Beshallach: Splitting the Sea, All Over the World

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

This week we’re reading about Divine providence, which may or may not
correspond to the fact that I’m writing to you from city of
Providence. (Some questions are too deep for me.) Parshat Beshallach
is the grand finale of the Exodus narrative- the Israelites march
free, Pharoah’s army is drowned, and Moshe and Miriam lead the people
in joyous song. The image of the “splitting of the sea,” so that the
Israelites could escape the pursuing army, is well known, and retold
in many forms:

“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord led the
sea with the strong east wind all night, and God made the sea into
dry land and the waters split.” (Shemot/ Exodus 14:21)

Rashi brings an interesting midrash to bear on the final detail of
the verse above- it hinges on the fact that “mayim,” or “water,” is a
collective noun in the plural form. Thus, it can mean a little water
or lots of water, an ambiguity which Rashi interprets in a surprising

” ‘and the waters split’.. . . . All the water in the world.” (Rashi,
quoting an earlier text.)

Huh? Why would Rashi say that some creek in Mongolia or a pond in
Topeka also “split” along with the Sea of Reeds? I see two
possibilities. First, if “all the waters in the world” split, then
obviously the miracle was that much greater, and if you’re going to
praise God for a great miracle, it might as well be the biggest one
you could imagine.

That’s a more literal understanding of Rashi’s comment, but I’d like
to suggest a second, more metaphorical understanding. Perhaps Rashi
is hinting that the Exodus story- a story in which the God of all
humankind stands firmly with on side of the weak and oppressed- is
not only about God’s relationship with the people Israel, but is
universal, applicable to any situation where there is injustice and
suffering. In the Exodus narrative, God “split the sea” so the
Israelites could find safety and freedom, but “all the waters in the
world”- that is, all the places where people feel blocked in and
unfree- can be crossed over where there is faith and courage and
willingness to be God’s partner in overthrowing injustice.

That, to me, is the larger meaning of the miracle: not that the laws
of physics were suspended, but the generalities of history, wherein
the strong prey on the weak, were overturned by a God who cares about
human dignity and freedom. The book of Exodus relates this deeper
truth in the form of a story about our ancestors, but Rashi reminds
us that justice is never found in one place only- it’s all over the
world, or it is incomplete.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, the first link leads to a page where you can find a
summary of the parsha and further commentary, and the second link
leads to the text itself.

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