B'Shalach - Transitioning Perspectives
Throughout the ages, science has attempted to prove the accuracy of the story described in Parashat B’Shalach, at the peril of failing to understand the nuance of what is laid out on the page before us. To attempt to validate the parting of the Red Sea from an archeological and geological perspective is to entirely misrepresent the value such a story could provide. In doing so, attempts to offer an historical explanation for the spiritual liberation that sits at the focal point of this section not only fail to satisfy the needs of the more scientifically driven thinkers, but also to answer for the societal impact of the Israelites telling their story of redemption with this sequence at the dramatic center of their people’s narrative.
During the first chapters of the book of Exodus, we read of the enslavement of the Israelites under the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, and the process by which Moses acts as God’s intermediary to punish Egypt for the mistreatment of the Chosen People. After 10 plagues descend upon the land, ravishing the people and their nation, Pharaoh finally has had enough, and sends the Israelites away to worship their God in freedom. But this doesn’t last very long. For almost as soon as the Israelites have left does Pharaoh realize the strain this will put on his way of life, and instantly demands that the people be brought back to bondage.
The stage is set for one of the most dramatic stories in the entire Torah. Standing between the sea on one side and an attacking army on the other, the Hebrews cry out to Moses and to God, begging for their lives. God heeds their call, and we read, “Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Eternal 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, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:21-22)
Few images from our biblical tradition are as evocative as this one. As a reader, you can feel the dramatic tension building, can almost see the water being swept around the people as they run toward safety. What it must have been like to experience such an act of divine strength, to watch your tormentors met by something and someone more powerful than they could have ever been in their wildest dreams.
It is easy, then, to see why generations throughout history have tried to render the parting of the sea as a data point of historical fact. When a story is as compelling as this one, we desperately seek to situate it in a world in which we ourselves live. We don’t get the chance to see miracles as overt and spectacular as this one. If only we could prove that power like this were possible, that we do in fact share a world that has seen this kind of majesty, we might be able to believe that such things would be possible again.
Alas, Torah is at its most accurate when it is assessed as a literary masterpiece, rather than a record of historical anecdotes. It is, after all, unfair and unreasonable to expect that the stories contained within our sacred texts will stand up to the rigors of scientific validation that we demand of true understandings of the past. Far too often, we demand that the Torah be “true,” rather than express “truths.” The nuance is no small thing. A story that is true is one that describes something that actually happened. A story that contains truths can be entirely invented, yet can leave readers with a sense that they better understand the world around them, that they have changed their perspective on the way they understand their place in the larger structure. When we demand that the parting of the sea be validated, we wind up rejecting both, leaving us to wonder if the story has any purpose at all.
In fact, the best value for this Torah portion is that it explores the notion of perspective in many different ways. Most notably, we read the Song of the Sea, Shirat HaYam, which is found in Exodus 15. After having been saved by the hand of God, the people rejoice, singing a song of their salvation. The style of the song is unlike anything we have seen in the Torah to this point in our narrative sequence. Whereas the preceding sections of scribal transmission of the Torah show rows and columns in structured formulas, the Torah text in the scroll in this section is made up of segmented lines, containing short bursts of text, followed by large empty spaces between the words. This form of artful chirography winds up with a striking image that helps to bring to light the intention of the poem.
Except there isn’t just one way to view the poetic image. Two potential options present themselves, each with a different elegance to them. First, and perhaps most notably, the text looks like the dry land upon which the Israelites tread on their journey through the sea. With a central column of dry land and two side columns of “water,” the text comes to resemble the moment that it is describing. Thus, Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, is literally made up of the sea itself, presented in the form of a word-crafted image. But the text could carry another interpretation; the text also has the characteristic alternating structure of a brick wall, much like the ones that the Israelites were forced to construct during their time in bondage. This is, depending on the perspective, either a vision of the liberation of a people en route to freedom, or a stark reminder of the suffering the people had to endure in order to necesitate redemption in the first place.
In commenting on this section of the Torah, the rabbis must have been inspired by the interplay described in this idea. The Talmud offers a story: when God had closed up the sea, swallowing the Egyptians who had tried to follow the escaping Hebrews, the angels were rejoicing in heaven, celebrating the victory of good over evil. Except God chastised them, saying, “How dare you sing in joy when my creation is dying?” (Talmud Sanhedrin 39b) The sobering notion that the Egyptians too were God’s cherished possession leaves us to remember the humanity even of those who have sought to oppress us. When looking upon another person, this story teaches, we can either see the defeat of our enemy, or the tragic loss of life. And in many ways, we are obligated to see both.
Parashat B’Shalach inspires us to consider the many ways the perspective informs our engagement with the world around us. We can either look at the Song of the Sea as an image of our liberation or a reminder of our bondage. We can either see the death of the Egyptians as righteous revenge, or as an unnecessary destruction of human life. And, as we discussed earlier, we can also choose to attempt to validate the historical accuracy of the moment, or render it meaningful regardless of its circumstances.
All too often, we posit that science and religion need to be at odds, because one is the practice of ascertaining absolute truth, while the other rejects it entirely. Except this is to fundamentally misunderstand the role that religion can and should play in the lives of the spiritually engaged. At every stage of human history, there has been a limit to the amount of information we can reasonably take in, a cap as to the number of cosmic solutions we could provide to our most profound questions. When our tools of science and technology reached their limits, it did not stop us from continuing to explore the deeper theological questions that no amount of data could ever disprove. At one point, in early civilizations, this meant worshiping nature, because we needed a way to process the fickle behavior of the “unknowable” flow of seasons and of weather. When we have no way of measuring rain or sunlight, we are left to believe they are somehow divine in their construction.
Yet as we have expanded our knowledge, so too have we expanded our questions. What are the limits of our own power? What happens when our time on earth has ended? How can the cosmos have come into existence without some kind of precipitating event? While the Big Bang might render the exact details of the creation story fictional, it does not, by its very nature, disprove the notion that something needed to be present to cause the moment into being. We can either use religion as a way to ignore the profundity of science, or we can use it to help ground us in the sheer immensity of it.
We are reminded throughout our Torah not to lose sight of the beauty in the world simply by trying to prove the “accuracy” of the stories it tells. The popular expression can often be shared, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Except, in many cases, the truth can be found BECAUSE OF a good story. Not truth in an archaeologically validated kind of sense. But truth in a way that helps to shape the perspective we take with us as we continue to explore the intricacies of our world. We read, in Parashat B’Shalach, the story of a nation transitioning from a nation of slaves to a nation of God’s favored people. We read about a decision to transition from the persecuted to the vindicated, from trauma to triumph. And we learn about what it means to allow ourselves to see different perspectives on the same moment, including how to allow science and religion to exist not just in conflict, but in conjunction with one another.