By Harry Eskin, January 27, 2024

Shabbat shalom.

As some of you may know — in particular, Rabbi Ben Richards — I am a big fan of the musical comedy duo the Smothers Brothers, who reached the peak of their popularity in the 1960s. And, as such, I have been mourning the passing a month ago of one half of that duo, the great Tom Smothers, and have been listening to the Smothers Brothers’ recordings again in recent weeks. And as you might have guessed, looking at this week’s parasha brought to my mind one of their great routines. While singing the song “The Impossible Dream” from the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, the brothers pause to discuss the meaning of the song. (For your reference, Dick Smothers was the straight man of the act, while Tom took on the persona of the goofball.) Dick explains that the song tells us, “Fight for what you believe in. Fight for the right, have the personal integrity and strength, no matter what the odds…to fight for what you believe in, Tommy.”

Tom, in a moment of inspiration, adds, “Like Moses.”

Dick approves, and goes on to explain how Moses was a prime example of fighting for what you believe in as he led the Israelites out of Egypt. “And finally he came to the Red Sea. And it looked like all was lost; it was an impossible dream to cross that sea, wasn’t it. And he said, ‘Believe in me,’ and they did, and sure enough, for this holy man, Moses, the Red Sea parted.”

At which point Tom interjects, “And the people, they shouted, ‘Holy Moses, he did it!’”

Dick is not pleased. “They did not. No.”
Tom protests, “Some of ’em, some of ’em probably said that.”
“No, not even some of them!”
“Maybe one kid in the back.”
“No, not one kid in the back!”

In any event, regardless of whatever puns the Jewish people may or may not have made when this miracle occurred, I thought we could look into some elucidation of what brought about the splitting of the sea and some lessons we might learn from it. For the past few months, my brother and I have been studying a text together once a week, and the text my brother chose is the Nesivos Sholom, a series of lessons expounding on the parshiyot written by Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the late rebbe of the Slonim Hasidic dynasty. That is my main source for the textual insights in this drash.

The midrash on the Psalms comments on the verse: הַיָּ֣ם רָ֭אָה וַיָּנֹ֑ס — The sea saw and fled (Psalms 114:3). מה ראה? ארונו של יוסף — What did it see? Joseph’s coffin. Why would the presence of Joseph’s bones cause the sea to flee? Because Joseph overcame the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife by fleeing. וַיָּ֖נׇס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃ — He fled and he went outside (Genesis 39:12). According to the commentators, Joseph’s flight was in fact an extraordinary achievement. At that point, Potiphar’s wife had broken down Joseph’s resistance after a prolonged campaign of harassment, and furthermore, not only Joseph’s own yetzer hara (evil urge) but the yetzer hara of the entire world had risen up to overpower him. If Joseph had relied solely on his own strength, then, he would have succumbed. But instead, he leaped beyond nature, as it were, and went outside — וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה — by grasping the merit of Abraham, of whom is said, וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה — God took him outside (Genesis 15:5).

Why is it extraordinary that God took Abraham outside? This occurs at the moment when Abraham is deeply worried that he will die without having children, so then how can the Jewish people descend from him? God appears to Abraham in a vision:

וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ׃ — God took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them”—continuing, “So shall your offspring be.” The Midrash seizes on the word הַבֶּט being chosen from the numerous different terms for “look.” הַבֶּט, they say, specifically means to look downward from above, which illuminates what they find so special about וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה — God took him outside. Abraham is troubled because within the natural limitations of the physical world, he and Sarah are incapable of having children. So God takes him outside of nature, above the dome of heaven, to illustrate that God’s promise to Abraham, and therefore the existence of the Jewish people, transcends all natural limitations. This is the lesson that enabled Joseph to withstand his trial, and this is why the sea split in his merit.

However, there is an apparent contradiction here. If the presence of Joseph’s remains could cause the sea to split, then when Moses tells the people,

הִֽתְיַצְּב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת ה’ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם — Stand by, and witness the deliverance which God will work for you today (Exodus 14:13), why does God then tell Moses,

מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃ — “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15)? What the Slonimer Rebbe clarifies is that Joseph’s presence symbolized that transcending nature requires our active participation. When nature pressures Joseph to give into temptation, he takes action, doing his utmost to overcome nature, and flees. And at the sea, God tells Moses that in order for God to perform this great miracle, first the people need to embody Joseph’s merit by taking action and moving forward — that is, into the sea. Obviously, to jump into the sea would be to risk death. But in order to be a people whose existence and whose relationship with God fulfills God’s promise to Abraham and transcends natural limitations, the people have to be willing to perform this act of self-sacrifice, trusting that if they take those first steps, God will open a path for them.

And this represents the highest level of emunah, of belief and faith in God. Beyond believing in their minds and in their hearts, the Israelites at the sea embody emunah of the limbs, imbuing their physical actions with such steadfast belief that they can step beyond their physical limitations of safety, and thus merit that God should mirror their actions from above, as it were, and demonstrate God’s mastery over nature in one of the greatest miracles ever seen.

Emunah of the limbs, embodying faith with one’s actions, is an idea that has remained powerful into the modern era. Frederick Douglass, survivor of a more modern iteration of slavery, was quoted in 1876: “I prayed that God would emancipate me, but it was not till I prayed with my legs that I was emancipated.” And, of course, many of us are familiar with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote after marching for civil rights in Selma in 1965: “I felt my legs were praying.”

In our present time, with the world in its present state, it isn’t difficult to relate to the Israelites at the sea, trapped by danger and terror on all sides. We look at the world today and in seemingly every direction we see war, hatred, conquest, oppression, cruelty, the senseless shedding of blood. And it all feels impossible to escape. These things all seem to make up the natural order of our world — we wish we could change things, but this is the way things are; these are the ways nations operate.

What if this is the time for us to say, No — we refuse to accept that we are bound by this natural order; that, on the contrary, it is our responsibility to transcend it? How can we challenge ourselves to take those first steps of faith and sacrifice into the waters, to turn away from the violence and brutality around us, knowing that there must be a different path forward if we only strive for it? In the depths of our despair, impossible as it may seem to break free of our current Mitzrayim, we have no choice but to push forward so that God can show us the way through.

Shabbat shalom.

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