> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Winds of Salvation

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

On loud and quiet miracles.

The moment they had dreamed of for hundreds of years had finally arrived: The Children of Israel were no longer slaves. They had been released from their bondage through a series of miracles, and were now taking their first steps as free people. Suddenly, they were faced with a threat for which they were ill-prepared: The mighty Egyptian army, equipped with state -of -the-art chariots and highly trained warriors, was bearing down on them. The Israelites took up whatever primitive arms they could in order to defend themselves and their new freedom, but they soon realized that their weapons and military capabilities were no match for their erstwhile oppressors. The fledgling nation and their rag-tag defense force found themselves between Scylla and Charybdis, trapped between the approaching Egyptian onslaught and the foreboding sea. It appeared the experiment of an independent Israelite nation would be exceedingly short-lived.

As their tension and fear rose to a fever-pitch, another miraculous intervention transpired: A strong easterly wind blew throughout the night, creating a passage of dry land in the sea through which the Israelites made their way without even getting their feet wet.

In fact, the method behind this miraculous event might have appeared to be a natural phenomenon:

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to recede by a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. (Ex. 14:21)

Apparently, the Egyptian army - horses, chariots and all - were lulled into a false sense of security. They saw what appeared to be a fortuitous juxtaposition of naturally occurring events, and proceeded into the passageway in pursuit of their fleeing slaves. And then, a miracle of unmistakable and enormous magnitude occurred: The waters seemed to "take sides" in this battle. The Egyptians became, quite literally, the victims of a sea change, as the waters returned to their place - with a vengeance.

Apparently, the salvation of the Jews was carried out by a miracle concealed in a natural phenomenon, while the eradication of the Egyptians was carried out by the unmistakable Hand of God, through the upending of the laws of nature. The blatantly, inescapably miraculous element of this chain of events was not the method through which the Israelites were saved, but the singular method through which the Egyptians received their much-deserved punishment.

Was this merely a question of strategy, a ruse to lure the unsuspecting Egyptians into the sea? Perhaps. However, rabbinic sources offer a different perspective. The Talmud reports that a heated debate was carried out in heaven regarding the justification for saving the Israelites. It was argued that both the Jews and the Egyptians were deserving of death; in the words of one rabbinic teaching, "These are idolaters and these are idolaters." This may explain why the miraculous salvation of the Jews was subdued, and made to appear to be a natural event.

Interestingly enough, when we look back at the events, especially on Passover night as we read the Haggadah, we emphasize the miraculous splitting of the sea, and avert our focus from the punishment of the Egyptians. This is not simply political correctness; a very central element of the Seder is the message that we must focus on our salvation, and give thanks and praise to God for the miracles He performed for our benefit -even those that were disguised as natural phenomena. Just as Jews are acutely aware of the importance of timing for a good joke (always deliver the punchline just before people laugh), so, too, the timing of "natural phenomena" is what makes them miraculous. On that day, at the banks of the Red Sea, the timing of that east wind was Divine. The waters split just as the Israelites needed an escape route, and they came crashing back down as the Egyptians followed them into the sea. While the second part of the miracle may have been more conspicuous, may have left a greater impression of sound and fury, both the "natural" splitting of the sea and the "unnatural" closure of the safe passageway were miracles. In both cases, God took an active role in human history, but He chose different volume settings, as it were, to bring about these two miracles.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the Splitting of the Sea: Sometimes, miracles occur on a grand scale. Divine intervention is obvious, and only those with the most jaundiced eye can argue away the miracle. Other times, the Hand of God pulls strings behind the scenes, manipulating the natural course of events more subtly. How many times in our history has that "east wind" come to our rescue, perhaps unnoticed but, in retrospect, unmistakable? How many times throughout our history have we felt that same wind on our backs, almost imperceptibly steering us on the path to salvation? Can we, almost 50 years later, deny that the miraculous "east wind" of God's protection gusted for six days in June 1967? Then, and during so many other perilous junctures in Jewish history in which the very existence of the Jewish People was threatened, the miracles that saved our homeland and our People were often perceived as natural events. During the throes of a terrible storm, we may be unable to discern the benevolent gust of wind that brings salvation in its wake.

On Seder night, as we look back, we have the perspective and the insight born of distance and experience, and we recount the miracle of our salvation - a miracle compounded by many smaller, almost imperceptible miracles: Were there fifty, or two hundred, or even two hundred and fifty miracles at the Red Sea which brought about our salvation? This, then, is the way a Jew should learn history. Through this prism, we should consider world events as they unfold: The Hand of God is at work in the background, protecting and guiding us as a nation.

This lesson goes far beyond Passover Eve: God's involvement is not limited to the great historic upheavals or the struggles and triumphs of our nation. He is equally involved, in both conspicuous and inconspicuous ways, in the private life of each and every one of us. The Talmud stresses this with a well-known and touching lesson regarding the most personal aspect of our lives: God Himself is the ultimate matchmaker, and his efforts in this sphere are compared to the splitting of the Red Sea! (Sotah 2a) Apparently, the analogy points out the subtle, seemingly-natural course of events that God sets in motion, that "east wind" that changes our lives and brings about our salvation.

Do we take the time to notice the Hand of God in our lives? Perhaps the Talmud's message is that our response should be the same as that of the Israelites at the Red Sea: When they finally grasped the magnitude of the "natural" miracles that had brought about their redemption, they broke into song and dance, and declared: "This is my God, and I will Glorify Him!"

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