B’SHALACH (Exodus, 13:17-17:16) — “Singing the Red Sea Blues”

 [This week’s message is dedicated in memory of:

Rabbi Steven Dworken, Executive Vice-President of the Rabbinical Council of America, who passed away this week.  (Age 58)  A dedicated communal leader.  A phenomenally decent human being, a good guy.  A friend.
Sam Silversmith, whose first Yahrtzeit is this Shabbos.  A wonderful husband, father, grandfather, brother, and uncle.   A phenomenally decent human being, a good guy.  A friend.

It was to be a day of miracles.  The Egyptian sorcerers had called the Plagues in Egypt “the finger of G-d.” (Exodus, 8:15)  Today, at the Red Sea, they would soon see ‘…the great HAND” (Ibid, 14:31) of G-d.  (Based on these verses, the Talmud concludes that there were five times as many plagues at the Red Sea than there were in Egypt.  It’s simple math: One finger of G-d produced ten plagues. A hand of G-d would therefore consist of fifty plagues. — See your Passover Haggadah for additional equations.)

 The Egyptian cavalry was in hot pursuit.  The king had changed his mind once again.  He wanted his slaves back.  He saddled his horse and chariot and pursued the Israelites. Israel had no place to turn.  The Egyptians were behind them and the Red Sea was in front of them.

The Israelites were terrified.  “Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt, that you took us to die in the desert” they asked Moses.  “What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?” (Verse 11)

Moses assured them that G-d would fight for them and put an end to Egyptian aggression once and for all. They would soon see the end of the Egyptian army.

That’s when all of nature was turned upside-down.

Moses raised his hand over the sea, and G-d brought a strong east wind all night, and made the sea into dry land. (That part of the miracle we all know about.  The verse continues –) AND THE WATERS SPLIT.  (14:21)

The Red Sea was already dry.  THE WATERS SPLITRashi tells us, based on the Midrash Rabbah, that this miracle was absolutely undeniable. When the Red Sea opened to accommodate the escaping Israelites, every body of water on the face of the earth split open as well. Every lake, swimming pool, and bottle of Perrier testified to the world that G-d was performing miracles for His People.

But what good is a miraculous escape route if your enemies can continue to pursue you?  The waters came back and covered the cavalry and the chariots.  Of the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not a single one survived.  (Ibid, v. 28)

There could be no question as to the majesty of G-d.  There could be no doubt that, as the Egyptians themselves proclaimed shortly before drowning in the sea, “G-d is fighting for them against Egypt!”  (v. 25)

The Hand of G-d was apparent for all to see.  The Children of Israel burst into a song that we still recite every day to remind us of this extraordinary event. According to the Talmud, all of Israel achieved a level of prophecy that exceeded the prophecies of Ezekiel.  “THIS is my G-d,” they proclaimed, “and I will glorify Him!” (Ibid, 15:2)

THIS is my G-d.  The Presence of G-d was so clearly manifest at that moment that it was almost as if they could point to Him.

Imagine the inspiration!  Imagine the holiness! G-d has declared Himself Master of Creation and has saved His precious children from certain death.  He has inflicted upon the enemies of Israel a punishment that they justly deserved.  Moses and the Sons of Israel sang… (Ibid, v. 1) Miriam and the Daughters of Israel sang and danced. (v. 20-21).  It was a song of praise and thanksgiving.  G-d’s children, every one a prophet, were proclaiming the greatness of G-d.

It was a sacred symphony; a song of praise totally unprecedented in world history. It was such an exalted event that the angels themselves could not be silent.  They too, wanted to join in and sing to G-d.  (After all, that’s what angels DO.  They sing praises to G-d!)

G-d silenced them.  “How can you sing,” He asked, “when My creations are drowning in the sea? (Talmud, Megillah, 10b)


Amazing.  No one deserved to drown more than the Egyptians.  They had, after all, drowned Jewish babies in the Nile.  Rashi points out that every Egyptian received the EXACT punishment that was coming to him: … they sank to the bottom like a stone (v. 5)…the mighty sank deep like lead (v. 10) … Your wrath … consumed them like straw.  (v. 7) Lead sinks faster than a stone, which sinks faster than straw.  The more wicked the Egyptian, the more severe and agonizing the punishment.  The “relatively decent” murderers got to perish quickly.

It is axiomatic in Jewish theology that G-d rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  This act of destroying the enemies of Israel was a great day in our history.  Moses, Miriam, and the Nation of Israel sang a sublime song of praise that has become part of our daily liturgy.  It was okay for us to sing.  Why not the angels?

Moses and the Israelites were personally saved.  If G-d had not drowned the Egyptians, you and I would not be here to tell the story.  It was a personal salvation for you and me.  Therefore, we sing.

For the angels, however, it was a different story.  They were never threatened; they were in no danger.  For them, there was no positive side.  G-d’s children were drowning, and that was a tragedy.  A necessary tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.

The Egyptians, like the rest of mankind, were children of Adam and Eve.  We are all created in the Image of G-d.  We have the potential to accomplish tremendous things.  The Egyptians were brilliant mathematicians and engineers.  But while, in matters material, they succeeded fantastically, when it came to decency and morality, they failed miserably.

Nothing is more tragic than failed potential.


I, like most Americans, would not have been disappointed had American forces succeeded in exterminating Osama bin Ladin.  His continued existence does not make us feel very secure.  As well, I don’t think many of us would mourn the passing of the likes of Saddam Hussein or Yassir Arafat. However, there is another way to look at it.

Can you imagine what the world would be like if a person like bin Ladin used his wealth and powers of leadership to make the world a BETTER place?  What if Arafat taught his people to live in peace, and used all the money he receives to alleviate the poverty and squalor he keeps his people in?  What if Iraq’s scientists had billion-dollar budgets to CURE disease, rather than spreading it?

These people are enemies of civilization, and need to be defeated.  But how sad it is that they are squandering their divine potential.  What a waste!


The Song at the Sea is introduced with the words, “AZ YASHIR MOSHE — Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song…”  (Ibid. 15:1) The literal translation of AZ YASHIR is “Then Moses WILL SING.”

There WILL be a time when the world will be prepared to meet its potential.  There WILL be a time when the nations of the world will learn to support Israel in our service of G-d.

There is no more beautiful song than a song that is sung in harmony.  Moses will sing, the angels will sing, the entire world will sing, when we all learn to LIVE in Harmony.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz


To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

From the Archives

“Get Rich THIS TUESDAY!!!!” (2010)

… In all due respect to the great Rabbi Mendel, I am troubled by this concept.  Is it possible that a once-a-year reading of ninety-nine verses (33×2 in Hebrew +33 in Aramaic) is all we need to do to make a living?? 

It almost appears to be a “quick fix;” a short formula that guarantees results without too much work. (A “spiritual Amway!” 🙂 ) And Read the magical verses and the money will flow in!  No pain, big gain!…

Read more.

“Because Your Father Said So!!” (2008)

… The Torah says to rest on the Sabbath. What’s more restful and relaxing than going fishing and then driving out to the ball park to watch the Red Sox? (Forgive the personal bias! 🙂 ) And who feels like walking to synagogue in the rain or scorching heat? The Torah says to rest on the Sabbath.

Why can’t I rest MY way?!

Read more.
“Don’t Leave Home Without It!” (2007)

… Men and women just don’t see things the same way. Men are practical. Women are emotional. Women pack for a trip to Mars as if they are going all the way to Venus. Men sometimes get exasperated over their wives’ lack of practicality.

… the Pharaoh has just done a political flip-flop. He is now DEMANDING that the Israelites leave. NOW!

You’re packing your bags. You can’t take much. You don’t even have time to let your bread rise. You grab your money, some weapons, all your credit cards… You’re going with barely more than the clothes on your back. Wait a second… “Honey! Where are you going with THOSE?!!”

Your wife has just packed her drum set into the back of the station wagon.

“Oh, I need these!” she responds…

Read more.
“Sticks and Stones” (2006)

… Moses lifted his “magic wand” … This was obviously one very powerful stick. Moses had pulled it out of the ground in his future father-in-law’s garden, a feat that no one else was able to accomplish. As a result, Jethro understood that Moses was destined to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. (The origin, perhaps, of the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur???)

… This was the staff that turned into a snake. This was the staff that turned the Nile to blood and wreaked havoc and destruction upon the Egyptians. This stick had punished the Egyptians at the Red Sea… the Israelites didn’t particularly care for Moses’ walking stick. It was destructive. It caused suffering in Egypt, and at the Red Sea. It was a killer stick. It seemed only good for punishment.
Was it capable of doing anything POSITIVE??

Read more.
“Some People Just Don’t Get It!” (2005)

Ah, they don’t make kings the way they used to! Or do they?

The king of Egypt was, to say the least, a very stubborn man. He never did seem to get it. His country was absolutely destroyed over his obstinate refusal to release his Hebrew slaves. Repeatedly, Moses told him to let the Israelites leave. Repeatedly, he refused. Repeatedly, he responded to G-d’s punishment with a contrite promise to comply. Repeatedly, he changed his mind… Sort of reminds us of most of today’s world leaders. No matter what Israel does, it’s no good. No matter what the Arab terrorists do, they are “freedom fighters,” peaceful people who have been driven from their homeland by vicious Zionist marauder. The U.N. and the European Union don’t seem to recognize the truth when it stares them in the face. They just don’t get it… Why can’t the world’s leaders be more like the king of Nineveh? …

Read more.
“Singing the Red Sea Blues” (2003)

… It was a sacred symphony; a song of praise totally unprecedented in world history. It was such an exalted event that the angels themselves could not be silent. They too, wanted to join in and sing to G-d. (After all, that’s what angels DO. They sing praises to G-d!)

G-d silenced them…

Read more.
“Is Democracy a Torah Concept?” (2002)

… Four-fifths of the Nation of Israel preferred not to leave Egypt. Why not? Medrash Rabbah (13,3) says that they had “Patronin” (translation: patronage?) from the Egyptians and they didn’t want to give up their wealth and honor by leaving Egypt.

This is truly mind-boggling. 80% of the Israelites preferred to remain, at best, as second-class citizens in Egypt, rather than to follow Moses to freedom. Obviously, Moses was far from universal popularity. He was not the heroic freedom fighter leading a grass-roots rebellion against the Pharaoh. If anything, he was probably considered a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser.

What would have happened if there had been a New York Times/Gallop Poll in Egypt? Can you see the headlines? “Eighty Per Cent Choose Status Quo…Moses Said to be Preparing Concession Speech.”…

Read more.
“Restoring ‘G__’s Thr__’” (2001)

… when the nations of the world saw what G-d had done for us, they were united in their fear of the Israelites. They didn’t love us, but at least they respected us.

Only Amalek had the Chutzpah to attack… What G-d is telling Moses is that “Neither My Name nor My Throne will be complete as long as Amalek is around!”

Why would G-d’s name be incomplete with Amalek around? Is it possible that Amalek has the power to affect G-d??! How could that be?…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at http://www.torahtalk.org. Copyright © 2000-2014  by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.
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Published in: on January 14, 2003 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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