Shaya Cohen -


We Could Always Try Reading the Text

As readers know, I like to study the actual text of the Torah. In no small part, this is because most people of all Judeo-Christian faiths tend to rely on what other people say the text says, instead of reading it themselves and trying to make sense of it directly.

Take, for example, the splitting of the Sea. Everyone knows the story: In view of all the people, Moses raises his staff, and G-d makes the sea split in two. The people walk through, marveling at what they see. The Egyptians, consumed with a battle lust that blinds their better judgement chase after the Israelites – only to be drowned. The entire event is a visual spectacle. It is at once a demonstration of G-d’s power and the symbolic birthing of a nation. The Exodus has been memorialized in cinematic glory and countless story books for children. Everyone knows this version of the story.

There is only one problem: this is not what the text describes.

Here is how it happened:

The Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his riders, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea. As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.

This is consistent with the “known” version. But then events take a turn. The people complain, Moses gives them a pep talk, and

Then G-d said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

But they do not do so. Not then. Instead, G-d rearranges the cloud and puts it between the Israelites and the following Egyptians.

The messenger of G-d, who had been going ahead of the Israelites, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the Egyptians and Israelites. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.

Hold on! The cloud blocks the view of the Egyptians. But it happens at night.

Then, and only then:

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and G-d drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

The splitting of the sea does NOT happen as a visual spectacle at all! There was no sunlight, no mention of any other light source. People could see, if at all, only by moonlight. It could not have been clear at all what was going on.

And there is no evidence the Egyptians knowingly walked into the seabed! Instead, they were following the cloud, blocked from any sight of the splitting of the sea ahead of them. They did not drive forward crazed with blood lust, or recklessly driven by a death wish, walking between walls of water. And we know it because of what happened afterward:

At the morning watch, G-d looked down upon the Egyptian army in/with a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

The Egyptian army panicked because they could finally see where they were! The Egyptians had followed the cloud, which had led them into the seabed. But they did not know it!

The whole crossing of the people was at nighttime. So the visual spectacle was not the splitting of the sea or the crossing of the people. The visual spectacle happened when day broke:

Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But G-d hurled the Egyptians into the sea. The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the riders—Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

And then, at that point, the point of the Exodus – all of it – became clear to the Israelites. It is then – and not at any time before – that they sing songs of praise and gratitude to G-d for their salvation. The realization happened at the same time as the final keystone of the salvation: at daybreak.

Thus G-d delivered Israel that day [this word refers to day and night – see Genesis] from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea.

We saw them alive on one side of the sea, and dead on the other. But what happened in between was cloaked in darkness.

To my surprise, I only realized this week that the common understanding was wrong. Even though I have read the Torah for as long as I could read. And I celebrate the Passover Seder every year, with hours of critical discussion. And I still got it wrong.

So the question for you, Dear Reader: Did you know it actually happened at night? Am I the fool?

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. I think the original plan for the splitting of the sea was that it was supposed to happen during daytime. But when the people did not move forward into the sea when they were told to do so, G-d improvised and conducted the Exodus at night, when nobody could be certain of what was going on.

P.P.S. I think it is very important that all through the time in Egypt, the people had no idea what was going on. They were buffeted by external forces, and never once really understood G-d’s Plan. Which is why at no time during any of the plagues did the people give thanks to G-d for helping them. It was only at the very end, with the benefit of hindsight, that the plan became clear and the reason for all the hardships could be understood and appreciated. And that is when the people express gratitude with the Song by the Sea. Hindsight is where we can most easily see G-d’s hand at work.

Comments are welcome!

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