13-14): “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord”; “You shall not see them again any more forever”; “the Lord shall fight for you”, and “you shall hold your peace.”
It is also possible that Chazal viewed these groups in crisis at the sea as a mirror reflecting the situation of Am Yisrael on the eve of the destruction of the Second Temple, during the Roman siege. In that period, four groups were clearly discernible:
- The administration and their aristocratic friends – This group was represented by Agripas II, king of Jerusalem, who joined Vespasian’s army, just as Josephus Flavius, following his personal surrender at Yodfat, had joined the court of Titus. This element mirrored the group that wanted to return to Egyptian subjugation, and to these Moshe said, “You shall not see them again any more forever.”
- The zealots and Sicarii extremists – Bar Giora’s fighters, who, in their violence, had lost any positive feeling for the meaning of life. As the distress and suffering grew increasingly acute after the destruction of Jerusalem, this feeling spread even to the less extreme zealots – the group led by Elazar ben Yair at Mesada, who killed themselves. These corresponded to the group that said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea,” to which Moshe responded with, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.”
- The moderate zealots of Jerusalem – This was the company surrounding Yochanan of Gush Chalav, along with many of the Jewish sages – especially the students of Beit Shammai, who wanted to wage war against the Romans until they would emerge victorious. This group was mirrored in the group at the sea clamoring for war against the Egyptians, eliciting Moshe’s words, “The Lord shall fight for you.”
- Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai and his followers. This group, at every stage of the siege, had sought to negotiate with the Romans, with a view to saving whatever could be saved – first Jerusalem itself, and later just Yavneh and its sages. To the corresponding group at the sea Moshe says, “You shall hold your peace.”
At the Red Sea, where the Divine Presence was clearly accompanying Bnei Yisrael as they left Egypt, the situation was completely different from the situation in Jerusalem on the eve of the destruction. At the sea, Moshe pointed to a fifth solution – a solution that seemingly did not exist in Jerusalem: to wait in silence, anticipating God’s salvation.
c. Fear (yira) and seeing (re’iya)
And when Pharaoh drew near, Bnei Yisrael lifted up their eyes, and behold, Egypt marched after them, and they were very much afraid (va-yiru meod), and Bnei Yisrael cried out to the Lord. (Shemot 14:10)
And Moshe said to the people, “Fear not (al tira’u); stand still, and see (u-re’u) the salvation of the Lord, which He shall show you today, for as you have seen (re’item) Egypt this day, you shall not see them (le-rotam) again any more forever.” (Shemot 14:13)
And Israel saw (va-yar) that great work which the Lord did upon Egypt, and the people feared (va-yiru) the Lord, and believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moshe. (Shemot 14:31)
In these verses, the Torah teaches us a way of overcoming our natural fears – by placing our trust in God. The key words in this approach are “seeing” (re’iya) and fearing (yira). In v. 10, Bnei Yisrael see Pharaoh and the Egyptian army, and their seeing causes them to fear them. In v. 13, Moshe tells the people not to fear the Egyptians, but to watch God’s deliverance. He promises them and commands them that they will not see the Egyptians any more. In v. 31, Bnei Yisrael see God’s hand and learn to fear Him.
In other words, seeing the Egyptians causes Bnei Yisrael to fear them, and seeing God’s hand leads them to fear God. The question of whom to fear thus depends on where one looks and what one sees. As they stand at the sea, Bnei Yisrael are facing the water, with the Egyptians at their backs. When they look backwards, they fear Pharaoh and his army. When they look forwards, towards God’s deliverance and His great hand, they fear Him. A person is not at the mercy of his fears; he can choose to look in the right direction and to draw confidence from what he sees.
The connection between re’iya and yira is also manifest in the story of the akeda:
And he said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy, neither do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God (yerei Elo-him ata)…”
And Avraham called the name of that place Ado-nay yireh, as it is said to this day: In the mount the Lord will appear (year’eh). (Bereishit 22:12-14)
The Lord has shown that Avraham fears God, and Avraham prays that the Lord will see (choose) his descendants – Am Yisrael.
We will address below a further connection between the akeda and the splitting of the sea. In the present context, we will note the connection between the Pesach of Egypt and the salvation of Lot from Sedom. Lot is told, “Do not look behind you” (Bereishit 19:17), and his wife, who does look behind her, turns into a pillar of salt. Similarly, Bnei Yisrael are forbidden here to look behind them. In this manner they are commanded to free themselves completely from their dependence on their Egyptian masters.
d. The merit of Avraham
In the midrash, Chazal discuss the merit by virtue of which God split the sea for His people, Bnei Yisrael. Many opinions point to the merit of Avraham from the akeda:
R. Bena’a said: In the merit of the commandment performed by their forefather, Avraham, I shall split the sea for them – as it is written, “And he [Avraham] split the wood for the burnt offering,” and it is written, “And the waters split”… R. Yossi Ha-Gelili said: When Am Yisrael entered the sea, Mount Moriah uprooted itself from its place, with the altar of Yitzchak set up upon it, and the wood arranged upon it, and Yitzchak as though bound and lying upon the altar, and Avraham as though stretching out his hand and holding the knife to slaughter his son – as it is written, “And Avraham stretched out his hand, and he took the knife to slaughter his son.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshalach, “va-yehi,” 3).
We might gain a better understanding of the allusion here in light of another midrash:
Since the journey is a short one, what took him three days? When [Satan] saw that they did not accept his words, he went and made himself into a great river before them… When [Avraham] reached halfway through the river, the water was up to his neck. At that moment, Avraham raised his eyes to Heaven and said… “Now the water is about to drown me; if I or my son Yitzchak drown, who will fulfill Your word? Who will declare Your Oneness?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “By your life, it is through you that My Name shall be declared in the world.” The Holy One, blessed be He, then rebuked the spring, and the river dried up, and they stood on dry ground. (Tanchuma, Vayera 22)
The midrash describes Avraham and Yitzchak walking on their way to Mount Moriah. They are unable to cross the river until God rebukes it and dries it up – just as He later did for Bnei Yisrael at the Red Sea. Like Nachshon ben Aminadav, Avraham enters the water until it is up to his neck, and thus he merits the miracle of having the river split. It may be this connection that is hinted to in the Song of the Sea, which concludes, quite surprisingly, by invoking Mount Moriah and the building of God’s Temple upon it, as a sort of symbolic conclusion of the akeda after the crossing of the river:
You shall bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance; in the place O Lord, which You have made for You to dwell in; in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established. (Shemot 15:17)
Translated by Kaeren Fish