Parsha Beshalach: Is It Any Less Miraculous?

Everyone has, or ought to have, their own “piece of the Torah.” For those of us fortunate enough to have become bar/t mitzvah, this is their parsha/Torah Reading, the portion which pertains to each and every Shabbat. I return happily to Beshalach every year, remembering the very patient bar mitzvah tutor who worked with me and taught me the special trup (Yiddish expression for Torah chanting music) for that portion, including the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, which Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites chanted following the destruction of Pharaoh’s cavalry corps in the Reed Sea.

I still have my original Tikkun L’Kor’eem, the special book which juxtaposes the “pointed Hebrew,” the Hebrew with vowels, alongside the “unpointed Hebrew,” which resembles the Torah text itself. It is the old battlewagon of tikkunim, the KTAV Publishing House tikkun, first copyrighted in 1946, God save the mark! and its worn covers are held together with red duct tape, attesting to its hard use over the years. In this classic edition, the editor, Asher Scharfstein, founder of KTAV Publishing, made an effort to match up Torah text with the pointed side, but did not succeed, making it necessary for the reader to make his own connections. I own a new edition of the Tikkun, computer-calibrated so that both texts completely match, but I do not use it—it seems as though one is cheating, somehow.

The most significant part of Beshalach is the actual Song of the Sea, whose text is always laid out to resemble bricks in a wall, alluding to God’s causing the waters of the sea to stand up like a wall on both sides of the fleeing Israelites. This traditional interpretation goes against the more scientific explanation, first offered by Portuguese-Jewish Biblical commentator Umberto Cassuto in 1960, in which he posited that the “Red Sea” was actually the “Sea of Reeds,” and that Moses’s miracle amounted to nothing more than advance knowledge of the tide table. Since the “Sea of Reeds” was a marsh, Moses was miraculously able to make the water table fall for the Israelites (or, perhaps, God informed him of the tide tables), leaving the mud fairly stable and easily crossed by sandalled or barefoot Israelites and wide-footed camels, donkeys, and other beasts of burden. When the Egyptians attempted to ford, Moses held out his staff, and God made the waters rise, turning the mud into quicksand, and trapping the weighty Egyptian chariots and cavalry, which did not feature four-wheel drive.

Does this make the Splitting of the Sea less miraculous? I don’t believe so—for me, a miracle is not necessarily something which occurs outside of nature and contrary to its laws, but is rather a natural event which happens in the right place and at the right time. I am most fond of Walt Whitman’s poetical statement, “Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles….In the faces of men and women I see God…I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name, and so will it continue, for ever and ever” (Leaves of Grass, 1855 ed., revised 1892).

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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