The Holy Habitation

June 23, 2009

14 min read


Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

When the Jews finally take leave of Egypt they rush out quickly; so quickly that the bread doesn't have time to rise, as they are chased out in a frenzy.

Soon after the Israelites leave, the Egyptians have second thoughts and take chase. By the banks of the Sea of Reeds the Jews are frightened and scream to Moshe - who in turn beseeches God. Moshe is commanded to march on: the sea will split and salvation will come.

And God said to Moshe, 'Why do you cry to me? Speak to the People of Israel, that they go forward. And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.' (Shmot 14:15,16)

The Jews truly believe the word of God and continue their march, the water becomes dry land and the Israelites are saved. The hated Egyptians follow them into the water, and sink. Upon being saved and seeing the Egyptians perish, the Jews break out in song, and finally celebrate the Exodus.

We notice that the first part of the song speaks of the salvation, of the miraculous splitting of the sea, and the phenomenal victory over the fearsome Egyptian legions. The focus shifts in the thirteenth verse of the song:

You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.

The first half of the verse speaks of redemption, the second half speaks of a "holy habitation". It is curious that the verse should be stated in past tense: The Jews have not yet been to the "Holy habitation"! The next few verses leave no doubt about the meaning or the destination:

The nations shall hear, and be afraid; sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Philistine.Then the chiefs of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moav, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of your arm they shall be as still as a stone; till your people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over, whom you have purchased .You shall bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which You have made for You to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established. The Lord shall reign forever and ever. (Shmot 15:14-18)

These verses speak about conquest of the Holy Land, and the eventual construction of the Mikdash - the Temple. This reference seems somehow out of place here, and in order to understand its connection to the context and the circumstance of the victory at the sea, we must give careful consideration to the various experiences of that circumstance.

The Jews had a vision at the sea, a type of revelation. This should come as no surprise, especially as the text informs us that even the hated, infidel Egyptians had an epiphany prior to their demise:

And it came to pass that in the morning watch the Lord looked to the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and brought confusion to the army of the Egyptians. And took off their chariot wheels, that they drove heavily; so that the Egyptians said, 'Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.' (Shmot 15:24-25)

The Egyptians perceived God through the pillar of fire and cloud, and their vision caused fear and panic. This pillar of fire and cloud had accompanied the Jews from the beginning of the journey.

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night. He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the People. (Shmot 13:21,22]

This pillar and cloud had divided between the two camps the night before:

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them. And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these; so that the one came not near the other all the night. (Shmot 14:19-20)

This pillar is a manifestation of the Shechina, and the ways in which it divided between the camps were twofold and double-edged: As in the Plague of Darkness, the Egyptian camp is dark yet the Israelite camp is full of light. Yet in this case, the division is spiritual as well as physical. Just as the hated Egyptians had a revelation at the sea, the Israelites did as well. The Egyptians perceived a terrifying manifestation of death and God's wrath within the pillar of fire, the Israelites saw a symbol of life - they saw the Temple in Jerusalem.

Tradition tells us that the splitting of the sea itself had a revelatory aspect. The second verse of the song states:

This is my God, and I will praise him; my father's God, and I will exalt him. (Shmot 15:2)

This is my God: In His Glory did He reveal Himself to them and they pointed to Him, as it were, with their finger, exclaiming "This is my God"; A maidservant beheld at the Red Sea what even the prophets never saw (Mechilta: Rashi Shmot 15:2)

The experience of the splitting of the sea was so intense that people were able to point a finger and declare, "There is God". In similar vein, it should not surprise us that the Jews then shared a vision of the Temple in its glory. At that moment they were all worthy of prophesy, and they saw before their eyes a built Jerusalem, with the Temple, in all its grandeur, at its center. Yet even this would not explain why the verse presents their vision in the past tense.

There is a tradition cited by the Targum Yerushalmi that the Jews had seen the Temple once before. When the Israelites approach Sinai, God asks Moshe to relay the following message:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. (Shmot 19:4)

Most commentaries see this verse as a description of the Exodus and the transfer of the Community of Israel to Mount Sinai. Perhaps the most difficult word is the word "Elay" - "Myself". Onkelos and Rashi render it as "to serve Me," from the root "El."

And I brought you unto Myself. Explain this as the Targum does; "and I have brought you near to My service" (Rashi Shmot 19:4)

The Targum Yerushalmi goes one step further: Bringing the People 'to God' means 'to the Temple in Jerusalem'! On that first Passover Eve, celebrated in Egypt before the Exodus, the entire Jewish People was transported on the wings of eagles to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform the prescribed rites. It follows, then, that when the Temple is mentioned in the Song by the Sea, the vision of Jerusalem is referred to in past tense - for they had seen the Temple before, while performing the Passover sacrifice.

Even if one chooses not to accept this particular tradition or to understand it in a non-literal manner, it does seem quite clear that the song itself refers to a specific place of worship that was the ultimate destination of their travels. Commentaries have argued whether the Mishkan was part of the original Divine Plan or a remedy, improvised ad hoc, in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle. Perhaps we may theorize, in light of this tradition, that the Mishkan, the temporary structure that traveled with them in the desert, is what is debated, but the Temple in Jerusalem was always part of the plan.

This understanding may shed light on another issue. When the Jews prepare to leave Egypt they are told to borrow or ask the Egyptians for their valuables.

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's servants, and in the sight of the people. (Shmot 11:2,3)

This command came to fulfill the promise made many years before to Avraham:

And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. (Bereishit 15:14)

As the Jews are chased out of Egypt they put their dough on their backs and carry off the booty of Egypt, in payment for years of servitude:

And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, 'We shall all be dead men.' And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders. And the People of Israel did according to the word of Moshe; and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent them such things as they required. And they carried away the wealth of the Egyptians. (Shmot 12:33-36)

The last term used is 'vayinatzlu' which Rashi translates as "emptied out." This term is singular, used here and nowhere else in the Torah. A similar term, 'vayitnazlu' (which is also used only one time in the Torah), appears after the sin of the Golden Calf: The reality of the terrible rebellion is sinking in; the implications of the sin have become apparent. The People respond by removing their ornaments, an act echoed by God's command:

And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man put on him his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moshe, 'Say to the people of Israel, You are a stiff-necked people; I will come up into the midst of you in a moment, and consume you; therefore take off your ornaments from you, that I may know what to do to you.' And the People of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by Mount Horev. (Shmot 33:4-6)

While their mourning is understandable, why was the mourning punctuated by the Divine command to remove their ornaments? While some commentaries see the ornaments as celestial gifts endowed at the Sinaitic theophany, the simple reading of the text points to the jewelry that they wore, a reading supported by the similarity in words describing the "looting" of Egypt and the removal of ornaments in mourning.

What was the real purpose of the jewels? It certainly was not the Divine Plan to build a golden calf. Nor was the Divine Plan for the people to walk about bedecked in precious finery. The purpose of taking the precious metals was to transform the rings, bracelets and necklaces into part of Divine worship.

The prelude to the Splitting of the Sea shows us the connection between the looting of Egypt and the building of the Temple: When the sea was split, the People saw an image of the celestial Temple. They saw its beauty and splendor. This vision followed on the heels of the vision of the Shechina manifest in the pillar and cloud that separated the camps. The Egyptians were in the dark, while the People of Israel beheld a singular manifestation of the Shechina, in much the same way that the Egyptians and Israelites had opposite experiences during the Plague of Darkness. That plague was different from all the others: Pharaoh was not warned prior to this plague, and although Egypt was in the dark they do not seem to have been the direct object of the plague. Rashi asks a question about this plague that he asks about no other:

And why did He bring darkness upon them? Because there were wicked people amongst the Israelites of that generation who had no desire to leave Egypt, and these died during the three days of darkness so that the Egyptians might not see their destruction and say "These, too, have been stricken as we have"; A further reason is that the Israelites searched and saw their jewels and when they were leaving Egypt and asked them for their jewels and they replied, "We have none at all in our possession", they answered them "I have seen it in your house and it is in such and such a place" (Tanchuma: Rashi Shmot 10:22)

The darkness prepared the way for the looting of Egypt, but the purpose of the looting was not to attain individual wealth. The purpose was that they leave with the materials needed to build the Temple. As they crossed the sea they saw the image of the Temple (which perhaps they had visited one time before); the lesson they were meant to learn from this vision was that while holiness comes from heaven, man must actively enter into a partnership with God. That is how the Temple can be brought down to earth. Their experience when crossing the sea was similarly instructional: The sequence of events was not a general test of faith. The People of Israel had to take an active role in their salvation, taking the first step into the waters of the sea, forging a new, proactive relationship with God. Only then did He step in and carry out the Divine half of the partnership agreement.

Did they err, taking not only the gold of Egypt but the Egyptian deity as well? Perhaps the result of generations of slavery in Egypt caused not only pain and abuse, but also spiritual retardation, a sort of blunting of natural spirituality which engulfed the entire world. Egypt's corrupt socio-political system was responsible for this spiritual blight; therefore, the Egyptians were chosen to be the first "donors" to the Mishkan. When the Third Temple is built, all nations of the world will be able to see and comprehend its splendor:

But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the House of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. And many nations shall come, and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths'; for Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Micha 4:1,2)

On that day the Jews will once again attain the level of perception and experience they merited at the splitting of the sea, and will be able to point with a finger and say: "This is my God."

God said to Israel: 'In this world you have said only once before Me: This is my God, but in the time to come you will say it twice, for it says, And it shall be said on that day: Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord, for whom we waited. (Yishayahu 25:9) (Midrash Rabbah - Shmot 23:15)

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