Walls of Wrath

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After the plague of the firstborn, Bnei Yisroel has finally left Egypt. But, although the Egyptians had urged then to leave, Pharaoh and his minions now had “buyer’s remorse.” Pharaoh launched his chariots to catch the fleeing Israelites and return them to Egypt. Bnei Yisroel arrived at the Red Sea. Before them was the dangerous sea while behind them were the Egyptian charioteers ready to re-enslave them. Moshe hears the desperate cries of his people and prays to Hashem. Hashem replies, “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisroel and let them journey forth.” At this, Nachshon ben Aminodov courageously jumps into the sea while the waters are swirling around him. Bnei Yisroel follows him in. Finally, when the waters are so high that they almost drown him, the waters split, “And Bnei Yisroel came within the sea on dry land, and the water was a chomah/wall for them, on their right and on their left.”

Bnei Yisroel continue across the sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. Finally, when all of Bnei Yisroel have crossed to the other bank, the waters return to their natural position, drowning all the Egyptians. The Torah now seems to repeat, “Bnei Yisroel went on dry land in the midst of the sea; the water was a chmah/wall for them, on their right and on their left.”

While the two verses seem identical in a cursory reading, the subtle differences between them beg exploration. First, why was the order reversed? In the first verse, Bnei Yisroel went into the sea itself which somehow became dry land. In contrast, the second verse implies that Bnei Yisroel went in when it was already dry land with the sea already forming the walls alongside them. Further, the walls themselves appear different in the two verses. In our first verse, chomah/walls is written with the extra “vov”” so that it can only be read one way. In the second verse, chmah/wall is written without the “vov.”By changing the vocalization, it can easily be read as chaimah/wrath. If that is the case, why was the sea angry?

A medrash throws some light on the problem, writes Rabbi Grossbard. The angel Samael/Satan complained to Hashem saying that both Bnei Yisroel and the Egyptians were idol worshipers. Why kill the Egyptians while saving the Jews; they all deserve death. Samael’s wrath reached the sea, and the sea was infected with that same anger. However, Rabbi Schlesinger notes that this medrash raises a further question. If Bnei Yisroel were such idol worshipers, why did Hashem perform all the miracles of the plagues for them?

In Meged Yosef, Rabbi Sorotskin begins to shed some light on our dilemma. When Hashem created the world, He built certain future anomalies into the natural condition of some of these creations. When Hashem created the seas, He conditioned that the Red Sea would split for Bnei Yisroel at the appropriate time, then drown the Egyptians, and then return to its natural state. But if the sea was now fulfilling the condition of its creation, why was it angry?

In trying to understand this problem, the Otzrot Hatorah cites Sefer Aperion’s comparison of this situation to the situation of Lot after the destruction of Sodom. The angels urged Lot to go to the mountain, probably back to his uncle Avraham’s house, but Lot asked to go to Mitzor, a closer area, “lest the evil catch him.” There Rashi explains that Lot was not afraid of the distance he would need to travel, but of being compared to Avraham Avinu. As long as Lot was in Sodom, Lot reasoned, he was considered a righteous person worthy of redemption. But if he went back to the righteous Avraham, he would be judged as an evil person in comparison, worthy of death. This is what Lot feared.

Similarly, when Bnei Yisroel were in Egypt, although they may have worshiped idols, in comparison to the Egyptians, they were definitely on a higher moral standard. Now that the Egyptians were drowned and Bnei Yisroel were to be judged on their own merits, the sea did not deem Bnei Yisroel worthy of being saved through this unnatural act of the sea.

Expanding on this thought, the Meshech Chochmah explains that there are two categories of sins, and each category is judged differently whether it is a communal sin or a private sin. The major sins such as idolatry and murder are judged less severely for the nation than are the interpersonal sins such as stealing and loshon horo. As proof, during the generation of King David, the people were all righteous as individuals, yet time after time they “tattled” to King Saul about David. When Bnei Yisroel went to battle during this era, many Jews died. In contrast, during the reign of Achav, idol worship was rampant, yet no one told Achav that Ovadiah was saving 100 prophets from Achav’s death sentence. Because Bnei Yisroel were united, they were always successful in battle.

On the other end of the spectrum, the generation of the flood was destroyed for the interpersonal sins of promiscuity and theft, while the builders of the Tower of Babel who rebelled against God were united in their quest, and Hashem spared them.

While Bnei Yisroel were in Egypt, they were very careful about their interpersonal behavior. They were united and did not speak negatively about each other. Now, at the Sea, divisive factions were forming. Some trusted in Hashem and wanted to jump into the sea while others wanted to turn back to Egypt. When Bnei Yisroel were unified, the sins of idolatry would not be judged so severely, but now that they were divided, their sins of idolatry loomed large, igniting the anger of the sea.

In a related idea, the Sifsei Chaim notes that a person merits the mercy of Heaven and judgment in both spiritual and physical areas in proportion to his involvement with the community. The more one is involvement in communal matters, the greater the flow of good from above. There are so many ways one can be involved with others in the community, from checking on elderly or sick neighbors, caring for children, helping organize the synagogue, arranging programs, leading the congregation in prayer, and so much more. There is an interesting characteristics of the language of the Torah. There is no letter of the Torah that can stand alone [as the “a” or “I” in English, for example]. Each letter must be joined to another to be meaningful. Since each Jewish soul is represented by a letter in the Torah, we can deduce that no Jew can stand alone but must become part of the community with others.

Rabbi Rivlin quoting the Gra, takes us in a different direction to understand the sea’s anger with the insight of the medrash. Bnei Yisroel numbered several million souls at this point in time. It would take quite a while for all of them to cross. Traditionally, the nation was led by the tribe of Yehudah, specifically in the person of Nachshon, while the tribe bringing up the rear was the tribe of Dan. Nachshon and the first tribe or two actually entered the sea before it split, while the later tribes were still on dry land, after the sea split. One of the artifacts that was brought out of Egypt was in fact an idol, the idol that Michah of the Tribe of Dan took with him. This would become a source of idol worship in the Land after Joshua’s death during the era of the Judges. The sea was not angry when the first wave of Bnei Yisroel entered, but when the idol entered, the sea saw no difference between the idol worshiping Egyptians and the [potentially] idol worshiping Bnei Yisroel. Why did it need to change its nature for Bnei Yisroel?

But Hashem tolerates insults and is forbearing and patient. Hashem wants His creations to emulate Him, so He instructs the sea to remain split and calm, in spite of its anger, with walls on either side of Bnei Yisroel. We too must emulate Hashem in this way, teaches Rebbetzin Felbrand. We too must be patient and forbearing even when we feel our honor has been besmirched.

The Shvilei Pinchas cites the Vilna Gaon in stating that there were in fact separate factions in Bnei Yisroel. Those with great faith literally took the plunge into the water, while those of little faith waited and entered on dry land only after the sea had already split. For them the sea split, but only grudgingly. So what does it mean to have faith?

Rabbi Asher Weiss quotes the Chazon Ish in explaining the concepts of emunah and bitachon. While both can arguably be translated as “faith,” bitachon is the practical application of faith in one’s life. Emunah, then, can be explained as having two levels. The first is blind faith that, since Hashem is omnipotent, everything will turn out well regardless of the situation. The second level is understanding that although Hashem is omnipotent, we must be deserving of His intervention. We have faith that Hashem is in control, but we do not know all the factors that contribute to making the decision Hashem deems the best decision for us. Our understanding of “good” is limited and may be incorrect.

But our faith in Hashem as all encompassing does have the power to affect outcomes, writes Rav Chaim of Volozhin. The Ohr Hachaim offers the events under current discussion as proof. Hashem instructed Moshe to tell Bnei Yisroel to stop crying and start moving. It will be the trust the people put into Hashem that will bring about their salvation.

According to the medrash, the angel did not tell the sea to get angry; it merely pointed out that Bnei Yisroel were idolaters like the Egyptians. But Rabbi Schrage Grossbard points to the rest of the verse, the right and left became pillars to protect Bnei Yisroel. What were these right and left pillars? These, the Medrash tells us were the mitzvoth that Bnei Yisroel would keep, the mezuzah on the right side of he door and the tefillin generally worn on the left arm. Since all the world was created to do Hashem’s will, the sea was originally angered with Bnei Yisroel for worshiping other gods. But when it realized that Bnei Yisroel would accept and uphold the Torah, its anger ceased, and it split to do Hashem’s will to save Bnei Yisroel. If Bnei Yisroel would not be saved to receive the Torah, the entire world would revert to its original chaotic state.

The Torah is not just a blueprint and plan for the creation of the world, writes Rabbi Tatz; it is the very genetic material that forms the physical existence of the world and without which the world does not exist. The sea understood it had to do the will of Hashem.

Along these lines, the Shvilei Pinchas offers a different perspective in explaining the differences we have noted in these verses as well as understanding why our Sages chose to call this miracle kriyat Yam Suf, literally the tearing of the Red Sea, while the Torah refers to the miracle as bekiyah/splitting of the sea. According to the Shvilei Pinchas, the waters in fact split twice. After Bnei Yisroel entered the sea, the waters split and revealed the dry land. They were followed by the pursuing Egyptians. When Bnei Yisroel finished crossing, the waters returned and drowned the Egyptians. However, two members of Bnei Yisroel had not left Egypt with their brothers. Dasan and Aviram remained behind, feeling comfortable in Egypt. But they followed the Egyptian charioteers, and, witnessing the splitting of the sea, they followed the Egyptians into the sea. After the Egyptians drowned, the sea was forced to split again to allow Dasan and Aviram to cross. While the sea split voluntarily/bekiyah for Bnei Yisroel to cross, the sea was angered by Hashem’s decree to tear itself apart/keriyah again for these two contentious souls.

Why were Dasan and Aviram, who were the cause of so much tragedy, saved so miraculously? According to the medrash, they were two of the guards who received beatings on behalf of Bnei Yisroel when the quota of bricks fell short. For this toil and sacrifice for Bnei Yisroel, Dasan and Aviram merited being saved.

This also explains why our sages compare providing a livelihood and providing one’s proper mate to be as difficult as keriyat/the tearing of the sea, continues the Shvilei Pinchas, for the individual will be deemed worthy according to how he toiled to study Torah and to keep the mitzvoth. Just as the mesirat nefesh/self sacrifice of Dasan and Aviram earned them salvation, so does our self sacrifice for Torah and mitzvoth earn merits for us.

All creation is a constant manifestation of Hashem’s will. Whether things are done willingly or reluctantly, everything follows Hashem’s plan. Nature is a constant miracle, and we have the ability to affect the universe by our own devotion and self sacrifice to do the will of Hashem, just as we did at the Red Sea, and just as the Sea itself did.