When God Blows Away an Army

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 4/28/2005

According to tradition, the Israelite band of runaway slaves crossed the Reed Sea on the seventh day of their flight from slavery. So on the seventh day of Passover, as well as in the regular reading of the Toraah in B'Shallach, the Torah reading is the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) .

That is what Moses and Miriam sang in triumph when the army of Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Place, was shattered as YHWH, the Breath of Life, became a hurricane of transformation.

Several thoughts about this reading;

I used the Hebrew word Mitzrayyim instead of Egypt for three reasons.

In Hebrew, that word means doubly narrow: the Tight and Narrow Place, as in being caught between Scylla and Charybdis, the Devil and the deep blue sea, a rock and a hard place. Perhaps it became the name for Egypt because it was a long, narrow country on both sides pf the Nile. In ancient Israelite experience, that country also became narrow-minded, a tight and dangerous place.

But calling it Egypt today risks confusing the Exodus story with modern Egypt, and inculcating hostility to Egypt (the way Jews complain that unthinking use of the Jews and the Pharisees in the New Testament risks teaching hostility to Jews today).

And focusing on geographic Egypt also points us away from the question, What is tight and narrow in our own lives today — either in society or in our own individual lives?

Finally, in our own generation, as women have entered the process of Torah-study and men have entered the birthing-room, there has emerged a whole new metaphor of the Exodus as a birthing going through the narrow birth canal of Mother Egypt, after the pangs of an especially hard labor that Pharaoh was trying to halt.

There are many aspects of the story that can be read this way: God's assertion that Israel is my first-born; the initial resistance to Pharaoh by midwives birthing children; the stories of Moses double birthing; the surprising emphasis in the midst of the Exodus story on special ceremonies for first-borns in the future; the description of Israelite houses on the very night of Passover as rimmed in blood splashed upon the doorway, like the blood-splashed womb-house through which all human beings come into the world; the sense that the breaking of the Reed Sea has something to do with the breaking of waters in labor.

When we read the Song of the Sea, we may notice how strongly it focuses on the destruction of Pharaoh's army. God is presented as a warrior Whose very breath drowns the horse-chariots of the imperial army. This can be read as a celebration of Ultra-military power, or a celebration of a force in the universe that is not military in character but shatters military power.

In the story of the night of exodus itself, a Russian rabbi of a century ago Aaron Samuel Tamaret saw a call to nonviolence. For the biblical text says that God told the Israelites to go into their houses and not come out at all during the night when the Messenger of Death was slaying the first-borns of Mitzrayyim.

Why must they stay home? Lest the Destroyer enter in your midst. This is usually understood as meaning that the Israelites might also die if they went outside. But Tamaret suggests that it means lest the Destroyer enter WITHIN you. That is, lest the Israelites learn to become destroyers. For, he argues, learning to lift the fist even in self-defense against wickedness will teach us to lift the fist in aggression as well.

Even if one does not take the teaching this far, it is clear that the Torah preserves a strong caution about the danger of militarism. One of the prohibitions on an Israelite king (Deut. 17: 14-20, especially verse 16) is that he must not keep many horses — cavalry, the weapon of empires in that day — or "send the people back into Mitzrayyim to add to his horses, since YHWH/ Breath of Life has warned you, 'You must not go back that way again.'"

The people must not be enslaved, even by their own king, to build an imperial army.

With blessings of shalom,


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