The Torah readings in recent weeks dealt with the ten plagues. We find them listed in short form in the Haggadah. They are part of Jewish history. But they don’t seem to figure in the Egyptian records. Strange, since they must have devastated the country and brought immense suffering to the local inhabitants.
There is a popular view that ancient peoples preferred to boast of their victories and to downplay their defeats. Probably true, but there is an extra dimension in the case of the land of the Pharaohs.
It was a culture that believed in gods (possibly it was even on the way to a form of monotheism). No wonder Dr. Duncan Hoyte says in an article in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1993, writing about the tenth plague but with relevance to the whole series,
“There is no Egyptian record of the plague because, after all the previous plagues, it represented yet another failure of their gods to protect them”.
SINGING THE SONG.
On “Shabbat Shirah”, the Sabbath of Song, the centrepiece of the Torah portion is the song of triumph of Moses and the Children of Israel (Ex. 15).
The phrase, “Moses and the Children of Israel”, indicates that Moses led the singing and the people followed or responded to him. They couldn’t have used a written text because the song was clearly spontaneous, a lyrical upsurge that arose from the moment. The composer was Moses, inspired by God the Redeemer. It is possible that whatever the people heard from Moses they then repeated.
How, then, were the words and phrases recorded?
In the course of the redaction of the Torah text, the immortal words of Scripture were given permanent shape and God’s mighty saving power was remembered from year to year.
Moses would not leave Egypt unless the bones of Joseph came with him (Ex. 13:19). According to the sages,
“This shows Moses’ wisdom and piety; all Israel were busy with the spoils of Egypt, but Moses busied himself with the remains of Joseph” (M’chilta).
How does Moses’ act show wisdom? Fast forward to the Red Sea. The Psalmist says, “Ha-yam ra’ah vayanos” – “The sea looked – and fled” (Psalm 114:6). What did the waters see? The answer which the rabbis give is that they saw the bones of Joseph. Because Joseph had fled from the wife of Potiphar, he was rewarded years later by the waters fleeing from him as an act of admiration for his ethical courage.
Since it was due to Moses that Joseph’s remains came with the people, the retreat of the Red Sea was owed to Moses’ policy. The crossing of the Red Sea would not have been possible otherwise. The whole of Jewish history would have been different – and maybe it would never have happened.
Moses is an example of the fact that a decision which others question at the time so often turns out in hindsight to be right and appropriate. Did Moses know how wise he was? Maybe not, but he knew that Joseph had wanted his bones to be taken up from Egypt to the Promised Land (Gen. 50:25), and the promise made to Joseph on his death bed had to be fulfilled.
WHY DID THEY WANT TO STAY?
More than once Moses had to coax the people into moving forward. We know of their mutiny against life in the wilderness when they wanted to go back to Egypt. But even earlier there was a problem. It seems from Ex. 14:15 that they did not want to budge once they had crossed the Red Sea and encamped at Sinai.
The Midrash asks what made the people reluctant to go any further. Surely they knew they were on the way to destiny! Surely they wanted to settle down in the Promised Land as a nation with its own way of life! What was the attraction of the wilderness?
The answer the Midrash offers is to the people’s credit. They had had a remarkable emotional and spiritual experience. Crossing the Red Sea was exhilarating. Standing at Mount Sinai was inspiring. They wanted the great experience never to end.
We are all like that from time to time. Like Christopher Robin who wanted to stay six for ever and ever, we have moments when we are on a high and wish it would never end. But the Israelites had to move into the wilderness, as we have to move back into day to day living. We all have to come down from the mountain top and face life on the ground. We have to move into the sometimes harsh world and face its challenges.
The Vilna Gaon once asked the Dubner Maggid to tell him his faults. The maggid at first declined. When the Gaon pressed him, he at last spoke somewhat like this:
“Very well. You are the most pious man of our age. You study day and night, retired from the world, surrounded by the rows of your books, the Holy Ark, the faces of devout scholars. You have reached high holiness. How have you achieved it? Go down in the market place, Gaon, with the rest of the Jews. Endure their work, their strains, their distractions. Mingle in the world, hear the scepticism and irreligion they hear, take the blows they take. Submit to the ordinary trials of the ordinary Jew. Let us see then if you will remain the Vilna Gaon!”
They say the Gaon broke down and wept.
There are times for high holiness, but there are times to stand in the market place and hold onto your faith, dignity, ethics and honesty when other forces push and pull you hither and thither. The Torah is not for ministering angels in the rarefied atmosphere of heaven, but for ordinary people facing dilemmas on earth.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.