Like many of you, I was excited to watch the Inauguration of President Obama a few weeks ago. Let me read you a few of his words:
"My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors…. That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood…. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met. "
I found the inauguration incredibly inspiring. There were over a million people there; it was the first big public moment of a brilliant and charismatic leader; and President Obama took the moment to reassure a humbled people at a difficult time that we can face our challenges and be a great nation again.
And I think it must have felt much the same at the Red Sea, at the moment described in our parsha. There was even bigger crowd (there were 600,000 adult men, so clearly well over a million when including women and children). And Moshe didn’t have a megaphone, much less any jumbotrons! But he spoke to the people and they heard him, and he told them, “Have no fear, stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.”
I’m entranced by the visuals of both these moments. I had actually just been in DC a few days before the inauguration. I saw the Mall, and it was empty except for some walls of port-a-potties and a lone Fox news reporter interviewing a dog about how he wouldn’t be allowed to be there on the big day. (The dog actually seemed to be OK with it, although the reporter was sad on his behalf.) So to see it on TV so crowded, with people standing there as far as the eye could see, was astonishing.
I was also drawn to a tremendous visual symbol in the images of the crowd – perhaps those of you who also watched the inauguration on TV noticed this. My eye was drawn to the Washington Monument: this enormous pillar of stone, a symbol of the founding of our nation, watching over the ceremony.
And there were pillars at the Red Sea too! Not a pillar of stone, but a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud. Here’s what the Torah says (starting on page 400 of the Etz Chaim chumash):
They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel by day or night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
So the daytime pillar was essentially a GPS device, and the nighttime pillar was a super-high-tech combination GPS and floodlight.
But were there really two pillars, or just one? Rashi and the Ramban and other traditional commentators say that there were two – so there was a little changing of the guard at dawn and dusk, and the pillar being relieved from duty would go off to have its meal and rest and play cards.
But the Etz Chaim chumash suggests that there was really just one pillar, and you would notice the fire more at night (it looked like little flashes of lightning) without seeing the dark cloud, and you would notice the dark cloud during the day without seeing the lightning as much. I prefer this interpretation as it reminds us of the power of perspective – the same thing can look very different simply depending on how much light is shone on it. I think the Obama administration is bringing just such a new perspective on government. And also as someone who works for the federal government for an agency devoted to government accountability, I find the image of shedding light on our government to be very appealing.
The imagery and symbolism of the Red Sea become even more captivating when you consider the moments of crossing themselves. At that moment, going back to Rashi’s traditional interpretation: there were two pillars, and it was nighttime. The Israelites were in front, and the pillar of fire rose up behind them lighting their way. The pillar of cloud was behind that, obscuring the view of the Egyptians. And if we also contemplate the miracle of the ground remaining hard beneath the feet of the Israelites when it should have been muddy; and the walls of water making way for the Israelites on either side – then we see that at that moment, all four of the classical elements of ancient science and current mysticism – fire, air, earth, and water – were hard at work performing miracles for our people.
I wondered, when I realized this, whether the four elements had any basis in Jewish thought, and was reassured after a little research that they’re very much present. The Rambam (Maimonides) understood the four elements to be the basic substance of all things, basically the medieval version of the elements we now put in the periodic table. So he saw no mystical or spiritual meaning in the four elements, but simply considered them to be the building blocks of nature. And this makes sense: the Rambam was a scientist, and that was the going scientific theory of his time.
There’s also a more spiritual take on the elements from an ancient midrash, in which the elements are painted as taking an active role in the creation story. The midrash tells us, “The fire gave birth to light, the water gave birth to darkness, the wind gave birth to spirit, and the earth gave birth to humanity.” I find this very beautiful. We can imagine a much simpler and more direct version where the elements simply gave birth to the aspects of the physical world: fire would create the sun and stars, water would create the oceans, wind (or air) would create the atmosphere, and earth would create the land. But instead, this midrash says “The fire gave birth to light, the water gave birth to darkness, the wind gave birth to spirit, and the earth gave birth to humanity” – the elements are creating both the inanimate/material and the human/spiritual worlds.
And it’s clear that the moment at the Red Sea is its own kind of creation story. We have the birth imagery of the sea crossing, and the creation of a free nation from a nation of slaves. And both of these images bring forth another metaphor for me: God created the four elements, says the midrash, these different but complementary powers, and working together they created the world. And all four elements worked together, each using its own superpower, to bring the Israelites safely across the Red Sea. It’s a beautiful lesson in diversity – and we’re all familiar with systems that categorize different people as belonging to one of the four elements, based on personalities, astrological signs, etc. So we can read these stories as reminding us that when a great challenge is at hand, all kinds of people need to work together to meet it, and each person needs to bring forth all the different strengths within themselves.
And this is one of the deeper lessons of the moment at the Red Sea as well. While on its face, we seem to have a story of a great leader, and God, and miracles, it’s important not to forget those million-plus people who actually crossed the sea. A midrash tells us of a regular guy, a biblical Joe the Plumber named Nachshon of Yehudah, who waded into the water up to his neck. Moshe was holding out the staff, but nothing was happening, and Nachshon walked right into the water anyway. And it was not until that moment of faith and courage that the sea actually parted. And every single member of the nation followed, in what must have been a terrifying leap of faith, worrying at every moment that the waters could come crashing back down. But despite their fears, each of those individuals kept moving step by step towards freedom.
And just as we did then, at this moment in U.S. history, we need every individual American to step up to contribute to meet the moment’s challenges.
President Obama spoke eloquently on this point, and you can almost hear the echo of the red sea in his words:
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny… let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
I’m looking forward to helping to meet our nation’s challenges, together with all of you.