Commentary for Beshalach

3 Feb

In this week’s parshah we read about the splitting of the Red Sea and the Song of the Sea that the Israelites sing in praise to God afterward. The splitting of the sea marks the end of exodus from Egypt with God’s climactic defeat of the Egyptian army, ending the series of punishments God sends upon the Egyptians.

There is a famous discussion in the Hagadah of just how many punishments the Egyptians were stricken with in total. Rabbi Yosei the Galilean starts things off by noting that Pharaoh’s magicians warn him that the plagues are “the finger of God (Ex. 8:15),” while the Torah in our parshah describes the smiting of the Egyptians at the Red Sea as “the great hand with which God acted upon the Egyptians (Ex. 14:31).” If one finger is ten plagues, then one hand’s worth of fingers is fifty, making for a total of sixty plagues.

Rabbi Eliezer then quotes Psalms 78:49 which refers to the plagues: “He sent upon them His burning anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble; a band of emissaries of evil.” He says that burning anger, wrath, indignation, and trouble are all separate plagues sent within each plague, meaning that each plague is really four plagues, making forty plagues in Egypt and two hundred at the sea for a total of two hundred and forty. Rabbi Akiva, however, argues that the verse should be punctuated with a comma replacing the semicolon, meaning that “a band of emissaries of evil” should be considered a fifth plague component of each plague, making for fifty in Egypt plus two hundred and fifty at the Sea for a grand total of three hundred plagues.

One of the reasons this discussion is so famous is that it is many people’s first and most common exposure to the type of minutiae that is often debated in Rabbinic texts, and often with the outcome of the debate seeming to have no real effect on anything. What does it matter if there were sixty plagues or two hundred and forty or three hundred? Isn’t the important thing that God took us out of Egypt with signs and wonders and punished the Egyptians for their wrongdoing and defiance of Divine will?

Bafflingly, the Hagadah doesn’t even provide us with a definitive answer for this question. Instead it just segues into the next topic, asking “how many great favors has the Omnipresent performed for us?” before launching into the singing of Dayeinu (“it would have been enough for us”), which is a long list of things God has done for us. When taken within the context of the song, though, some of the favors listed in Dayeinu seem odd. Would it really have been enough for us if God had split the Red Sea for us but not let us pass through it on dry land? And would it really have been enough for us if God let us pass through on dry land but didn’t also prevent the Egyptians from pursuing us by drowning them in it? What would be the point of that?

Dayeinu is placed where it is in the Seder to juxtapose the discussion of plagues. The many great things that God has done for us can all be divided into even smaller components, all of which themselves are also great things God has done for us. Similarly, the plagues God smote the Egyptians with can all be continuously broken down into even smaller components, which are all punishments in and of themselves. It is not the numbers themselves that are important, but rather the thought process behind them.

The introduction to the Song of the Sea is usually translated “Thus sang Moses and the Children of Israel (Ex. 15:1),” but the first two words, “az yashir” can also be translated as “thus will sing.” Just as we remember and give thanks for the great deeds God has done for our ancestors, so too must we remember to recognize and thank God for all of the ways that God blesses us in our lives today.

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