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.)


  1. Marla Gay said



    div>I’m so happy to see this posting and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first one I received

  2. Marcia Weinstein Steinbrook said

    I’m not sure that this statement regarding the relationship between oppressors and the oppressed:
    “…a society built upon oppression is one in which human beings cannot see each other in their full humanity.”
    is applicable to the situation under discussion. As I recall, Pharaoh feared that ancient Hebrews were so capable that they could pose a threat to his reign in the future; therefore, he chose to oppress them.

    • rabbineal said

      Hi Marcia, great point.

      But isn’t the problem the lack of empathy Pharaoh showed to the Israelites? He ordered the Hebrew babies killed- isn’t that a de facto dehumanization? What kind of denial of any human connection to another would you have to have to carry out his genocidal orders? Fear for one’s throne is not moral justification for the mass murder of innocent infants.

      • Marcia Weinstein Steinbrook said

        People who are amoral don’t need any moral justification for heinous acts. From the perspective of social psychology, it is the majority of the folks who carry out awful orders given by a supposed authority that must reconcile their actions within a moral framework.

  3. rabbineal said

    Well, yes, but isn’t that my point? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Pharaoh himself is a sociopath and no moral argument could work with him. For his orders to be carried out, ordinary people, who are mostly not sociopaths, would need to see the Israelites as such a threat or so completely “other” that they would not empathize at all with them as their babies are killed and they are whipped to make bricks faster. I would call that not seeing the humanity of the Israelites, which is a necessary precondition to killing and whipping and beating them.

    I don’t think we actually disagree, we’re just using different language, perhaps.

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