By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Dignity and Differences
Following Kriyas Yam Suf - the Parting of the Sea, the Torah stated, "And
they believed in G-d and His servant Moshe." What exactly did they believe
in? It can not mean that they believed in the existence of G-d and Moshe.
Belief is required when there is no empirical evidence to support the facts.
However, at the time of Kriyas Yam Suf the Jews had sufficient proof of G-d's
existence to declare, "This is my G-d and I will
glorify Him"! To the degree that a human is able to "see" G-d, the Jews
"saw" G-d. The Medresh says, "A maid servant at the splitting of the sea
realized more of G-d's actuality than the greatest of prophets." Regardless
of what biblical critics have explained, Kriyas Yam Suf was at the time clear
evidence of G-d's reality and His special love for the Jews. Therefore, it
doesn't make any more sense to say that they "believed" in G-d's existence
than it does to say that they "believed" in Moshe's existence.
To understand what it was that the Jews believed in following Kriyas Yam Suf
requires a study of the Shira - song that followed. The word "Uz - Then"
that introduces the Shira connects the Torah's statement of their belief to
their spontaneous outpouring of song and praise. The main body of the Shira
describes G-d's power and majesty as He meted out justice to the Egyptians,
the glory of the miracle itself, and the world's reaction to the miracle.
However, the focus of the Shira - song is best identified at the end of the
The final verses (15:17-19) juxtapose the destruction of the Egyptian cavalry
with serving G-d in the Bais Hamikdash. In essence, the Shira proclaims
splitting the sea and destroying the Egyptian forces was to enable the Jews
to serve G-d in the Bais Hamikdash - Temple. As the Chosen People in the
Promised Land, the Jews would assume their rightful role and serve both G-d
and humanity as the "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation."
Following Kriyas Yam Suf, the Jews understood far more than the obvious
reality of G-d's power and majesty. They understood that they had been
selected from within the melting pot of Egyptian society for the purpose of
being G-d's chosen. They understood that being chosen meant that they had a
mission to accomplish as His Kingdom of Priests. Therefore, their stated
belief was not for that which they had already experienced or witnessed with
their own eyes. ; Their "belief in G-d and His servant Moshe" had to do with
accepting their station and future responsibilities as the world's designated
teachers. This they believed was for their own benefit as well as the
benefit of all the nations.
The Jews's acceptance of their designation as the Chosen People was the
single most important aspect of the Exodus. It was their first willful step
toward accepting the Torah. Most slaves aspire to be free, like their
masters. Few slaves, if any, aspire to be free for the specific purpose of
becoming responsible for their former masters. As the Chosen People, the
Jews would have to accept the Torah along with the mandate for teaching all
the other nations, including the Egyptians, about G-d and their obligation
for serving Him.
From the very beginning of Bereshis, the Torah emphasized speciation and
separation. Just as day and night, heaven and earth, land and water, fruit
and vegetable, fish and bird, animal and man, male and female, weekday and
Shabbos, are separate and distinct from each other, so too the Jew is
separate and distinct from the non-Jew. At first, the distinction between
Jew and non-Jew was less obvious because the Jews were only a family.
However, in Egypt they became a distinct and identifiable nation.
Knowledge and comprehension begins with being able to discern the natural
differences that exist in our world and our society. To the extent that we
recognize the natural lines of demarcation that G-d has established will be
the extent to which we have clarity of purpose. Three times a day we ask
Hashem to grant us "wisdom, insight, and discernment." Discernment is the
ability to see differences and understand G-d's purpose in creating them
different. If G-d wanted the components of nature and society to be separate
and distinct, he wanted them that way for a reason. It is then our
responsibility to ascertain what G-d's reasons are so that we can best serve
His purposes. (It is this ability to observe and explain differences that
distinguishes the innovative and creative scientist from all others.)
Separation and speciation enable us to comprehend G-d's intentions. G-d had
a reason why He separated the different elements of creation, and He had a
reason why He separated the Jew from the non-Jew.
Starting with the beginning of Sefer Shemos and Pharaoh's anti-Semitic
statement, "Let us be wise and find a solution to our Jewish problem, " (1:9)
the Jew was forced to be and feel separate. This, in and of itself, wasn't a
bad thing. Pharaoh's evil was in how he made us feel different. He could
have imposed on us the uniqueness of being the honored teachers (as Avimelech
did with Avraham. Bereshis 20:15) and demanded that we live up to the
standards of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Yoseph. Instead, he enslaved us,
oppressed us, and forced us to be separate and different for personal motive
It is personal motive and gain that blinds us to the purposes of separation
and speciation. The judge who takes a bribe is no longer able to objectively
distinguish between right and wrong, guilty and innocent. So too, Pharoah's
personal agenda blinded him from seeing the differences between himself and
G-d. He was no longer able to distinguish between his own agenda and the
national destiny of the Jews.
In general, all racism and persecution involves the devaluing of those who
are different. To the extent that we can devalue others will be the extent
to which we can justify abusing them for our own personal gain. On the other
hand, human dignity is in direct proportion to the degree of distinction that
we attribute to others. By recognizing all people as unique and separate
from each other and ourselves we are able to attribute divine purpose and
intent to every human being.
The entire story of the Exodus and the climactic miracle of Kriyas Yam Suf is
a story of separation and designation. Every plague separated the Jew from
the Egyptian. Every confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh challenged
Pharaoh to subordinate his personal agenda to G-d's intentions. Moshe's
stated goal, "And we will go a distance of three days and serve our G-d," was
not merely a smoke screen. G-d certainly didn't have to lie to Pharaoh about
His intentions for freeing the Jews. Moshe was requesting that Pharaoh
acknowledge the difference between the Jew and the non-Jew. The Jew had been
separated from the rest of the nations to be G-d's kingdom of priests and His
holy nation. As such, they had to prepare for that task apart from the
Egyptian, no differently than Aharon and his sons would one day separate
themselves from the rest of the Jews for seven days at the time of their
inauguration into the priesthood.
At the time of the actual splitting of the sea, the concept of separation was
even more obvious. First, Pharaoh again hardened his heart and because of
personal gain lost his perspective regarding the Jews and G-d. "What have we
done by sending away the Jews? They were our slaves!" (14:5). In the
Shira, Pharaoh's intentions are even more clearly stated, "I will chase them,
catch them, and divide the spoil!" (15:9). When the Jews heard the
thundering sound of Pharaoh's army, they were understandably frightened and
questioned their short lived designation as being the teachers of the world,
rather than the slaves of Mitzrayim. "It is better that we serve Egypt than
die in the desert!" (14:12). Moshe responded to their fear by assuring them
that they truly were the beloved chosen of G-d. "Fear not! G-d will protect
you while you silently stand by." (14:14).
G-d then mixed fire and darkness and created a barrier between the Jew and
the Egyptian (15:20). The mixture of light and darkness represented to the
Jews what nature would otherwise be like if they do not embrace the reality
of their separation from the other nations. The absence of separation is the
reversal of creation itself!
G-d then split the waters of the sea and the Jews walked to safety. The
theme of separation was again emphasized. G-d could have chosen any number
of ways to save the Jews. He chose the splitting of the sea because water is
compared to Torah, and it is Torah that ultimately separates the Jew from the
non-Jew and teaches the Jew the uniqueness of each and every human being.
As the Jews witnessed the destruction of the Egyptian, and saw the dead
washed onto the shore, they were able to believe that they had been chosen
for a purpose that would yet be revealed. At that moment they knew that G-d
existed and that Moshe, His servant, only spoke His words. However, they
also realized that forever after they would be separate from all the other
nations. Their destiny awaited them in Eretz Yisroel. They fully believed
that the purpose of their designation was to become the Kingdom of Priests
who would serve both G-d and humanity in the Bais Hamikdash. As priests all
their actions would have to reflect the dignity of the human being created in
the image of G-d.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.