Last week I had one of those perfect moments as a teacher. The passage of Talmud we were studying was a challenging one, but my students had studied hard before coming to class, so we were off to a good start. We struggled together to put all the pieces of a complex passage into place, and when we finally achieved clarity in interpreting the difficult page, I noticed that we had gone a full fifteen minutes over our allotted class period. It was a rare moment where time – at least for me, the teacher – seemed to have stood still.
I got a sense last week of what it must have been like at the famous "Gathering of the Sages in B'nai Berak," which we remember each year at our Seders. You know, the story of five rabbis who "were telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt the whole night, until their students came and said to them, "Masters, the time for the morning Shema has arrived!" When the story is really gripping, whether it's an exciting movie, or a well-curated Seder, we can lose ourselves in the tale.
Talk about a hard act to follow! How can these last days of Passover end with the holiday's beginning, and the great story of the Haggadah? Yet, these days have a majestic story to tell as well: According to our tradition, the seventh day of Passover marks the anniversary of the parting of the Red Sea, and the final redemption of our ancestors from Pharaoh's yoke. It's a story that recalls both our complete salvation and also Egypt's absolute destruction as the sea swallows up an entire army, just as our ancestors make it to dry land.
The parting of the Red Sea is certainly a thrilling narrative, but it's also a tale that raises as many questions as the Haggadah. How can we make sense of the Divine in this story, of a God who is both deeply protective, and awfully vengeful, in a single moment? While such concerns might seem to be particularly modern ones, in fact, they troubled our medieval commentators long before us. In particular, they were bothered by one of the first lines in the Song of the Sea, the hymn of praise our ancestors sang on the safe side of the Red Sea, which we shall hear as our Torah reading on Friday, in honor of the Festival:
The LORD is a man of war, the LORD is his name. (Exodus 15:3)
For a traditional reader of scripture, this verse is particularly strange in its choice to refer to "God the warrior" as "LORD"– a name which typically is understood to denote God's merciful attributes, not God's quality of meting out justice. How can that name of God be present when the Divine is being described as a "man of war," and after having just destroyed the entire Ancient Egyptian Army under a wall of water?
Seforno, the great 16th Century Italian exegete, insists upon finding a God of mercy in this moment. God, according to Seforno, does show mercy and compassion here, by removing the most wicked and harmful people from the earth. "Yes," he argues, "we don't think of warfare as being merciful, but sometimes it is!" When a pitiless force wishes to destroy a band of helpless slaves, waging war in their defense, according to Seforno, it is the very definition of compassion. Seforno solves the problem of the verse for himself, by redefining his own understanding of what mercy and compassion can mean.
Abravanel, however, a survivor of the Portuguese expulsion in the late 15th Century, rejects such a solution. Instead, he offers an even more radical reinterpretation of our passage, by assigning it new punctuation. Instead of reading the verse as "The LORD is a man of war, the LORD is his name," he rereads the passage as a question: Is the LORD a man of war? (No,) the LORD (God of compassion) is his name!" It is never a sign of compassion or love to be a warrior, Abravanel insists. To call our merciful God a "man of war," is, in Abarvanel's reading, heresy. Therefore, even as the Song of the Sea celebrates this moment of salvation, Abravanel believes that it also rejects attributing warlike attributes to God, for at the end of the day, compassion is what God is all about.
As radically different as these two medieval readings of our verse are, it's also worth noting how much they share with one another. Both Abravanel and Seforno struggle with the tensions in our verse: The way God is being described here verses the way they previously envisioned the Divine. They both approach the Torah with a deep respect for the text's history, a love of its language, and, just as importantly, a willingness to read the text in ways that might break with the past as well. For one scholar, that means reinterpreting the way a word – compassion – had been previously defined, and for the other, it means shifting the way he reads the text itself, swapping in a question mark for a comma.
On the opening days of Passover, most of us gathered at Seders where we pursued the deepest meanings in our people's foundational story, the Exodus from Egypt as told in the Haggadah. It's a ritual that draws us back home, even at times when we seem to have wandered away from our tradition. Now, a week later, my blessing to all of us is that we continue to wrestle with our sacred stories going forward: Over these concluding days of Passover; and more importantly in the weeks and months of ordinary time ahead. Our tradition's great stories are tales that we are meant to lose ourselves in and be consumed by. May we be blessed with the patience, love and creativity to actualize that dream of immersion in Torah!
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!