The Reed Sea splits. The Israelites and their fellow travelers cross on dry land. The chariots pursue them. The sea returns and drowns the Egyptian army.
After the miracle at the Reed Sea in this week’s Torah portion, Beshelach (“When sending away”), the consciousness of the Israelites changes in four steps. They perceive God’s power1, they feel fear and awe, and they give up their reservations (at least for a while) and trust in God and Moses. Then Moses begins to sing, and everyone joins in.
Vayareh, the Israelites, the great power that God used against the Egyptians; vayiyre-u, the people, of God; vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant. That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God. (Exodus 14:31, 15:1)
vayareh (וַיַּרְא) = and they saw, perceived, looked at, recognized, acknowledged, considered. (A form of the root verb ra-ah, רָאָה.)
vayiyre-u (וַיִּירְאוּ) = and they felt fear, fear and awe, awe and reverence. (A form of the root verb yarei, יָרֵא.)
vaya-aminu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they believed, trusted, relied upon. (Probably from the same root as amen, אָמֵן.)
yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sang.
Vayareh the great power that God used against the Egyptians …
The Israelites have already witnessed the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt. Why do they only now see God’s power?
I think they have been reluctant even to acknowledge God’s plan for taking them out of Egypt because they know they are doomed if it does not work. After all, the first time Moses asked Pharaoh to give them three days off to worship God, Pharaoh only increased their workload.2
The first two plagues proved that either Moses or his God had strong magic; but Pharaoh’s magicians could also turn water into blood and make frogs overrun houses. The next six plagues, from lice to locusts, could be explained as large-scale natural disasters; only the quick succession of afflictions betrayed a supernatural power at work. The last two plagues, three days of total darkness and the overnight death of the firstborn, were too unnatural to mean anything but the power of a god. But was the God of Moses their savior, or just a god of destruction?
After the Israelites and their fellow-travelers march out of Egypt, they are accompanied by a miraculous pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.3 But it is still hard for them to believe that any god is working for them and against Pharaoh. Everyone in Egypt knows that the pharaoh is not only a king, but the son of all the Egyptian gods.4 Their whole lives, he has had absolute power over them. How can they think of Pharaoh any other way?
When they find out that his army has pursued them into the wilderness, they are full of fear (although they do not lose their dark humor).
And Pharaoh came close, and the Israelites raised their eyes, and hey! The Egyptians were pulling out after them! Vayiyre-u very much, and the Israelites cried out to God. And they said to Moses: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)
They are trapped, camped between that army and the Reed Sea. They cry to God for help, but they expect Pharaoh’s army to win. It always has.
During the night God splits the sea and the Israelites cross on dry land, with God’s pillar of fire as a rearguard between them and the Egyptians. The Pharaoh’s charioteers follow across the sea bed, but the chariot wheels get stuck in the mud. At dawn God makes the water return, and the Israelites watch the Egyptian army drown.
The world changes. I imagine the Israelites trembling with shock. Now their hearts crack open and they finally see the great power of God.
Vayiyre-u of God …
After seeing that God really has drowned the Egyptian army and rescued them from slavery, the Israelites stop being afraid of Pharaoh, and start being afraid of God.
When the Egyptian army drowns, the Israelites see and believe that their world has changed. Amazed, they can now believe that God is liberating them from Egypt altogether. But they do not fall in love with this God who changes the status quo by sending plagues and killing people. Instead, they feel fear and awe.
Vaya-aminu in God and in Moses, God’s servant …
Only after the Israelites fear God more than Pharaoh do they put their trust in God and Moses. (At least until the next serious setback, when they run out of food in the wilderness of Sin.)5
They did not believe or trust or rely upon God when they marched out of Egypt; Pharaoh had kicked them out. They followed Moses because they had to follow somebody. When the pillar of cloud and fire appeared, they followed that. Why not? They had nothing to lose.
When they walk across the bed of the Reed Sea during the last shift of the night, they do not believe that they will get safely to the other side. But the enemy is right behind them; why not go forward?
Only after God destroys the Egyptian army does the Israelite attitude changes from “I’m doomed anyway, I’ll take the risk” to “I am committed to this God.” This trust and commitment comes from awe and amazement at being saved—but also from fear of such a powerful God.
That was when yashir, Moses and the Israelites, this song in honor of God. (Exodus 15:1)
Critical scholars agree that the psalm following this introduction is in an older Hebrew than the rest of the story. The details of the story in Beshallach and the psalm they sing do not quite match. (See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.) But why should we expect Moses to invent a new song on the fly? When people are overwhelmed with emotion and feel moved to sing, they sing the most appropriate song they know.
Everyone sings, and all the women drum and dance to celebrate God’s victory.6 This is the first singing in the Torah.
What if you felt oppressed and hopeless your whole life? What if you could not believe anything could change? What if suddenly your old life ended, and you had to cope with an entirely new situation? Could you see and believe in the change? Would you feel afraid? Could you turn your fear into wonder (Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement”)? Could you make a commitment to the new reality? And would the emotion welling over inside you come pouring out in song?
(An earlier version of this essay was published in January 2010.)
- In this post, I have consistently translated the word yad (יַָד) as “power”. In Biblical Hebrew, yad means “hand” literally, and “power” metaphorically.
- Exodus 5:1-21.
- Exodus 13:21-22.
- See Jan Assmann, “Pharaoh’s Divine Role in Maintaining Ma’at (Order)”, www.thetorah.com.
- Exodus 16:1-3.
- Exodus 15:20.