Jewish Life in Your Life

Search and the other Reform websites:

Splitting the Sea . . . So What!

  • Splitting the Sea . . . So What!

    B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16
D'var Torah By: 

Who is like You, Almighty God, who split the Sea of Reeds for our people to cross . . .

You split the sea. Big deal; it was one sea, one time. Such limited power; it's not even such a big sea! Let us tell You about power. You split one sea, while we, made in Your divine image, have resurrected an explosion of primitive organisms in all seven seas, killing all sorts of larger species of fish. Because of our might, 90 percent of the world stocks of cod, tuna, and other big fish have vanished over the last fifty years. We have wiped out most of the once colorful coral reefs off of our most popular coasts.

You split the Red Sea, ho hum. We've created the "Red Tide," our clever name for algal blooms, where microscopic organisms create thick masses near the ocean's surface. Don't think for a moment, however, that we have limited our palate to red, oh no. We have nurtured great masses of phytoplankton that can turn our oceans mucus green and brown as well. You killed some Egyptians, that's all! It seems so anthrocentric. We are, on the other hand, far more varied. Our poison is not limited to humans alone; rather, sea birds, fish, marine mammals, and more are exposed to our effective neurotoxins. The gentle and graceful manatee washes up with lungs full of blood. We are affecting our marble with its beautiful swirling cloud-swept atmosphere like a slow-hitting meteor.

One sea! Big deal! We've knocked out 75 percent of kelp forests off of California. We've created 150 oxygen-depleted dead zones throughout the seven seas! We've increased the levels of bacteria and jellyfish. Hundreds of gray whales have washed ashore dead or sick as we've made their waters acidic. You split one sea. Why, just recently, under our stewardship, a twenty-five-square-mile ice shelf broke off of Canada's Arctic coast. We have megatrawlers scraping entire ecosystems. We have acoustic fish finders, nerve gas disposal sites, forty-mile drift nets. We created plastic debris, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, and sewage sludge, and we have changed the basic ingredients of the ocean's living soup!

In the year the world's tallest skyscrapers fell, the world's largest floating oil rig sank off Brazil. In Ecuador, more oil has leaked into the ground than in the Exxon Valdez disaster, the whole land reeking of oil, large black drops forming on vegetables when it rains. When the late Saddam Hussein ordered seven hundred Kuwaiti oil wells to be set on fire, he began history's most uncontrolled experiment on the effects of air pollution. With black clouds hovering for years over Arabia and chemicals fusing in ways scientists could never imagine, it turned the Gulf War into a war against the gulf, five hundred miles of coastline awash in oil. From above, NASA photographed a poisonous paisley of black and blue swirls. Rosy-hued shore birds drawn by ancient memories from Africa pause in the fragrant marshes and intertidal flats, feathers glued, nostrils clogged, searing bright eyes entombed in asphalt.

After Cain was cursed from the ground for slaying his brother, he could no longer work the land; it would not yield to him (Genesis 4:12). So instead, Cain built the very first city (Genesis 4:17). We see his bloody fingerprints in every concrete city, amidst the graffiti and violence. We are as sick as we make the world around us, no less. We are violent by nature because we are violent with nature.

We have adopted the un-Jewish belief in an unnatural heaven, a place above and beyond this world. It's a heaven that deludes us to trust that after all the mess we make, we ascend, we get out! Our souls are pristine and unsoiled. We have rejected our ancient Hebrew faith that eternity was not in a separate heaven, but in the promise of a future reconciliation on earth, a return to the Garden of Eden, with our swords beat into plowshares. The oldest form of afterlife belief in Judaism is resurrection, the belief in the precious reunion of body and soul, or earth and spirit.

We were founded by a shepherd, not a carpenter. We are an agricultural religion, an oral culture of storytellers. We forgot that we are a religion of the land, our holidays agricultural. Our sages studied in the vineyards of Babylon, expounding under trees. Deborah dispensed judgment under her date palm. Shabbat ends with the appearance of three stars. We have blessings for rain, dew, thunder, rainbows. Birkat HaChamah is an astronomical blessing over the sun that we say once every twenty-eight years. Torah is filled with instructions protecting the earth. The majority of our laws concerning tzedakah are based on agriculture. Set aside a tenth of your crop (Deuteronomy 26:11?12). Do not harvest the corners of your field; leave what remains for the poor (Leviticus 19:9). Do not destroy fruit trees in times of war (Deuteronomy 20:19). The menorah is patterned after a plant. The Torah is the tree of life. The Hebrew root for "spirit,"n'shamah , is the same as that for "wind," n'shimah . The kabbalists say the forgotten pronunciation of the name of our God is Yah on the whispered in-breath and Weh on the whispered out-breath. Thus the whole name of God is formed by a single cycle of the breath, the awesome mystery of God's name not separate from the mystery of breathing.

You made us very powerful when You said You created the world for our sake (Genesis 1:26-29). You made us powerful enough to ignore your plea: "See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world?for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it" ( Kohelet Rabbah 7:28).

You split one sea to redeem one people, our people, in Your love for us, and we've churned and corrupted all seven seas for our love of nothing but ourselves. Who is like You, Almighty God, who limits Your immeasurable power, by only splitting the Sea of Reeds!

Rabbi Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California. A book of her poetry, House Plant Meadow, will be published this year by David R. Godine, and she is the author of a chapter in The Women's Haftarah Commentary (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004).

In Holy Partnership
Davar Acher By: 
Roslyn Barak

At the very same moment I opened the draft of Rabbi Klein's d'var Torah , I also opened a solicitation from the Weizmann Institute of Science. What a cosmic coincidence! The brochure listed six contributions from the Weizmann Institute that have helped in the fight against disease: a universal flu vaccine; research into how the human liver can self-repair; a discovery about the cancer-reversing properties of a chemical in garlic; a tiny DNA computer called "a doctor in a cell"; proof that keeping the body healthy maintains a healthy brain as well; projects dealing with growing kidneys from embryonic tissue; and new therapies for bone marrow transplantation. The work goes on, the tireless work of redemption from the slavery of disease.

We sing to God in B'shalach because we have been redeemed from physical bondage and from the psychological wounds it has inflicted. Slaves are dependent, unable to really make choices or step outside boundaries, unable to take responsibility for their lives, unable to express their deepest longings or even dare to dream, because the possibility of freedom is so remote and the disappointment of dashed hopes so great.

With the Song at the Sea, we celebrate God's mighty hand and outstretched arm with an explosion of praise and words that are insufficient for the emotion that is felt, but are the only vehicles we have with which to express gratitude. Who among us has not taken a moment to thank God when something wonderful happens? Who has not marveled at God's power when experiencing the birth of a child or seeing something exquisitely beautiful in nature that takes our breath away? And yet, too often we learn how powerless we are when something horrible happens. Do we blame and curse God then or mock God's powerlessness to intervene? Some of us may choose to do this, but we have been taught as Jews that we are partners with God in everything that happens to us and to the world. Nothing good or bad happens without our direction, intervention, and (or) approval. We make the decisions that either create or destroy. We may have been given the power to think and reason by another force outside ourselves, but we can use that power to control our destiny. How can we reconcile a gracious, loving, and all-powerful God with the destruction and gloom we see around us? We can say, Hineini? I am here. Let me do my part to repair the world. Let me not give up hope. Let me teach others to work for the good.

Yes, God has limitations?those limitations are human beings. Perfect in their creation, born in Eden, we are unleashed and given stewardship over an immaculate world, only to ignore the possibilities and misbehave. God can only do so much alone. We need to be like those scientists at Weizmann, those protesters camped out in the redwood trees, those crusaders for protection of our environment. When we say Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai , "Who is like You,Adonai , among the gods that are worshiped?" we need to be reminded to be on guard against those other gods?the gods of greed, lust for power, disrespect for HaShem's (God's) holy creation. As long as there are human beings willing to worship those gods, there may be little hope. As long as the rest of us do our part, we can continue to hope that God's greatness, in partnership with us, will restore the world to wholeness. B'shalach teaches us the joy of hope, the miracle of redemptive power, the song of a people with the potential to embrace and create a better world.

Roslyn Barak is the cantor at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, California.

Reference Materials: 

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406

When do we read B'shalach

2021, January 30
17 Shevat, 5781
2022, January 15
13 Shevat, 5782
2023, February 4
13 Shevat, 5783
Sign up for the Ten Minutes of Torah Emails