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Pesach 2017 / 5777 - I'm a Political Man: The Splitting of the Sea and talking politics in shul

16.04.2017 by

For a while now – and quite intensively over the past months – a lively conversation about whether we should mix politics and religion has been going on. This discussion got pretty heated around the time of Israel’s wars in Gaza, and has recently resurfaced with a vengeance over attitudes towards Trump. I was a guest speaker at the wonderful Bais Abraham synagogue in St. Louis right around the time of his inauguration, and the topic was discussed (particularly the question of whether Rabbis should keep politics out of their sermons or not) in quite a lively fashion. Very recently, Shmuel Rosner wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about this, in which he argued against Haggadot which championed various contemporary causes. Raphael Magarik, in a very interesting and persuasive piece in Jewschool, took issue with Rosner’s ‘keep politics out of the Seder’ position. I’d like to add my two zuzim to the discussion.

On the seventh day of Pessach we remember the splitting of the Reed Sea, which took place on that day. The Haggadah, in a section which I think most of us liked as kids but then perhaps grew a bit cynical about, emphasizes the awesome nature of that event, particularly in relation to the ten plagues which led up to the exodus from Egypt: If in Egypt there were ten plagues (or 40, or 50), on the Sea there were 50, or 200, or 250. The emphasis on how awesome and miraculous the events at the Reed Sea were, as opposed to the plagues in Egypt, seems strange. Many commentators point out that the splitting of the sea seems gratuitous, unnecessary: The Rashbam says (on the “Dayenu” section), that God could have simply saved the Jews and sent them on their way, without the pyrotechnics at the sea, or, if He felt He must, He could have split the Sea, let the Israelites pass through, and then immediately returned the water, thereby preventing the Egyptians from entering the Sea at all.  The splitting of the Sea is actually antic-climactic – the Jews are already out of Egypt, after 10 quite dramatic plagues, why do we need this epilogue at all and, now that we have it, why do the Rabbis strangely make it the greatest event in the exodus story, five times as great as the plagues in Egypt, which were the actual trigger to the exodus?

The basic answer is to be found in a verse quoted in the section of the Haggada we are discussing, and which is the source of the 1:5 ratio: In Egypt, the magicians of Pharaoh point out, it was the finger of God that brought the plagues. However, after the splitting of the Sea, and the drowning of the Egyptians, we are told that “Israel saw the great hand which God used against Egypt, and they believed in God and in Moshe his servant.” The finger/hand difference is, of course the source of the 1:5 ratio; what happened with the hand at the Reed Sea was five times as much as what happened with the finger in Egypt. Now this really makes sense in terms of the conclusion of the verse: “And they believed in God and in Moshe His servant”. It is the miracles at the Sea which, finally, get the Israelites to really believe in God and Moshe. Not the plagues, not the exodus itself, it was this miracle, this event, that finally got to them. This is what leads the Rabbis to aggrandize the plagues at the Sea (50, 200, 250) over and above those in Egypt: it was the plagues at the Sea that worked, that convinced the Israelites to believe, so they must have been greater.

Now, it might be true, at least when it comes to miracles, that size may indeed matter. It may well be that the convincing nature of the splitting of the Sea lies in its gigantic, majestic sweep, the vastness of the blow dealt to Egypt. The ten plagues were great, miraculous, but on a smaller scale, which is why they didn’t do the trick for the Israelites.  The miracles at the Sea were five times as grand, and that’s what convinced them. But when we stop and think about it, this is not so clear. The plagues in Egypt were quite dramatic, and miraculous – from the all-important Nile turning to blood, to fiery hailstones falling from the sky, to three days of darkness, ending with the death of every first born, these are a big deal, and seem quite convincing. I would like to look a bit deeper to understand why the splitting of the Sea is so much bigger and more convincing, five times greater, than they were.

The Ktav Sofer, on this section of the Haggadah, discusses our question of why the plagues at the Reed Sea were so different from the ones in Egypt, so much greater and more convincing. He points out that the really new feature in the splitting of the Sea was the element of מידה כנגד מידה - measure for measure, as Shakespeare translates it.

As he understands it, the plagues in Egypt were simply ways to pressure Pharaoh to do the right thing and free the Israelite slaves, they were not justice or punishment for the crimes Egypt had committed; they were leverage. Had Pharaoh freed the Jews after the first plague, the other nine would not have been necessary, and would never have happened. They were simply instruments, meant to free the Jews.

The splitting of the Sea, on the other hand, was, as we pointed out above, unnecessary, not needed as an instrument to further the fortunes of the Israelites. Rather, what it was, the Ktav Sofer claims, was divine justice for the horrible, unforgivable Egyptian crime of drowning the Jewish baby boys in the Nile; measure for measure, a drowning for a drowning. The ten plagues were instrumental; the splitting of the Sea was a meting out of justice.

Looked at in this way, we see an interesting distinction: the ten plagues are about what the Jewish people needed to be free, to become an independent nation. The splitting of the Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians was about judging and punishing Egypt, about God not only making sure that His chosen people are OK, but going beyond that, to dispense justice, to right historical wrongs, to bring a ‘measure for measure’ balance into the world. Had God only cared about the fate and future of the Jewish people, the ten plagues would have sufficed; there would be no need for any further pyrotechnics. As many commentators point out, if the Egyptians decided to chase after them, God could have saved them much more simply, with more practical, less dramatic steps than drowning their pursuers, miraculously, in the Reed Sea. That action was something different.

Now, it may well be that the miracles at the Sea were bigger, more plentiful, than those in Egypt. But their real point would seem to be in their quality, not their quantity. God taking care of the needs of the Jewish people – the ten plagues and the exodus from Egypt – is very nice. But it is at the Sea, when God reveals Himself as not only our champion, interested in our needs and our fate, but as a God who is concerned with the dispensing of universal justice, of redressing wrongs, that the Israelites are really impressed, and finally believe in Him and Moshe, His servant.

A God who takes care of His own is not what Judaism, and monotheism, is about – the idols worshipped by pagans were meant to do that for their faithful. We are certainly very happy when our God takes care of us, as He did when He took us out of Egypt. But we really behold the Creator, the Master of the Universe, when we see Him concerned with the universal application of the rules of justice and fairness, of right and wrong; that is what makes believers out of us. That is what was so impressive to the Israelites at the splitting of the Sea. Not the physical miracles – all 250 of them - as much as the revelation of a God who is concerned about universal justice, about right and wrong, about creating and maintaining a world of ‘measure for measure’. That is what was five times greater than the instrumental, parochial, miracles in Egypt.

Inasmuch as politics is about precisely these issues – justice, fairness, distinguishing between right and wrong and acting accordingly, there is no better place to discuss them than in shul, at the seder, in the Bet Midrash; and no better place to imitate God, the politician, than in our lived Jewish lives.

Chag Sameach,


Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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