Rabbis have been known to watch Hollywood films on biblical stories strictly to see how many details the movie got wrong. But film- makers usually attempt to be somewhat authentic to the original writing, albeit with some artistic license.
So, I was intrigued by “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a new remake of the Exodus story by a director, Ridley Scott, who professes to be an atheist. He acknowledges he doesn’t accept the biblical version of Exodus, and specifically the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea. Instead, he attributes the splitting of the sea to natural phenomena resulting from earthquakes, tsunamis and tidal waves.
At first I was bothered that many who are unaware of the Torah’s account of the story detailed in this week’s portion, Beshalach, would accept the movie ver- sion as authoritative. This has happened for years with the Cecil B. DeMille/ Charlton Heston version. So many times during Torah study, well-meaning students say to me: “Rabbi, that can’t be right. In the movie, the story is so differ-ent!” And while I roll my eyes, I realize ruefully how many Jews get their Torah knowledge from Hollywood.
But upon further reflection, I realized that while it was certainly not the director’s intention, this new film may have stumbled upon a talmudic truth by accident. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 21:6) on the verse “and the sea returned to its power” (Exodus 14:27) refers to the Red Sea that had been standing as a wall for the Jewish nation to cross, and came crashing down on the Egyptians pursuers. The Midrash teaches that the Hebrew word for”power” also translates as “condition.” When the Red Sea was created, it was stipulated way back then that its entire purpose was to wait for the moment when the Jewish people needed to cross and to open wide for them. By upholding its condition to split at that moment, the sea was merely reverting to its original nature, programmed into its DNA so to speak.
Yet the Talmud teaches, when the time came and the desperate Jews were at the seashore with the Egyptians bear- ing down, the sea refused to split. Only when Moses stepped forward with the casket containing the body of Joseph did it finally split.
What was so uniquely special about Joseph? Consider the courage and noble character it took for him to forgive his family members for what they had done. They robbed him of his youth and left him to rot in an Egyptian dungeon. He had every reason and right to be bitter and resentful. What he did instead, was “split his sea” of emotions, channeling years of resentment into what is humanity’s most gallant gesture, transforming profound person- al pain into transcendent love.
The Kabbalah teaches us that the story of the splitting of the sea is also a metaphor for our lives. We too were given a “condition” before we were sent into this world to be God’s emissaries by bringing his light into the world, and to remember that there may come a time in our lives when we will be asked to do something for another person that will challenge our entire life’s structure.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement, taught that a soul descends into the world and lives for 60 or 70 years, and its sole purpose can be to do a favor for another. And when we do so, we are reverting to our true nature. Just like the sea that had been waiting to split in order to reveal its true purpose, our soul has been wait- ing all along to fulfill its promise.
In the Purim story, we read in the Megillah the dramatic exchange between Queen Esther and Mordechai. When Esther protests she is unable to go to King Ahasuerus to plead for her people, Mordechai tells her: Putting your- self on the line for another is your whole purpose of existence.
Your entire life has led you to this moment.”Perhaps this is the only reason you became queen in the first place” (Esther 4:14).
Embedded within us all is Joseph’s spirit, when facing a “sea” of resentment that seems insurmountable, by being benevolent and not vengeful, our obsta- cles split before us. Thereby witnessing our personal miracle of splitting our sea, or as the film filtered through the Midrash
puts it, it’s already in our DNA, the world.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.