Tuesday, February 25, 2020 -
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The miracle and the mourning

One of the most dramatic visual scenes in the Torah is that of the splitting of the Red Sea. To see nature reverse its natural course — rupturing a natural pattern of flowing water, splitting it as it transforms into two walls of water on each side of dry land — this alone is breathtaking. But in tandem with the timing and pressure of the Israelites being pursued by the Egyptians, this scene  is doubly stunning. Not for nothing has the dramatic splitting of the sea been the centerpiece of a number of movies.

To imagine Moses and his staff, standing over the waters as they split, howls of desperation behind him, moments of life and death hovering over some three million people, is indeed mesmerizing.

In the last second, the sea snaps in half; a miracle redeems the people from the fate of death by drowning.

In the English language, this biblical scene is often referred to as the splitting of the sea, the crossing of the sea or the parting of the sea.

But in Hebrew this miracle is referred to as keri’at yam suf, meaning the ripping of the sea.

Interestingly, when you read the biblical text depicting the dramatic scene, the words keri’at yam suf are nowhere to be found. The words with which we traditionally and routinely refer to this incident are absent. Instead, the Torah employs the word beki’a as in beki’at yam suf.

The word beki’a is used a number of times in the Torah. For example, in the story of Korach, when the earth opens and engulfs Korach and his followers, the root for the word beki’a is used for the earth opening. Beki’a is regularly used in conjunction with splitting, or opening. often in conjunction with nature.

So, according to the Torah, the miracle of the Red Sea is beki’at yam suf.

Yet none of us refers to the miracle that way, only as the ripping of the sea.

Famously, in the narrative of Joseph and his brothers, when Ruben the eldest the son returns to the pit with a plan to rescue Joseph, but instead finds the pit empty and understands he is too late and that Joseph is gone — in those painful moments of realization that the unthinkable has happened to Joseph, Reuben’s instan- taneous response is to rend his garments. In the Torah, to rip one’s clothes is a symbol of grief and mourning.

Similarly, when Jacob is presented with the Joseph’s signature coat of many colors — soaked in blood — he rips his clothes as a sign of bereavement at the implied death of his beloved son.

When King Saul loses the kingdom of Israel and the prophet Samuel is parting from Saul, Saul’s loss of the kingdom is symbolized by the tearing of a cloak (it is ambiguous whether it was Samuel’s or Saul’s garment that was torn), whereupon Samuel says to Saul: “G-d has torn the kingdom from you . . .”

And to this day the Jewish ritual of mourning is expressed in the ripping of a garment.

Emotional loss is expressed with keri’a, a symbolic ripping of fabric.

When you consider the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the Torah’s word beki’a fits perfectly as a description of a cut, of a split, of division.

But the sages wanted to amplify another perspective for us about this miraculous moment.

While the Israelite collective was saved, the pursuing Egyptians drowned in the same waters that moments prior stood as two pillars enabling the Israelites to walk between them on dry land.

There is a certain dissonance that the sages are calling our attention to.

The splitting of the sea was our miracle, but it was the Egyptians’ tragic fate.

Same waters. Same moments.

Of course the Egyptians were evil in enslaving and torturing the Israelites, and their end was just, nonetheless they were still drowning. As the Midrash famously comments in a rebuke of Moses singing The Song of The Sea, “the work of My hands are in the sea and you are singing?”

There is a mourning within the miracle. Hence the sages coined the term for the splitting of the sea, kri’at yam suf, which simultaneously encapsulates the miracle and the mourning of the miraculous splitting of the sea.

I heard this idea from Yael Schlossberg.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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