Archive for January, 2023

Beshallach: A Dark and Stormy Night

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

The first Torah portion in February, Beshallach, has an image made famous in illustrated Haggadot, Hollywood movies, even children’s craft projects. Who can forget the dramatic scene from movies like The Ten Commandments or The Prince Of Egypt, showing Moshe (whether animated or embodied by an over-the-top Charlton Heston), raising his arms in front of the astonished but frightened Israelites while the sea parts in front of them like a reverse tsunami? 

The image of Moshe splitting the sea all at once, like cleaving wood, is wonderful cinema, but, alas, Biblically incorrect. Read the verse closely and you’ll see where Hollywood departs from the text of the Torah: 

The pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Holy One drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground. . . (Exodus 14:19-22)

Notice the difference between the movies and the text? The Torah says that two things happened: there was a cloud of darkness upon the Egyptians all night, and during that time, an east wind blew upon the sea, driving it apart. Some rabbinic commentators say that the east wind dried out the seabed so the Israelites could cross, but the nuance here is that the moment of final escape from Egypt wasn’t actually a moment: it took an entire night of darkness and winds. 

The darkness seems like a replay of the 9th of the ten plagues prior to the Exodus (cf. 10:21), which can be understood as a moral condition as much as a supernatural event. Back in Exodus 10, we are told the plague of darkness lasted for three days, during which time people could not see each other. In other words, a society built upon oppression is one in which human beings cannot see each other in their full humanity. Not only are the oppressed not seen as fully human, but those who oppress deny their own souls, which are formed for compassion and which are defiled by exploiting another. 

So too, here at the edge of the sea, the Egyptian army is encased in a moral darkness, unable to draw close to one another, because an army bent on subjecting innocents has already denied the humanity in themselves. The full night of darkness, like the three days of darkness during the Plagues, has another purpose: it gives the Egyptians a chance to reflect, repent and choose a better course. The hours of gloom and east wind at the edge of the sea is God’s final plea to Pharaoh and his soldiers: stop now, think about it, don’t do this. We too often have opportunities to stop ourselves when on the wrong path, but like Pharaoh, plunge forward recklessly. 

The Sages noticed in verse 14:21 that the Torah doesn’t say “the waters of the sea” were split, but simply, “the waters,” and take this as hint that all the waters of the world, in cisterns and jugs and ponds, split along with the waters of the sea. Why would they offer such an unusual and unlikely interpretation? 

Because the crossing of the Sea of Reeds was a world-changing event, not just a pivot point of Jewish history. At this moment, the idea was reified that people are made in the Divine Image, with inherent dignity, and not to be oppressed as chattel. The Israelites moved forward with the radical idea that God is on the side of the oppressed, for justice, and not on the side of the slave-masters, for power. With the crossing of the sea, every brutalized population gained hope, and the seeds were planted for a new and revolutionary religious ethic of compassion, justice, and mercy. We’re far from that vision, but it leads us forward, then and now. 

(A version of this commentary will appear in the February Voice, the monthly paper of the Jewish Federation of Dutchess County.)

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Bo: Come to Pharaoh

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: It’s been too long since I’ve written my weekly Torah commentaries and I’m feeling inspired to start up again. There will definitely be one for this week and next week, but if when I miss a week, I wholeheartedly endorse my friend Rabbi Eli Garfinkel’s daily Torah Substack newsletter:

Eli is a master at drawing out great questions from the parsha! 

Now, back to Bo, this week’s portion

The portion begins with a command: God tells Moshe: בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה, come to Pharaoh, and tell him about the future plagues if he doesn’t release the people. 

The text says bo el Paro, “come to Pharoah,” but this is curious: shouldn’t it be “lech l’Paro,” or go to Pharaoh, not “come”? “Bo,” come, seems to imply that God is already where God wants Moshe to go, which is  Pharaoh’s palace. 

There are two ways to interpret this: 

  1. “Come to Pharaoh” means “come with me.” God is saying, I’m with you when you go to Pharaoh. 
  2. Bo el Paro means: I, the Holy One, am already there, even in Pharaoh’s palace. Going there, to that evil, arrogant, broken, delusional and doomed king, also means coming to Me. 

Both of these interpretations challenge us morally and spiritually. 

First, I found an image from the  Zohar that illustrates our first interpretation: Moshe was afraid of going to Pharaoh, because that inner chamber of the palace was a place of ultimate idolatry, an intensity of idolatry even greater than Moshe’s spiritual level. Because Moshe was afraid, The Merciful One said: Come, I’ll go with you. (The Zohar is, as always, more complicated than this, but this is enough for our purposes today. See here for more.) 

So here was Moshe, at the highest level of spirituality, according to our tradition, and even he was afraid to go into that dark space of human brokenness and pain and alienation. I’m a hospital chaplain, and that’s what we try to do too: go into the hardest, most complicated, most emotionally charged and painful situations, with some small faith that we don’t go alone. Yet this image isn’t just for chaplains: everybody is charged with being a person of hesed (great kindness) and rachamim (mercy), which often means pushing ourselves emotionally. It’s not easy to comfort the bereaved, or visit the sick, or help the poor, or be with people who are lonely or afraid, but perhaps if Moshe could go where he didn’t want to go, with faith that he doesn’t go alone, the rest of us can push ourselves a little harder too. 

Going back to our verse, the  second interpretation is also important. Bo el Paro, says the Holy One, I am already there, even in the most dangerous, evil, oppressive, idol-worshiping place on Earth- I’m already there. That’s a truly amazing idea: after all, Pharaoh earned himself a four thousand year old reputation for denying that there was any God but himself! His palace issued orders for murder and exploitation, but the Holy One was already there? 

Well, yes. 

So if Moshe was told, “I’m already there” in reference to the most terrible, idolatrous, morally corrupt place on Earth, I guess the rest of us should have some faith that we can find the Divine Presence in times and situations that aren’t quite that bad. It can be very uncomfortable to be with the dying or forlorn; it’s much easier to avoid conflicts and problems than confront them; some people have needs that can be overwhelming. Some people have done terrible things, and deserve the harshest rebuke. Yet: I am already there, so open up your mind and heart to find the spark of spirituality even in the most difficult situations. This is one of those truths that is simple, but never easy. Life often isn’t, but we go forward as best we can, and find the Divine in the most unexpected places. 

(Words adapted from a dvar Torah I gave at the annual meeting of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.) 

Addendum: for some grammatical/linguistic interpretations of this week’s verse, see here.  

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