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As Difficult as Splitting the Red Sea

February 7, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on parshat Beshallach.

This Torah portion contains two of God’s greatest miracles: splitting the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross onto dry land and escape the Egyptians, and giving the Israelites manna to eat in the wilderness. Both of these events are an essential part of Jewish history and memory. The Mi Chamocha prayer—recited as often as twice daily in certain circles– includes verses from the song we sang on the shores of the Sea. And after the first appearance of manna, Moses commands Aaron to preserve some of the manna in a jar in the Ark of the Covenant, “to be kept throughout the ages” (Exodus 16:33).

Why do we need to remember these two miracles in particular? Some suggest that it is because these two miracles teach us how to love.

We’re celebrating an aufruf tonight, so it’s only appropriate for us to recognize that love is, itself, a miracle. And in a midrash, we find out that God considers it to be a more challenging miracle to bring forth than the ones in our Torah portion.

In theis story, a Roman matron asks Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta, “How long did it take God to create the world?” Rabbi Yosi replies, “Six days.” The matron asks, “So what has God been doing since then?” Rabbi Yosi explains, “God has been making marriages.” The matron laughs, “And for this you have faith in God? Even I can do that!” And Rabbi Yosi says, “Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” The matron, determined to prove her point, went home and lined up all of her male and female servants and paired them off and said, “Now you’re all married” (this is not a politically correct story). The next morning, her estate resembles a battlefield. One servant has a bashed-in head, another has lost an eye, a third has a broken leg. “What happened?” the matron demands. Each one points at their new spouse and says, “I don’t want that one.” The matron summons Rabbi Yosi to tell him, “Your God is not like our god, and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely” (Bereishit Rabbah 68:4).

So what does this teach us? First, that for us humans, a good marriage is about as hard to bring about as a Cecil B. DeMille-worthy miracle like splitting the sea. But according to Dena Weiss, it also tells us something important about God.

“It is not that [splitting the sea] is somehow technically challenging for God; rather it is emotionally difficult. … God splits the sea, but … has no guarantee that we are going to walk through it. God proposes, as it were, without any assurance that we are going to say yes. [The sea splitting] is God’s ripping open [God’s] heart and inviting us to walk through it without knowing that we will. What is hard for God is not the physical process of moving the water but the waiting with an open heart.”

If splitting the sea is God’s grand one-time gesture of open-heartedness and vulnerability, the giving of manna is the one of day-to-day building blocks of our relationship. God must feed us, and we must consent to be fed. When God prepares us to receive the manna, God tells Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion—that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not” (Exodus 16:4).

You might be thinking: what kind of test is free food that falls from the sky? But manna, though miraculous, comes with conditions. It is actually, in many ways, a socialist food. No matter how much one gathers, everyone ends up with the same amount. Anything one tries to keep overnight immediately spoils, except on the sixth day, when God allows us to collect a double portion, so that we won’t have to gather at all on Shabbat (Exodus 16:15-25). God is essentially asking a recently-enslaved people not to hoard food, and to believe that we will have enough, even if we don’t spend every waking moment gathering. God is asking us to shed our scarcity mentality, and to trust that God will take care of us.

The test, according to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, is whether or not we could handle being dependent on God for our daily sustenance (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 16:4). We have already seen that this is difficult for the Israelites, as the manna was God’s response to the Israelites’ kvetching, “If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, and ate our fill of bread!” (Exodus 16:3). The Israelites, uncomfortable with the uncertainty of freedom, become nostalgic for slavery. According to Terence Fretheim, this is the reason for keeping the jar of manna in the Ark, “The idealized and unwarranted memories of Pharaoh’s food are to be replaced with the genuine memories of the bread from God” (Held 162).

This could not have been easy for us. Like God splitting open God’s heart at the Red Sea, we have to make ourselves vulnerable in order to enter into our relationship with God. We have to trust that there will be food in the wilderness, and that serving God will be different from serving Pharaoh. We have to trust that our relationship with God not be the relationship of a slave to their master, but a loving, mutual covenant.

Rabbi Shai Held writes, “We need God, and we need other people. Because we are human, and therefore embodied and fragile, the question, ultimately, is not whether we will be dependent, but on whom” (Held 163). With these two miracles, God is asking us to open our hearts, make ourselves vulnerable, and choose to be dependent on God.

Rabbi Held writes, “There is no symmetry here—God remains God, and we remain human creatures—but a relational God is also, necessarily, a vulnerable and dependent One. The deeper we dig, the more a theology of human dependence on God reveals itself to be a theology of divine-human interdependence, or covenant. There is a courage and a dignity in learning to say, ‘I need you’” (Held 164).

This vulnerability, open-heartedness, and interdependence is necessary in our covenant with God, and also in the relationships we build with other people. Going back to our surprisingly violent midrash, all of those scuffles probably didn’t come about just because the couples didn’t like each other. It also happened because, given the circumstances, they were not given the opportunity to open their hearts to one another and build their relationships on trust and faith.

Next week’s Torah portion, Yitro, is sometimes considered our marriage ceremony with God, with Mount Sinai as our chuppah and the Torah as our ketubah. But entering into this covenant would not be possible without the groundwork laid in Beshallach. God asks us to walk through the split sea, to believe that we will be safe and cared for on the other side. God asks us to accept the gift of manna, trusting that it will continue to show up to nurture us, day after day. These are the giant leaps, and the every day hurdles, that lead us into loving relationships with God, and with each other.

Dena Weiss writes: “Often, we ask God to manipulate the world for us, when what we should be asking God to do is support us in growing ourselves, in opening our hearts, in making us stronger, and wiser, and more able to confront what confronts us. …. Therefore, what it really means to say that God is making matches, is not that [God] is arranging the universe in a way so that person A meets person B; rather God models the open-hearted willingness we need to commit to one another. God’s role is in supporting us and expanding our capacity to love.”

Like the Roman matron, or the Israelites grumbling in the desert, we might think to ask of God, “What have You done for us lately?” But perhaps God’s answer would be, “I’ve been waiting here, all along, to help you become a better person, so that you can build loving relationships, and heal the broken world you live in. All I’m asking is for you to take that first step into the water, to hold out your hands for the manna. Let Me help you open your heart.”


Rabbi Leah Berkowitz