Dolphin Skins?

B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16

D'Var Torah By: Marc Gellman

"And the waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; there remained not so much as one of them." (Exod. 14:28)

And in Exodus 26:14, we read: "And make for the tent a covering of tanned ram skins, and a covering of dolphin skins above."

And we ask, "Why dolphin skins?"

When our ancestors, the children of Israel, escaped from Egypt, they found the dolphins of the Red Sea waiting for them, chirping their happy dolphin-chirping sounds and splashing the blue waters of the Red Sea with their flat tails.

Suddenly the Israelites heard the terrible sounds of Pharaoh's great army chasing them from Egypt—long spears clanking and horses' hooves pounding the dry earth as the Egyptians pulled the war chariots with the metal wheels and the pointed hubs. "We are trapped!" the children of Israel screamed. "If we go back to Egypt, Pharaoh and his army will kill all of us," and about this they were absolutely right. "And if we go forward, we will all drown in the Red Sea." But about this the people were quite wrong. Moses raised his arm, and God split the Red Sea right down the middle so that two huge walls of water stood straight up with just a narrow path of dry Red Sea bottom in between.

The sight of the Red Sea split in half right down the middle with a hallway of dry land in between was amazing and confusing to the children of Israel. But can you imagine—can you just imagine—how amazing and confusing this was for the fish of the Red Sea? Now let's face it: Fish are dumb, and your average Red Sea fish would be swimming along just minding its own fish business when, suddenly, it would be swimming in midair—which is nowhere—if you're a fish. Fish, fish, and more fish just kept plopping and flopping through the wall of water and flopping around on the dry hallway of the Red Sea bottom.

The dolphins tried to save their friends, the fish. They swam quickly along the edge of the walls of water, chirping a warning in fish language, "Don't go there!" But as I said before, fish are dumb, and so they would ask, "What do you mean, don't go there? Where is the there?" And the dolphins would scream, "THERE IN THE AIR!" and then the fish would say, "HUH? We don't see any air there." And, of course, by the time this conversation was over, the fish were already there in the air—which is nowhere—if you are a fish.

As if the problem of dumb fish in the air was not enough for them, the kindly dolphins of the Red Sea had another problem. Our ancestors, the children of Israel, left Egypt with some flocks of sheep and goats and a few cows, and on their way across the Red Sea on the dry hallway of land, some of those flocks strayed a little and walked right through the walls of water and right into the bottom of the Red Sea—which is nowhere if you are a sheep or a goat or a cow. So the dolphins would swim quickly down to the bottom of the Red Sea and nudge the animals back into the air—which is somewhere if you are a goat or a sheep or a cow.

Now as if the problems of dumb fish and dumb animals were not enough for the kindly dolphins of the Red Sea, there was another problem for them. The army of Pharaoh was gaining on our ancestors, the children of Israel, in their race across the dry hallway of the Red Sea bottom. The dolphins tried to slow down Pharaoh's army by flicking their tails through the walls of water and showering Pharaoh's army and the dry hallway of Red Sea bottom so that it was not dry any more. Because of the flicking, the wheels of Pharaoh's war chariots got stuck in the mud.

Then God warned the dolphins that the children of Israel were almost all safely on the other side of the Red Sea hallway and that the walls of water would soon collapse on Pharaoh's army. But the dolphins were so busy warning the fish, pushing the flocks, and flicking Pharaoh's army that some of them did not hear God's warning. Thus when the walls of water came crashing together to make the Red Sea whole again, a few dolphins were sucked down onto the spears, onto the arrows, onto the swords, and onto the pointed hubs of Pharaoh's war chariots.

The next day, along with the junk of Pharaoh's army, there were some dead dolphins washed up on the shores of the Red Sea. Our ancestors, the children of Israel, complained to Moses, "Let's get out of here; the place stinks of dead things." But God commanded Moses and Moses told the people to gather up the dolphins, prepare their skins, and sew them together to make a tent covering that would be the top tent for the great golden box that would hold the words of God written on the stone tablets by Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses said, "When you see this tent of dolphin skins, I want you to remember that we did not leave Egypt and become a free people without a lot of help."

When our ancestors, the children of Israel, left their camp at the shore of the Red Sea, the dolphins were waiting for them, chirping their happy dolphin-chirping sounds and splashing the blue waters of the Red Sea with their flat tails.

Rabbi Marc Gellman is rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, New York.

Divine Control: Right or Wrong?

Daver Acher By: Tamara Lustgarten Gropper

Exodus 13:17 - 17:16 is a study in divine control. Over and over again, God creates a situation brimming with potential tragedy for the children of Israel and then nimbly steps in to save the day. From the moment the children of Israel set out from Egypt, the message from God could not be clearer: Without Me you are nothing. The basic elements of your survival reside squarely in My hands.

Each of the following passages from Parashat Beshalach reveals an element of God's agenda for the children of Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. As you read through them, try to identify your feelings about God's actions in this narrative. Once you have done so, consider their implications for your own relationship to God.

Exodus 13:17 - 14:31 Crossing the Sea of Reeds

This passage begins,

Vayehi beshalach paroh et ha'am, "Now when Pharaoh let the people go...." If Pharaoh had indeed finally agreed to let the people go, why then was the awesome scene at the Sea of Reeds necessary? Why, according to the text, did God choose to harden or stiffen Pharaoh's heart, having already inflicted considerable misery upon him and all Egypt, land and animals alike? In your opinion, was God justified in sacrificing the lives of the Egyptian soldiers, themselves created in the divine image?

Exodus 15:22-27 The children of Israel Arrive at a Place They Name Marah

Why would Moses, presumably with God's help, lead them to a place of bitter water? How does God respond to Moses' cry for water on behalf of Israel, with anger or in a matter-of-fact tone? To what test does God put them (15:25) in the passage? Do you see any implications in the placement of the test between the sweetening of the waters of Marah and the arrival at Elim?

Exodus 16:1 - 30 Manna and Quail

With the water shortage temporarily solved, food becomes the next issue. The children of Israel now begin to accuse Moses and Aaron of having brought them to the desert only to starve to death. (16:3) Again, how does God respond to their cries, to their sense of betrayal? What is the new test for the children of Israel? Do they pass? What reasoning does God give for providing them with food? Why is any mention of a connection between manna and Shabbat withheld until the sixth day of collecting it?

Exodus 17: 8 - 16 The Battle with Amalek

In this first battle since the Exodus from Egypt, who ensures victory? What implications do you see in God's final comment regarding Amalek?

As the children of Israel draw nearer to Sinai, God's supremacy in their lives becomes clearer and clearer. God is the source of water, food, and shelter. The people are at God's mercy just as they were at Pharaoh's mercy. Could God have chosen a different way to win their love, their reverence? Is it possible that it was God's very understanding of human nature that dictated this course of action? We are creatures of habit, and the children of Israel's habit was slavery. Perhaps only by replacing one dependent relationship with another could God begin the process of healing and renewal necessary for the children of Israel to be truly free. What do you think?

Tamara Lustgarten Gropper, MAJE, is an Assistant Teacher at Rodeph Shalom Day School, New York, and is pursuing a Masters in Education at Bank Street College, Graduate School of Education.

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

Originally published: