I am connected to the sedra of Bashalach not through a birthday or an important life event but through a film: Cecile Demille’s “The Ten Commandments” which I saw in the cinema when a young boy. I vividly recall the climactic scene when Charlton Heston as Moses, bearded and robed, raises his staff before a raging sea and then, in a spectacle of colour and rousing music, the Red Sea parts into two huge walls of water. Once the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea to the far side, Moses raises his staff again and the walls of water collapse onto the Egyptian soldiers and horses, all to be drowned save for Yul Bruner as pharaoh, unrepentant to the end.
As a boy, my biblical learning tended to derive from the cinema rather than chumash. I am pleased to report the opposite is now true. So what account does the sedra give of the splitting of the Red Sea and what questions and lessons does the account have for us?
The key text is found in chapter 15, verses 21 and 22 of shemot. They read:
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong East Wind and turned it into dry land. The water was divided and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”
Three questions present themselves to me from the text:
- Did the Red Sea split into two walls of water or did they subside into the distance in the form of a low tide?
- What caused the Red Sea to split or subside? Was it Moses’s hand? His staff? The words he spoke? The East Wind?
- What exactly was the miracle, if any? If the Red Sea divided into two walls of water, presumably the miracle was a supernatural event in which the laws of nature were suspended. If the Red Sea subsided in the form of a low tide, presumably the miracle was the timing of the low tide; it happened just as the Israelites arrived and needed to cross with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. May be there was no miracle at all: low tides at the Red Sea have happened before and will happen again.
I draw two conclusions from these difficult and possibly unanswerable questions.
First, the Charlton Heston version did not, regrettably, happen. I favour the view that the Red Sea retreated by way of a low tide in the time it would normally take for this to happen in accordance with the laws of nature. I say this as the East Wind raged, we are told “all night”. When the Sea came together, verse 27 also seems to suggest the event took time: Moses stretched out his hand and the sea returned to its strength “when the morning appeared”.
Secondly, the miracles in our lives do not take the form of supernatural events. Those are to be found only in man’s imagination and the world of special effects and fairies. Rather, the miracles occur consistently with the laws of nature, the turning of the earth on its axis, the passing of the seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. As I write, I think of the miracles that have occurred recently in my life: the birth of a great nephew, the flowering of my garden, moments of connection with my students and the intimacy from friends, laughter and food.
It is human to long for the extraordinary and nature defying events of film and fiction to break into our lives and change them dramatically for the better. That may happen for a select few but I suspect that for most of us, they never will. Rather, it is in the humdrum, the mundane and the ordinariness of the day where, if we look hard enough, we will find the miracles of and in our lives.