In this parshah we have the very famous crossing of the “Red Sea” – as most people know it. Most scholars today call it the “Reed Sea.” The people are rushing away from Pharoah who decided to chase the Israelites to get them back. The commentator Ibn Ezra wonders why the people didn’t turn around and fight (the numbers, we are told, are about 600,000 Israelites to 600 of Pharoahs soldiers). This is also about the “slave mentality” that the Israelites need to get rid of. Jewish interpretation of the text typically holds that the Israelites needed the wandering in the desert to slough off the slave mentality. It’s not that Egypt and Israel are so far from each other (they’re not) that it should take 40 years of wandering. It’s that there needed to be a generation born in freedom who could find success in the “Promised Land.” This is a troubling interpretation – do we really believe some people are so badly damaged by past abuse or injustice that they cannot be redeemed? The hopeful side of this understanding of the wandering is that it has often been the case that the descendents of Jews who suffered were able to prosper. This was true of the children of those who were expelled from Spain, for example, and settled in places like Amsterdam. It is the experience of many children of Holocaust survivors. It is the experience of people who came to North America as poor immigrants and have children who are very wealthy and successful.
There are all kinds of mystical associations we have for the parting of the sea. A Kabbalistic Rabbi once told me that there were not only huge walls of water on either side of the Israelites but also that on the walls of water were fruits and other things. This was to signal the ultimate majesty of God and the fact that this was in no way a “natural” occurrence but a divine miracle. This addition to the story reminds us that Jews throughout the generations have added in details like this to embellish our stories (stories usually get embellished in their retelling), and make them consistent with their theology/world view. However the seas part in the narrative, we know what happens: the Israelites make it across but as Pharoah’s army follows them they are subsumed.
You would think this would lead to a period of rejoicing, but what follows is really a series of complaints from the people to Moses. Can we consider this the origin of Jewish kvetching? They’ve already complained that they are going to be killed by the Pharoah’s army. Then they complain there is no water, so Miriam draws water from the well. But then they immediately complain of hunger, so God sends his “manna from heaven.” Still unsatisfied, they once again complain again about the lack of water. Finally, once they are no longer thirsty, they are attacked by Amalek and once again worry about war. There is an interesting pattern to these problems: war, water, hunger, water, war. The palendromic effect is also a cycle. Just as last week we had the first mention of Rosh Chodesh, reminding us of the cycle of the moon, here we are reminded that life is full of more difficult cycles as well. The text is certainly saying that the people should learn to trust that God will provide for them. Humanistic Jews can reflect on the highs and lows of human existence and draw the opposite lesson: we need to rely on ourselves and our communities to solve our problems.
Miriam becomes an important character because it is she who leads the people to water. Moses delivers the people from Egypt, but Miriam is also the salvation of the people because of this water. Many people put a “cup of Miriam” filled with water on their seder table to remember the women of the story and Miriam’s contribution specifically. As the people worry about starvation, some complain to Moses that it would have been better to serve in Egypt than to starve in the wilderness. It’s worth thinking about contemporary ways in which this choice is ours. Many of us “slave” at jobs that do not fulfill us for fear that otherwise we would wither/starve. What is our choice? Do we brave the unknown even when it is risky but when it may promise a better life? Again, this is what many of our families did in immigrating to lands unknown. Do we choose to remain where we are, figuring that known suffering is better than the unknown? The story makes it clear that this “slave mentality” is the wrong way of thinking. But I think we can find more compassion for people who stick with what is safe – particularly as we do not expect to be given “manna from heaven,” but know that we have to put bread on our tables ourselves. The text does challenge us, however, to take risks and to be brave in the pursuit of our own happiness.
The final incident of this parshah is Amalek’s attack. His army approaches and Moses sends Joshua to build an army to fight. Moses, meanwhile, climbs up the Mount and holds his hands up. When his hands are up the Jews are winning. When he lets them fall Amalek gains the advantage. Ultimately, exhausted, his hands are held up by Joshua (the chief warrior) and Aaron so that the Jews can win the day. Jewish commentators suggest that this is either Moses channelling God, or that Moses’ hands in the air are a reminder to the people about the miracles they have seen – the Reed Sea, the water, the manna, and to remember that God is on their side. This is what gives them the strength to win. Christian commentators find Christ imagery in the scene. When Moses’ hands are being held up in what can be described as a “T” position, it resembles Christ on the Cross. In Christian theology, this moment unites Moses with Jesus; Moses as the deliverer of the people prefigures the messiah. It is interesting sometimes to notice that the details of the text have been used by so many competing cultures to bolster their own theologies. There is the theistic Jewish view, the Christian view, and we can also find a Humanistic view: whatever the reason Moses’ hands need to be held up, it is important to note that he can’t achieve his task alone. The arms being held up are a reminder that there are times in which we all need to be held, supported, bolstered by our community. Aaron was the voice for Moses and Yahweh, Joshua is good at making war, Moses is good at leading the people, but none can do their jobs without the others and without the support of their whole community behind them.
The parshah ends with a paradox. Amalek’s name is never to be spoken again (his attack so brutal) yet we are to remember this moment forever. This is one of many examples in the text in which the Jews are commanded to both remember and to forget. We repeat Amalek’s name to remember the incident, even though it should be blotted out. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi`s book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory points out that there are frequent references to remembrance in the Bible. We are commanded to remember God and his promises to remember his people. The paradox of memory concerning Amalek gets used in all kinds of ways. I was recently attending a panel on Child Soldiers in Africa that mentioned this moment from Exodus. We can think of similar horrors, particularly the Holocaust, that are too horrible to remember but impossible to forget. We have a duty to remember, but trauma cannot be completely assimilated in the mind or the memory. This is a key paradox for the Jewish people as we are constantly struggling with this tension between forgetting and remembering our history.