Friday, January 29, 2010

Beshalah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at February 2006, January 2008 and February 2009.

What the Handmaiden Saw at the Sea

Sometimes one reads a saying that one has known and heard quoted all one’s life, one that is familiar, even hackneyed, and suddenly one sees it with different eyes; it appears full of puzzle and mystery. Such was my experience this week when I started to reflect upon a well-known Rabbinic statement regarding the experience of the Israelites at the Splitting of the Sea, recounted in this week’s parashah. The aggadic statement in question appears in both versions of the Mekhilta, in Masekhta Shirata, Ch. 3 (with minor variations). The first part reads:

“This is my God and I shall extol Him” (Exod 15:2). R. Eliezer said: From whence do we know that a handmaiden at the Sea saw what Isaiah and Ezekiel and the other prophets did not see? For it is said of them, “through the prophets I spoke parables [or: was conceived/imagined]” (Hosea 12:11). And it is written, “the heavens opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek 1:1).

What is so striking here? There are really two problems. First, it seems to be a generally accepted idea that prophecy, apprehension of God (whatever that may mean!—more below) is limited to special individuals. The classic example is Yehezkel, whose vision of the Divine Chariot, the Merkavah, is paradigmatic of Jewish mystical epiphanies: he saw a vision of the Divine throne, supported by four mysterious, four-faced creatures—and above it, vanishing into the mist and haze of infinity, the figure of a man seated in a throne, which was perceived as that of God Himself! This passage is regarded as the key to esoteric knowledge of the Godhead in Judaism; the Mishnah and Talmud in Hagiggah Chapter 2 impose severe restrictions on teaching it to the non-initiate. Indeed, the questioned is even raised as to whether it ought to be read in the synagogue at all (see m. Megillah 4.10; albeit, it is accepted practice in our day to read it as the haftarah for Shavuot)! Similarly, the prophet Isaiah saw a vision of “the Lord, seated on a high and lofty throne, and His trains filled the Sanctuary” (Isa 6:1; Incidentally, these two visions also introduce the two central verses recited in the Kedusha, the proclamation of God’s holiness and the secret of his transcendence and immanence, that are the centerpiece of the public repetition of the Amidah.)

But these visions, whatever they may have been, and however they are to be interpreted, were limited to special, extraordinary individuals—prophets, mystics, and b’nai aliyah (“men of degree,” as R. Shimon and his son are described in the Talmud). Various criteria and prerequisites have been suggested for this type of knowledge of the Divine: Rambam saw it as being based, among other things, upon certain intellectual qualities. Knowledge of God, if not philosophical alone, most start from the philosophical: from absolute clarity of ones theological concepts, from the rejection eliminating of all “imaginative” fancies, which are seen as tantamount to paganism. Alternatively, it requires certain hard-to-define spiritual qualities, what Judah Halevi called ”the Divine matter” (ענין האלוהי)—evidently, a special kind of intuitive insight and understanding of the Divine, which is an inborn quality of the individual’s soul. The process of such apprehension of the Divine may also involve lengthy periods of meditation and concentration, withdrawal from society, an ascetic way of life, as well as receiving esoteric teachings passed down orally from master to disciple. (Today there is renewed interest in this area; many people are attracted to Kabbalah because of the allure of being taught the secrets of the universe. There are also many non-Jewish esoteric teachings that are widespread in our present cultural moment.)

Yet all this was seen at the Sea of Reeds by an ordinary maidservant—a metaphor for the simplest, most unlearned and spiritually undeveloped person imaginable!

There is of course a second problem as well, and at this point I would that one would do well to “check” one’s philosophical baggage at the door before studying Hazal: what does it mean to ”see” God? Most of us have been raised to accept as axiomatic the ineffable nature of God: that He has no physical body, so there is nothing to see; or else that “no man can see Him and live” (Exod 33:20). Even Moses, in the famous vision in the Cleft of the Rock, only saw His “back” or, as the Midrash puts it, “the knot of His tefillin.” In this tradition, Godliness would seem to be something that may be inferred or intuited by some capacity of the human mind/soul/being, but not something that can be grasped or even defined. This idea is well expressed by a phrase used in Habad teaching: למעלה מטעם ודעת (translated, roughly, as “beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand”).

Before offering my own interpretation, let us return to the continuation of the above aggadic midrash:

They gave a parable: To what may this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who entered a city; and he was surrounded by his guards, and his mighty men were to his right and left, and his soldiers before him and behind him. Everyone asked: Which one is the king? Because he is flesh and blood like them.

But when the Holy One blessed be He was revealed at the Sea, none of them needed to ask: Which is the king? Rather, as one as they saw him, they recognized him, and they opened their mouths and said: “This my God and I shall extol Him.”

It is not fully clear to me exactly how the elements in the first half of the parable—the guards and mighty men and soldiers—correspond to the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel; most likely, they correspond to the “holy creatures” and the wheels and the other components of the Merkavah vision, and to the angels seen by Isaiah. Nevertheless, the overall sense is clear enough: the Splitting of the Sea was such an overwhelming event that everyone present instantly “recognized” God. God’s redemptive actions in history are a special kind of revelation, both clearer and more awesome than even the most sublime vision and insight of the greatest prophet. One of my favorite Habad teachings states that, where as God is usually known by human beings by inference, through a long chain of cause-and–effect (which corresponds in Kabbalistic language to the ten sefirot in each of the four cosmic worlds), on three central occasions in the history of Israel—the killing of the firstborn and the first phase of the Exodus; the Splitting of the Sea; and the epiphany at Sinai—God “broke through” his usual, indirect way of making Himself known, and made Himself known through a direct epiphany.

This also explains why the maidservant saw more than the greatest prophets. Paradoxically, precisely because the human intellect cannot really apprehend God as He is through its own tools, no matter what, when God does reveal Himself, His revelation is “democratic,” equally accessible to all: the maidservant knew God, not through the intellect or other faculties (natural or even “supernatural”), but saw God—whether this means that they actually saw some being, some persona—say, the handsome young man of one of the more daring midrashim —or whether they knew that it was God who was acting there, in an incontrovertible manner.

There remain two problems. First: how are we to understand the statement that, at some point during the Sinai Revelation, the people did not want God to speak to them, and asked Moses to mediate (Exod 20:16), because they were overwhelmed, frightened, awe-struck by the intensity of the Divine epiphany. The answer seems to be that, while God may reveal Himself to even ordinary people (basically, on these two occasions of the Sea and Sinai), the experience may be too overwhelming for it to be borne by all but a select few, those who have developed some sort of inner power enabling them to bear such an experience. (Somehow, at the Sea, perhaps because there was no Divine speech, the people were able to “see” God’s Great Hand.)

Secondly: we know that even “ordinary” prophecy is not dependent upon the prophet’s own capacities and abilities alone, whether intellectual or otherwise, but that God must choose to reveal Himself to this individual. Even an arch-rationalist such as Maimonides states that, after all the arduous intellectual, moral, and practical preparation undergone by the prospective prophet, it is ultimately up to God whether He will cause His Shekhinah to rest upon this person or not. One must then say, in reading our aggadah, that the degree of apprehension of God experienced by such figures as Ezekiel, Isaiah or even Moses, was less intense, less sublime, less clear than what was experienced by all Israel in this special historical moment. (For further insights into the nature of the revelation at the Sea, see Sefat Emet, Beshalah, 5645, s.v. semikhut ha-parshah.)


Tu Bishevat & Beshalah. Tu bi-Shevat, the “New Year of the Trees” and a day marked by eating a variety of fruits of the trees—fresh and dried fruits, nuts, etc.—always falls either on Shabbat Beshalah itself (as it did this year) or a few days prior to it. One apposite connection between the two: immediately after the account of the Splitting of the Sea, Parshat Beshalah describes the descent of the manna, the “heavenly bread” variously described as appearing like coriander seeds and tasting like honey wafers (Exod 16:31), as looking like bedellium and tasting like “cream of oil” (Num 11:7-8), or as miraculously possessing whatever taste the one eating it desired (Midrash).

It seems to me that fruit—non-animal food, which grows by itself and does not require much preparation to speak of—is the most perfect food on earth; certainly the most spiritual, and in that sense closest to the manna of old, or even to the food eaten in the Garden of Eden. It is also (outside of the Land of Israel) that diet which presents the fewest problems of kashrut; note that Daniel and his friends ate seeds zir’onim in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, as did Esther, according to midrash.

An halakhic aside: many of us are particularly fond of (some might even say: addicted to) coffee and/or chocolate, both of which are foods that derive from great pods that grow on trees in damp tropical climates. Since the halakhah states that one ought to recite the blessing borei peri ha-etz on any fruit “in the manner in which it is customarily eaten”—i.e., if inedible raw, than in cooked form—it seems logical that one ought to recite this blessing, and not the accepted shehakol, over a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar, remote distant as they may seem from the original fruit. While this approach may sound strange, I have it on good authority that several major poskim indeed think that such is the case.

“And Amalek came.” Another odd thought: we are told in the Talmud that one ought to begin preparing ourselves for each holiday thirty days before its occurrence: “one asks and expounds the laws of the festival thirty days before the festival.” It seems interesting that the story of Amalek, with which Beshalah concludes, is read approximately thirty days before Purim.


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