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Parashat Beshallach — Shabbat Shirah 5776 — 01/23/2016

Parashat Beshallach — Shabbat Shirah 5776 — 01/23/2016

Shemot 13:17-17:15

At the splitting of the sea, a maidservant saw what the Prophet Yechezkel did not see. (Mekhilta)

The splitting of the sea is often held up as a “difficult miracle” – providing a living for every individual is described as being “as difficult as the splitting of the Sea.”  Now of course nothing is “difficult” for Gd, so we can’t take statements like this literally.  I think what “difficult” means is that the miracle involved complete suspension of the laws of nature – it was not a miracle that (apparently) is brought about through “natural” means, like, for example, the birth of a baby.

Here is the way R. Steinsaltz describes it:

When the sea is split, the process is essentially different from the miracles that have occurred thus far – whether the plague of blood, the plague of frogs, or the plague of the firstborn.  When the plagues come, they are clearly miraculous occurrences, but they are local miracles, events that transpire in the external world.  By contrast, when the sea becomes a place in which people are able to walk, the feeling is completely different.  Suddenly, nature changes, the whole system is transformed, and everything that we know about reality is no longer valid.  The sea is no longer a sea; the water is no longer water: The rules of physics do not apply.

This is why the maidservants could see what the Prophet could not see – Gd pulled the veil of the material world back and exposed the underlying reality.  It was a moment of clarity that was granted to the nation as a whole, even to those whose spiritual level could not really support it under normal circumstances (this would include just about everyone except perhaps Moshe Rabbeinu, as Gd later tells Aharon and Miriam: If someone among you experiences Divine prophecy, then when I make myself known to him in a vision, I will speak to him in a dream [Num 12:6], as opposed to Moshe who speaks with Gd “as one speaks with a friend.”).

Our ability to perceive is based on the state of functioning of our physiology.  This is a common experience – when we wake up in the morning, fresh from a good night’s sleep, we see more clearly and understand more deeply what we see.  At the end of the day, when we’re tired, the opposite is generally true.  Nonetheless, even if our physiological functioning is blocked by accumulated stresses and strains, there might be a time where, for a short time, maybe when we are just relaxing, not doing anything in particular, that we have a moment of crystal clarity that comes for a short time, and then fades back into our normal style of functioning.  I think that experience, writ very, very large, may give us an inkling what the maidservants, and everyone else, experienced at the Sea.

What does it mean that the veil was pulled back?  We know both from physics and from our tradition that creation is structured in layers, of which the visible, material creation is only the outermost, and crudest layer.  It is like the crust of the earth – that is what we see and that is where we live, yet it is only a thin veneer that covers all the dynamics of the layers beneath it.  If we can see beneath the surface, we can see these layers, as each layer is structured by the one beneath it – the atomic layer structures the molecular layer, the molecular layer structures the gross material layer, etc.  At the center of all this apparent activity is Gd, infinite and unmoving.

Generally, our awareness is focused solely on the material level.  This makes sense in its own way – our bodies must navigate the material world, and avoid its pitfalls.  The trouble is, if our awareness is totally constrained with in these boundaries, then it is unable to comprehend the great majority of the structure and functioning of the world around us – our perception and our understanding is just too superficial.  Generally, however, our physiological functioning gives us no choice, as we discussed above.  When the sea split, however, Gd, for His own reasons, allowed the nation as a whole, including not only the maidservants but even babies in their mothers’ wombs, to see through to the ultimate reality, as it says This is my Gd… (15:2) where the use of the word This (Zeh) indicates that the people were able to point to Gd with their fingers, the vision of Gd was so clear!

When we say that the veil was pulled back, I think what we mean is not that reality changed, but that our perception of reality has changed, and in the direction of greater accuracy.  Unfortunately, if the physiology is not prepared for it, such a vision cannot last.  Indeed, it can be so overwhelming as to destabilize the personality altogether:

Immediately after Israel’s emergence from the sea and the ecstasy of the Song of the Sea, the Torah says that “Moses made Israel travel from the Red Sea” (15:22).  After this experience, Moses had to force his people to travel onward, because theey themselves were dazed and disoriented.  They simply stood there in a state of confusion. … This individual who just emerged from the Red Sea does not know whether he is in a dream or in the real world; the whole world seems different to him.

Perhaps this is why our Sages were so cautious about teaching esoterica widely – the physiology must be prepared and purified in an organic manner to be able to sustain ever-deeper experiences of reality.  Then we can live this deeper perception of reality on a full-time basis, not just as a brief flash in the pan.  The maidservant may have seen more than Yechezkel the Prophet, but Yechezkel was able to sustain his vision.  The maidservant saw the light of Gd.  Yechezkel lived in the light of Gd.  That’s why we celebrate the splitting of the Sea, but we strive to live a life of prophetic closeness with Gd.

Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31 (Sephardim 5:1-5:31)

Shabbat Beshallach is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of [the] Song [at the Sea].  Correspondingly, the Haftarah is the Song of Devorah, which she and Barak sang after another great deliverance, this time from the armies of Sisera.  The Ashkenazic tradition begins with the story of the battle between Barak and Sisera, while the Sephardic tradition begins with the song.  Just as R. Steinsaltz picked something other than the Song at the Sea to discuss, I’d like to take an idea that is hinted at in the first verse of the Ashkenazic Haftarah:

Devorah was a prophetess, eshet Lapidot (4:4)

The last two words, eshet Lapidot, are generally translated as “the wife of Lapidot,” who is identified in the Rabbinic literature with Barak, and this is why I capitalized Lapidot.  Artscroll, however, translates them as “a fiery woman.”  A lapid is a torch, and, incidentally, barak is lightning.  In this story Barak is definitely secondary to Devorah, the “fiery” torch-woman.  What might this be telling us?

It was a dark and stormy night.  Suddenly there was a flash of lightning, for a split second illuminating everything, then the world was plunged back into inky blackness.  (Apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton.)  This is like the illumination the nation experienced at the splitting of the Sea – brilliant, but momentary clarity.  Devorah, on the other hand, is a prophetess – her torch-light is more steady, if perhaps slightly less brilliant.  And there is no question who is the lead role in this story – it is Devorah who gives Barak his marching orders, and when he insists she accompany him (to light his way?) she tells him he will have none of the glory of victory, but that the glory would go to a woman (Ya’el, but that is a story for another day).

Truly, this is how it must be.  Flashes of inspiration will only take you so far.  They open your eyes to a whole new realm of possibilities, a whole new reality that up till now might have been completely beyond our ken.  But it takes the steady guidance of a torch-bearing teacher to make that inspiration a day-to-day reality.