The Turning Point

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The sedra of Beshallach is beautifully constructed. It begins with a battle; it ends with a battle; and in the middle is the great miracle, the turning point – the crossing of the Red Sea. As so often in the Mosaic books, we are presented with a chiasmus, a literary structure of the form ABCBA, in which the end is a mirror image of the beginning, and the climax is at the centre.

Occupying the central role in Beshallach is the episode of the Red Sea, which turns out to be a division in more than one sense. Literally, the waters are divided. But metaphorically the fate of the Israelites is also divided: into a before and after. Before, they are still in Egyptian territory, still – that is to say – under the sway of Pharaoh. It is no accident that Pharaoh and his chariots pursue the Israelites to the very edge of their territory. Anywhere within Egypt Pharaoh rules; or at least, he believes he does.

Once across the sea, however, the Israelites have traversed a boundary. They are now in no-man’s-land, the desert. Again it is no accident that here, where no king rules, they can experience with pristine clarity the sovereignty of God. Israel become the first – historically, the only – people to be ruled directly by God. The Red Sea is what anthropologist Victor Turner called “liminal space,” a boundary between two domains that must be traversed if one is to enter into a new mode of being – in this case the boundary between human and divine rule. Once crossed, there is no going back.

The symbolism of the Sea does not end there however. It reminds us of the ancient ceremony of covenant-making. The key verb of covenant is “to cut.” An animal, or animals, were divided and the parties to the covenant stood or sat between them. The division of things normally united or whole, stood as symbol of the unification of entities (persons, tribes, nations) previously divided. In this context a key passage is the covenant “cut” between God and Abraham:

So the Lord said to him, “Bring Me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half . . . As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made (literally “cut”) a covenant with Abram . . .

Bereishit 15

So at the Red Sea the Israelites passed “between the pieces” (the waters, rather than the halves of animals) in a ratification of the covenant with Abraham. They passed from one domain to another, from being slaves – avadim – to Pharaoh to becoming servants — avadim – to God. This surely is the meaning of the phrase, in the Song at the Sea:

. . . until your people pass by, O Lord , until the people you have acquired pass by.

The crossing of the sea is both an act of covenant-making and a transfer of possession. The Israelites are now God’s possession rather than Pharaoh’s. They have entered new territory, not just geographically but also existentially. What does this mean? What difference does it make? The answer is surprising, counter-intuitive. To understand it, we must compare the two battles, one before, the other after, the Sea.

The first is marked by extreme passivity. Having let the Israelites go, the Egyptians change their mind. Pharaoh decides to pursue them and assembles a force of six hundred chariots. We have to think ourselves back to an age in which the horse-drawn chariot was the ultimate weapon of war. In biblical times, Egypt was famous for its horses. No other nation could rival them. This meant that they could out-manoeuvre any rival military force. Horses gave them speed, and chariots gave them protection. They were impregnable, and the sight of six hundred of them approaching would have been terrifying to a well-drilled army, let alone an unruly, disorganised group of slaves. Predictably, the Israelites lose heart and blame Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.

Moses’ reply is short and sharp:

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you, but you must remain silent.”

He says, in effect, do nothing. God will do it all. The Sages, their ear ever attuned to nuance, detected four responses in Moses’ words:

Our ancestors were divided into four groups at the Sea. One group said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” Another said, “Let us go back to Egypt.” A third said, “Let us wage war against them.” A fourth said, “Let us cry out against them.” To the first, who said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea,” Moses said, “Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring.” To the second, who said, “Let us go back to Egypt,” he said, “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” To the third, who said, “Let us wage war against them,” he said, “The Lord will fight for you.” To the fourth, who said, “Let us cry out against them,” he said, “you must remain silent.”

The battle against the Egyptians was a divine act, not a human one.

Not so the Amalekites. Here the battle is fought by the Israelites themselves:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up-one on one side, one on the other-so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

There is no hint here of a miracle. The Israelites fought; the Israelites won. The only hint of a supernatural presence is the reference to Moses’ hands. Somehow, they held the key to victory. When Moses lifted them, the Israelites prevailed. When he lowered them, the tide turned against them.

Strangely, but significantly, the Mishnah makes a comment on this passage. The Mishnah is a law code. It is not a book of biblical interpretation. It is therefore very rare for a biblical exegesis to appear in the Mishnah – all the more so given its content. The Sages, far from emphasising the supernatural factor in the battle against Amalek, went out of their way to minimise it:

It is written, “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning.” Now did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? Not so. The text signifies that so long as Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven they prevailed, but otherwise they fell.

God, implies the Mishnah, makes a difference not “out there” but “in here.” Moses’ hands did not perform a miracle. They merely pointed upward. They directed the eyes, and thus the minds, of the Israelites to heaven. That gave them the courage, the inner strength, the hope and faith to prevail.

This transition – as we will see, it forms the underlying argument of the book of Shemoth – is signaled in an extraordinarily subtle verse immediately prior to the battle against Amalek.

God had performed a miracle for the Israelites of the most majestic kind. For them, he had divided the waters of the sea – and for once, the Israelites believed. “The Israelites saw the great power that God had unleashed against Egypt, and the people were in awe of God. They believed in God and in his servant Moses.” But the change of heart did not last. Three days later they were complaining about the water. Then they complained about the lack of food. Miracle follows miracle. The water is made drinkable. God sends manna from heaven. They move on to Rephidim, and again there is no water. Again the people complain. This time Moses comes close to despair. “What am I to do with these people?” he says to God, “They are almost ready to stone me.” God then sends water from a rock. But the memory of the Israelites’ ingratitude remains. Moses incorporates it into a place name:

And he called the place Massah (“testing”) and Meribah (“quarrelling”) because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us [bekirbenu] or not?”

Immediately thereafter we read that “The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.” There is an obvious connection. The Israelites’ doubt is punished. Having protected them throughout, God gives them a glimpse of what life is like without his protection. They will be exposed to great dangers. This is on the surface of the narrative.

However, beneath the surface is a surpassing irony. The Hebrew word bekirbenu can mean two things. It can mean “among us” (a spatial sense) but it can also mean “within us” (a psychological sense). The real meaning of the battle against Amalek, as understood by the Mishnah, is that it showed the inner, psychological, spiritual and emotional dimension of the Divine presence. The Israelites won not because God fought the battle for them, but because God gave them the strength to fight the battle for themselves. God was not “among” them but “within” them. That was the crucial change between before and after the crossing of the Red Sea.

One of the most remarkable features of Judaism – in this respect it is supreme among religious faiths – is its call to human responsibility. God wants us to fight our own battles. This is not abandonment. It does not mean – God forbid – that we are alone. God is with us whenever and wherever we are with him. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” What it means is that God calls on us to exercise those qualities – confidence, courage, choice, imagination, determination and will – which allow us to reach our full stature as beings in the image of God.

The book of Shemot teaches this lesson in the form of three narratives, of which the division of the Red Sea is the first. The others are the epiphany of God at Mount Sinai and later in the Tabernacle, and the first and second tablets Moses brings down from the mountain. In all three cases we have a double narrative, a before and after. In each, the first is an act performed entirely by God (the drowning of the Egyptians, the revelation at Sinai, and the first tablets). The second involves a partnership between God and human beings (the battle against the Amalekites, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the second tablets, carved by Moses and inscribed by God). The difference is immense. In the first of each pair of events, what is evident is the power of God and the passivity of man. In the second, what counts is the will of God internalised by man. God is transformed from doer to teacher. In the process, human beings are transformed from dependency to interdependency.

This is the astonishing message contained within a single Hebrew word, eved, which can mean either “servant” or “slave.” In Egypt, the Israelites were Pharaoh’s avadim. Leaving Egypt they became God’s avadim. The difference, however, is no mere change of masters. The slave of a human being is one who lacks freedom. The servant of God is one who is called to freedom – a specific kind of freedom, namely one that respects the freedom of others and the integrity of the created world (the difference, as seventeenth and eighteenth century writers used to put it, between liberty and licence, freedom with and without responsibility).

At the heart of the Hebrew Bible is a specific view of humanity, set out in the first chapters of Bereishit. Human beings are not incurably evil, tainted by original sin. Nor are we inescapably good. Instead we are defined by the ability to choose. If we choose well we are “little lower than the angels.” If we choose badly, we are worse than the beasts. We are not condemned to a perpetual condition of arrested development in which we are utterly dependent on a parent figure, human or divine. Such a view fails to accord with the concept of parenthood as articulated in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature.

Bereishit, which is about families, is a series of variations on the theme of human parents and children. Shemot, about the birth of a nation, is about a divine parent and his human children (God’s first command to Moses is, “Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is My firstborn son, and I told you, “Let My son go, so he may worship Me”).

Neither parenthood nor childhood are – the Torah teaches – static conditions. They are developmental. In its early years, a child really is dependent. Without the attentiveness of a parent, it would not survive. But over the course of time, it develops those capacities that allow it to mature. During that period, a parent learns progressively to make space for the child to act on its own. This can be doubly heartbreaking. Not only does it involve letting go, which is always a form of bereavement. It also demands that a parent be strong and self-restrained enough to allow the child to walk, knowing that it will fall; to choose, knowing that it will make mistakes; to travel, knowing that it will take wrong paths and false turns.

The “anger” of God, so often expressed in the Hebrew Bible, is actually not anger but anguish: the anguish of a parent who sees a child do wrong but knows that he or she may not intervene if the child is ever to grow, to learn, to mature, to change, to become responsible.

That is the turning point marked by the battles before and after the division of the Sea. The opening and closing verses of Beshallach both contain as their key-word, milchamah, “war”. The opening verse states:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”

The closing verse says:

The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.

The difference between them is between the war God fights for us, and the war we fight for God. The first is miraculous, the second only metaphorically so. The war God fights changes nature, even to the point of dividing a sea. But the war we fight changes us – and that is something God cannot do for us. We can only do it for ourselves. As long as the Israelites were totally dependent on God, they remained querulous and quarrelsome, in a state of arrested development. Only when they fought their own battles did they eventually – and painfully slowly – begin to acknowledge God. (In Jewish law, the command to honour our parents does not apply to a child under the age of thirteen for a boy, twelve for a girl. Only responsible adults can truly honour parents).

A true parent is not one who fights battles on our behalf, but one who gives us the inner strength to fight for ourselves. That is the difference between the war before and the war after the crossing of the Red Sea.

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