We spend so much of our energy from this parshah on Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea) and the crossing of the Red Sea, it feels as if that is the only piece of the story we read. Whether you are thinking the cartoon “Prince of Egypt,” or the great midrash about the Israelites being able to pull whatever food they want from the waves as they walk by, the parting and crossing of the sea is a very compelling moment. The song of gratitude and awe at the end is one of the great classics of our liturgy, and develops the eternal theme of the Jewish people: God brought us out of bondage into freedom.
I want to explore the careful way in which this happens. Though Moses is given but the barest of instructions as to how to free the people and convince them to follow him, and the logistics of moving more than half a million former slaves to safety, we have many clues in this parshah that point to God’s scrupulousness in protecting the people in their new and delicate freedom.
We know that God explicitly chooses to make their journey longer rather than have them encounter the warmongering Philistines. Interestingly, God’s concern is that if the Israelites meet the Philistines, they may have a change of heart and return to Egypt as slaves. The Philistines are to become major enemies once the Israelites settle in to the land of Israel, so perhaps it is not just their character as a free and fierce people, but also their future role as opponents that is worrisome to the Divine.
Here we have a nod to the relative comfort, mentioned later by the Jews themselves, of slavery — the Torah tells us of the oppression of hard work, but never of privation with respect to food and lodging. We see a very human tendency — often it is easier to stay in a situation that is imperfect, or even abusive, than to risk the unknown with all its uncertainties and new challenges. And we see the gentleness in God, how there is an awareness that freedom is not so easy at first, and how the people must be guarded from their fears as well as from the Egyptians.
God creates a pillar of cloud and of fire to act as guides to the Israelites, but they are also goads: By dint of the fire, travel can continue at night. We get the feeling of fugitives, not yet sure of their own selves.
In talking to Moses, God mentions Pharaoh’s thoughts — the Jews are lost and wandering. We don’t know what Pharoah, if left alone, might choose to do about this, but for the last time, his heart is to be stiffened, and he will pursue them to his doom. Interestingly enough, it’s not so that the Jews will know the power of God, but so “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”
As the people see the Egyptians they react somewhat predictably: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” Freedom is harder than slavery until you are really free of the slavery itself.
So once again, God takes on a protective role — the pillar of cloud moves behind them and obscures everything: The Egyptians cannot see the Israelites, and the Israelites are given a reassurance that there is no continuing threat. And then, as the morning comes, the Israelites march through the protective walls of the sea, while the Egyptians are thrown into panic and confusion.
And suddenly the veil is lifted: The oppressed realize there is hope, that freedom can be better than slavery, that they are now able to pull themselves out of their fear and move forward toward the covenant and the promise. As we will read, God’s protection continues in smaller and smaller ways as God’s people learn to stand on their own and accept upon themselves the partnership at Sinai.
Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is the spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.