This lesson will take up the events which happened at the sea when the children of Israel were faced on one side by the army of Pharaoh and the sea of the other. What were the people to do? The midrashic tradition took up this question. One of the answers to this question found in the selection below, in part, became famous while the other, for reasons which will become obvious.
But before, we say more, as is our custom; we must present the Biblical text which will serve as the jumping off point for our discussion. Here I will ask you to read Exodus Chapter 14 on your own. Here, for the sake of brevity, I will only present the relevant material.
The assumption that will be made by the midrash which follows is that when the children of Israel stand at the sea the sea has yet to part and that they will making a great statement by entering the sea. Notice here that in verse 22, it seems that the community entered the sea in a united effort.
The midrash we will present here will confront this tradition with other traditions found in the Biblical traditions which it related to this episode to paint several different pictures of the events. The other vignettes will be presented as needed.
This midrash comes from a midrash called the Mechilta de Rabbi Yishmael, a Tannaitic midrash (from the period of the Mishnah) on the book of Exodus. As I noted just a few lines ago, the midrashim that I will present to not seem closely tied to the specific verse that they are presented for but seem to have been older traditions.
This week, we will be studying one long passage, which I will cut into more presentable portions. There were different traditions of what happened at the sea. Part 1 will present Rabbi Meir’s version of the story; Part 2 will present Rabbi Judah’s version and Part 3 will present that of Rabbi Tarfon which duplicates in many ways that of Rabbi Judah.
מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח – מסכתא דויהי פרשה ה
Mechilta de Rabbi Yishmael Masechet Beshallah 5 (Ex. 14.22-25)
t reward did the tribe of Judah receive?
Comments and Questions
1. Rabbi Meir’s version makes the tribe of Benjamin the hero of the story. This choice was made based on a verse from Psalm 68.
This midrash is based on a playful reading of two of the words in this verse: “rodem” rule turns into “reid yam” meaning “go down to the sea”. This kind of midrash is called a notarikon which is a fancy Greek loan word for a play on words where the word is cut into several words. The same is done for “rigmatam” their council which is slice into ragam otam “stone them” This little word game allows Rabbi Meir to create a scenario where Benjamin jumps into the water first with Judah jealous of this action.
2. The midrash brings a parable (mashal) to explain the significance of what has happened here. This parable fascinates me. I would like you to take a few minutes to think about what you think it is saying. What do you think its message was? Can you derive a modern message from this parable?
3. What do you think the ultimate purpose of this midrash was for its original audience? (See lines 9-end.)
1. ור’ יהודה אומר בלשון אחר
2. ויבאו בני ישראל בתוך הים
3. כיון שעמדו שבטים על הים זה אומר אין אני יורד תחלה לים וזה אומר אין אני יורד תחלה לים
4. שנ’ סבבוני בכחש אפרים ובמרמה בית ישראל (הושע יב א)
5. מתוך שהיו עומדין ונוטלין עצה קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב ונפל לים
6. עליו הכתוב אומר הושעני אלהים כי באו מים עד נפש
7. ואומר טבעתי ביון מצולה ואין מעמד באתי במעמקי מים ושבולת מים שטפתני ואומר אל תשטפני שבולת מים ואל תבלעני מצולה ואל תאטר עלי באר פיה (תהלים/ סט ב – ג, טז)
8. מיד אמר המקום למשה ידידי טובע בים והים סוגר ושונא רודף ואתה עומד ומרבה בתפלה
9. אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם ומה בידי לעשות
10.אמר לו ואתה הרם את מטך
11. ומה אמרו משה וישראל על הים ה’ ימלוך וגו’.
12. אמר המקום מי שהמליכני תחלה על הים אעשהו מלך על ישראל.
Judah says: When the Israelites stood at the sea, one said: “I do not want to go down to the sea first,” and the other said: “I do not want to go down to the sea first,”
as it is said: “Ephraim compassed Me about with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit” (Hos. 12.1).
While they were standing there deliberating, Nahshon the son of Amminadab jumped up first and went down to the sea and fell into the waves.
Of him it is said: “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul; I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters, and the flood overwhelmed me” (Ps. 69.2-3).
And it also says: “Let not the water-flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up; and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me” (ibid., v. 16).
At the same time Moses was standing and reciting long prayers before the Holy One, blessed be He.
Then the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “Moses, my friend is sinking in the water and the sea is closing in upon him; the enemy is pursuing and you stand there reciting long prayers.”
Said Moses before Him: “Ruler of the world, and what then can I do?”
And He said to him: “And lift thou up thy rod,” etc. (v. 16).
Now, what did Israel say then at the sea? “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever” (Ex. 15.18).
The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore, said: “He who was the cause of My being proclaimed king at the sea, him will I make king over Israel.”
Comments and Questions
- This version of the story is the more famous one. The Hosea verse gives us a clue as to what is really going on here. Ephraim and Israel are names for the northern kingdom. Judah is the name of the southern kingdom. Consequently, what we have going on in this midrash is a description of why Judah has supremacy over the northern kingdom.
- How does this verse of the midrash accomplish this task?
1. כבר היה ר’ טרפון וזקנים יושבין בצלו של שובך של יבנה ונשאלה שאלה זו לפניהם…
2. אמרו לו רבי למדנו באי זו זכות זכה יהודה למלכות
3. אמר להם כשעמדו שבטים על הים זה אומר איני יורד תחלה וזה אומר איני יורד תחלה
4. שנאמר סבבוני בכחש אפרים וגו’ (הושע יב א)
5. מתוך שהיו נוטלין עצה אלו ואלו קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב ושבטו אחריו לתוך גלי הים
6. לפיכך זכה למלכות שנ’ בצאת ישראל ממצרים בית יעקב מעם לועז היתה יהודה לקדשו (תהלים קיד ב)
7. לכך ישראל ממשלותיו
8. אמר להם הקב”ה מי שקדש שמי על הים יבא וימשול על ישראל
- This question was already discussed some time ago by R. Tarfon and the elders, when they were sitting in the shade of a dove-house in Jabneh:
- They then said to him: “Master, you teach us by what virtue Judah merited the kingdom.”
- He said to them: “When the tribes of Israel stood at the sea, one said: ‘I want to go down to the sea first,’ and the other said: ‘I want to go down to the sea first,’
- as it is said: ‘Ephraim compassed Me about with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit’ (Hos. 12.1).
- While they were thus standing there deliberating with one another, Nahshon the son of Amminadab, followed by his tribe, jumped into the midst of the waves of the sea.
- Therefore the tribe of Judah merited the kingdom, as it is said: ‘When Israel came forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah became His sanctuary.’
- and therefore, ‘Israel was his dominion’ ” (Ps. 114.1-2)
- The Holy One blessed be He said to them: The one who sanctified My name at the sea, he will come and rule over Israel.
Comments and Questions
The innovation in this midrash has to do with its reading of Psalm 114. Describe how it is rereading the first two verses of this Psalm to get across the supremacy of Judah.