Sunday, April 12, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 8. From the Red Sea to the State of Israel

The seventh and final day of Pesach traditionally marks the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Two midrashim present contrasting portraits of this miraculous moment. The first:
דרש רבי נהוראי: היתה בת ישראל עוברת בים, ובנה בידה, ובוכה, ופושטת ידה, ונוטלת תפוח או רמון מתוך הים, ונותנת לו, שנאמר (תהלים קו, ט) "ויוליכם בתהומות כמדבר", מה במדבר לא חסרו כלום אף בתהומות לא חסרו כלום

Rav Nehorai offered the following midrashic understanding: When walking through the sea, if a mother was carrying her child in her arms and he cried for food, she merely reached out her arm and plucked an apple or a pomegranate from the sea and gave it to him ... just as wanted for nothing in the wilderness, similarly in the depths of the sea, all was provided for them.
In this reading, the passage through the sea was Eden-like, all needs taken care of, and not even a cry hear. But see this second midrashic impression:
כיון שירדו לתוך הים היה מלא טיט שהיה עד עכשיו לח מן המים והיה בו כמין טיט שנאמר (חבקוק ג, טו) דרכת בים סוסיך חומר מים רבים והיה אומר ראובן לשמעון במצרים בטיט ובים טיט במצרים בחמר ובלבנים ובים חמר מים רבים הוי וימרו על ים
When they had plunged into the sea bed, they found it was full of clay, because it was still wet from the water,  ... the tribe of Reuben said to the tribe of Simeon: In Egypt we had clay, and now, in the sea, once again we have clay. In Egypt we had mortar and bricks, and now, in the sea, once again we have mortar and bricks. Hence: "But they were rebellious at the sea," even at the Red Sea. (Shemot Rabba 24: 1)
In this second reading, even as they cross the sea, the Israelites complain about their muddy walk. They see the mud and it reminds them of Egypt. Even at the moment of their redemption they are reminded of past oppression, they sense a looming threat, they worry that they are back in the mud of Egypt, and they criticize and grumble.

What might we say about this? Which midrash is "true?" I think it is entirely possible that even in the midst of an Eden-like divinely guided redemption, the people experience it as a testing, arduous trek. What do I mean?

We are now emerging out of the festive days of Pesach into the "y'mei Zikaron-Atzma'ut." This week we mark Yom Hashoah, next week, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut. We come out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and immediately find ourselves thrust into memories of the Holocaust, and the re-experience of our national revival, and the re-establishment of our independence in our national homeland.

Surely this is some form of "redemption", from Holocaust to Independence, from death to life, from exile to homeland, from slavery to freedom; it is historic, prophetic, indeed a process of national redemption. and yet it came with much suffering and many challenging difficulties. It did not come "on a silver platter." The War of Independence had moments in which the future of the Jewish State was for from assured. Our independence came at great human loss and great suffering. The new immigrants that were saved by, and boosted the young State of Israel were settled in shanty towns and tent cities (ma'abarot)  and there was a great deal of (justified) unrest and misery! So, is this a a welcome process of national redemption, or is it a story of complaint and fear?

Once I was leading a tour of midrasha students to Tel Bet-Shemesh. We toured the archaeological site and then I asked them to turn around and look at modern Beit Shemesh. I told them the story of the "development town", the rage of the sephardic immigrants, and the social problems, and then moved on to the more contemporary problems with the unrest generated by the influx of Beit Shemesh's Haredi population. I told my students that we pray daily for the blessing of the "ingathering of the exiles" but that at times, we find this "blessing" hard to swallow, difficult to digest, a grueling undertaking.

But we should not lose perspective. Sometimes, even though God is leading us miraculously through the sea to the promised land, fulfilling the promises of generations, we can only see the mud, we sense the hardship and the overbearing challenge, and we feel overwhelmed, frightened, and we complain. As a nation, we always have. But let us not lose sight of the larger picture. Redemption is a long and winding road, but we are walking to our historic destiny.

Shavua Tov!

(With thanks to Baron Dasberg)

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