B’Shalach: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
“Why Did They Have to Drown?”
The Song at The Sea with its archaic Hebrew style—when compared with the rest of Torah—is probably the most ancient text in the entire Jewish canon. It describes Moses and the Israelites, having crossed the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds in Hebrew) and witnessed the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies, singing a song of freedom, a song of utter joy in the presence of God’s miracle and love. The song begins: “I will sing to the Eternal, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea” (Exod. 15:1). And though we may be familiar with this story—either having encountered it in Torah (or, admit it, having watched Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”!)—we seldom question why the Egyptians had to die such a violent death.
A careful reading of the text reveals that the crossing of the Sea of Reeds was a set-up. Though the Hebrews were well on their way to the Promised Land after fleeing Egypt, God orders them to turn back and set camp by the sea facing a place named Pi HaChirot, the “Gate of Freedom.” God proceeds to harden Pharaoh’s heart yet again, and Pharaoh then sends six hundred of his best charioteers in pursuit of the Israelites. Because of Pi HaChirot’s geographical location, the Hebrews now find themselves caught between the sea on one side and the storming armies of Pharaoh closing in on them on the other side. They have nowhere to go. “The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite camp, 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 camp of the Egyptian and the camp of Israel… so that the one could not come near the other” (Exod. 14:19-20). The scene is set, and Moses is about to lift his arms and staff to part the waters and have the Hebrews cross over to the other bank. God will then let the Egyptians give chase and drown Pharaoh’s entire cavalry.
But was that truly necessary? Why didn’t God just keep the angel and the pillar of cloud in place while the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds and, once they were safe on the other side, let the waters return to their original station? Wouldn’t the water barrier between the Hebrews and Pharaoh’s armies have been impassable enough to stop the Egyptians and declare our ancestors free? No Egyptian had to die. Torah claims that God reasoned, “so that the Egyptian may know that I am YHVH” (Exod. 14:4), but the rabbis are deeply uneasy with God’s reason. The Talmud even includes a midrash in which the angels are about to join the Israelites in singing but God interrupts them, saying: “How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are drowning” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b).
So, what purpose does the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies serve? It wasn’t so that God could demonstrate Divine superiority. Nor was it for the Egyptians so that they would suddenly become monotheists. It must, therefore, be for us, the fleeing Hebrew slaves. We can look to Jewish burial ritual to inform this reading. At the end of a burial, attendees ritualistically shovel the dirt on top of the coffin, until the pine box is completely covered in the grave. Between the sounds of the dirt hitting the box and the physical act of shoveling and seeing the coffin disappear under the earth, the mourners get a sense of the finality of the moment. Even if, until this point, they might still have fantasized that their loved one could still reappear, after this, they no longer do. The Israelites needed that kind of closure. They needed to see their sworn enemies buried under the waters of the sea to know that their liberation was complete, that the Egyptians would no longer reappear and pursue them. Now they were truly free. Now they could sing.
Such is our inner journey of liberation. After we leave places of stuckness in our lives, the doubts and fears that kept us enslaved to our previous way of being come rushing in, pursuing us as we take our first steps into freedom. As we resist their call to turn back to the way things were, and persevere toward a higher goal, we reach a point of no return—the crossing of our Sea of Reeds—as these fearful and doubt-full parts of the self we used to know die within us. Only then do we finally know that we are now free to step into the next stage of our evolution.