Tag Archives: Splitting of the Sea

The Kabbalah of Moses’ Divine Staff

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about the first seven plagues to strike Egypt. These were brought about through the Staff of Moses, as were the later Splitting of the Sea, the victory over Amalek (Exodus 17) and the water brought forth from a rock. What was so special about this particular staff, and what was the source of its power?

Pirkei Avot (5:6) famously states that the Staff was one of ten special things to be created in the twilight between the Sixth Day and the first Shabbat. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 40) elaborates:

Rabbi Levi said: That staff which was created in the twilight was delivered to the first man out of the Garden of Eden. Adam delivered it to Enoch, and Enoch delivered it to Noah, and Noah to Shem. Shem passed it on to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob brought it down to Egypt and passed it on to his son Joseph, and when Joseph died and they pillaged his household goods, it was placed in the palace of Pharaoh.

And Jethro was one of the magicians of Egypt, and he saw the staff and the letters which were upon it, and he desired it in his heart, and he took it and brought it, and planted it in the midst of the garden of his house. No one was able to approach it any more.

When Moses came to his house, he went into Jethro’s garden, and saw the staff and read the letters which were upon it, and he put forth his hand and took it. Jethro watched Moses, and said: “This one in the future will redeem Israel from Egypt.” Therefore, he gave him Tzipporah his daughter to be his wife…

God gave the staff to Adam, who gave it to Enoch (Hanokh)—who, according to tradition, later transformed into the angel Metatron—and Enoch passed it on further until it got to Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh confiscated it after Joseph’s death. The passage then alludes to another Midrashic teaching that Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ future father-in-law, was once an advisor to Pharaoh, along with Job and Bila’am (see Sanhedrin 106a). The wicked Bila’am was the one who advised Pharaoh to drown the Israelite male-born in the Nile. While Job remained silent (for which he was so severely punished later), Jethro protested the cruel decree, and was forced to resign and flee because of it. As he fled, he grabbed the divine staff with him. Arriving in Midian, his new home, Jethro stuck the staff in the earth, at which point it seemingly gave forth deep roots and was immovable.

A related Midrash states that all the suitors that sought the hand of his wise and beautiful Tzipporah were asked to take the staff out of the earth, and should they succeed, could marry Jethro’s daughter. None were worthy. (Not surprisingly, some believe that this Midrash may have been the source for the Arthurian legend of the sword Excalibur.) Ultimately, Moses arrived and effortlessly pulled the staff out of the ground.

The passage above states that Moses was mesmerized by the letters engraved upon the staff, as was Jethro before him. What were these letters?

The 72 Names

Targum Yonatan (on Exodus 4:20) explains:

And Moses took the rod which he had brought away from the chamber of his father-in-law, made from the sapphire Throne of Glory; its weight forty se’ah; and upon it was engraved and set forth the Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought before Hashem by his hand…

God’s Ineffable Name was engraved upon the sapphire staff, which was itself carved out of God’s Heavenly Throne. The staff weighed a whopping 40 se’ah, equivalent to the minimum volume of a kosher mikveh, which is roughly 575 litres of water, or 575 kilograms. (This would explain why none could dislodge the staff, except he who had God’s favour.)

A parallel Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 8:3) also confirms that the staff was of pure sapphire, weighing forty se’ah, but says it was engraved with the letters that stand for the Ten Plagues, as we recite at the Passover seder: datzach, adash, b’achav (דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב).

A final possibility is that the “Great and Glorious Name by which the signs should be wrought” refers to the mystical 216-letter Name of God (or 72-word Name of God). This Name is actually 72 linked names, each composed of three letters. The names are derived from the three verses Exodus 14:19-21:

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet it gave light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and Hashem caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided.

The 72 Three-Letter Names of God

Each of these verses has exactly 72 letters. Hidden within them is this esoteric Name of God, the most powerful, through which came about the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea as the verses themselves describe. The Name (or 72 Names) is derived by combining the first letter of the first verse, then the last letter of the second verse, and then the first letter of the third verse. The same is done for the next letter, and so on, for all 72 Names.

Since the Splitting of the Sea and the plagues were brought about through these Names, the Midrash above may be referring not to the Ineffable Name, but to these 72 Names as being engraved upon the Staff. In fact, it may be both.

Staff from Atzilut

The 72 Names are alluded to by another mystical 72-Name of God. The Arizal taught that God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in four ways. This refers to a practice called milui,* where the letters of each word are themselves spelled out to express the inner value and meaning of the word. God’s Ineffable Name can be expanded in these ways, with the corresponding values:

יוד הא ואו הא = 45

יוד הה וו הה = 52

יוד הי ואו הי = 63

יוד הי ויו הי = 72

The Name with the 72 value is the highest, not just numerically, but according to the sefirot, partzufim, and universes laid out in Kabbalah. The 52-Name corresponds to Malkhut and the world of Asiyah; the 45-Name to Zeir Anpin (the six “masculine” sefirot) and the world of Yetzirah; and the 63-Name to Binah and the world of Beriah. The 72-Name—which is, of course, tied to the above 72 Names of God—corresponds to the highest universe, Atzilut, the level of God’s Throne, where there is nothing but His Emanation and Pure Light. Here we come full circle, for the Midrash states that the Staff of Moses was itself carved out of God’s Throne. This otherworldly staff came down to this world from the highest Heavenly realm!

Where is the Staff Today?

What happened to Moses’ staff after his passing? Another Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 869) answers:

…the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It is likewise the holy staff with which Moses worked, and with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh, and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath. David left it to his descendants, and the Davidic kings used it as a sceptre until the destruction of the Temple, when it miraculously disappeared. When the Messiah comes it will be given to him for a sceptre as a sign of his authority over the heathens.

This incredible passage contains a great deal of novel insight. Firstly, Jacob used this divine staff to split the Jordan and allow his large family to safely cross back to Israel, just as the Israelites would later cross the Jordan in miraculous fashion under the leadership of Joshua. It seems Joshua himself, as Moses’ rightful successor, held on to the staff, and passed it down through the Judges and Prophets until it came to the hand of David. Unlike the traditional account of David slaying Goliath with the giant’s own sword, the Midrash here says he slew Goliath with the staff!

The staff remained in the Davidic dynasty until the kingdom’s end with the destruction of the First Temple. At this point a lot of things mysteriously disappeared, most famously the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed that the Ark was hidden in a special chamber built for it by Solomon, who envisioned the day that the Temple would be destroyed. It is likely that the staff is there, too, alongside it.

Mashiach will restore both of these, and will once again wield the sceptre of the Davidic dynasty. As the staff is forged from God’s own Heavenly Throne, it is fitting that Mashiach—God’s appointed representative, who sits on His corresponding earthly throne—should hold a piece of it. And this symbol, the Midrash concludes, will be what makes even the heathens accept Mashiach’s—and God’s—authority. Jacob prophesied this on his deathbed (Genesis 49:10), in his blessing to Judah:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the coming of Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of all the peoples be.

Shiloh is one of the titles for Mashiach (see Sanhedrin 98b), and his wielding of the staff will bring about the obedience of all the world’s people to God’s law. We can now also solve a classic problem with the above verse:

The verse states that the sceptre will not depart from Judah until the coming of Mashiach, as if it will depart from Judah when Mashiach comes. This makes no sense, since Mashiach is a descendent of Judah! It should have simply said that the sceptre shall never depart from Judah, from whom the messiah will come. Rather, Jacob is hinting that the Staff will one day be hidden in the land of Judah, deep below “between his feet”, and won’t budge from there for millennia until Mashiach comes and finally restores it.

May we merit to see it soon.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Interestingly, using the same milui method, one can expand the word staff (מטה) like this: מאם טאת הה, which is 501, equivalent to דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב, the acronym for the Ten Plagues which the Staff brought about!

Should We Still Be Praying for Mashiach?

This week’s Torah reading is Beshalach, centered on the climactic narrative of the Splitting of the Sea. We read that following the Exodus, the Israelites are walking towards the Promised Land before suddenly being told by God to turn back. Soon, they find themselves at an outcropping near Yam Suf, the “Reed Sea”. Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s spies have informed him that the Israelites appear to be coming back to Egypt. Seeking his revenge, Pharaoh summons all the chariots of Egypt (led by 600 of the choicest officers) to obliterate the Israelites. Stuck between a rampaging military on one side and the sea on the other, the Israelites panic. We know how the story ends, of course, with God sending the greatest of His miracles in the nick of time, splitting the sea in two, allowing the Israelites to pass through unharmed, and drowning the Egyptian charioteers that attempt to follow.

'Splitting Sea' by AkiiRaii

‘Splitting Sea’ by AkiiRaii

Commenting on these verses, the Sages tell us that there were actually four types of Jews among those Israelites. The first group immediately fell into a fright and were so paralyzed by their fear that they were unable to do anything. The second group were the weak-spirited ones who immediately decided to surrender and return to Egypt. The third group were the brazen warriors who took up arms to fight the Egyptians to the death. And finally, the fourth group were those who started to pray fervently.

Moses addresses all four groups: “Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see Hashem’s salvation that He will do for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again for eternity. Hashem will fight for you, and you shall remain silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14) To those who feared, Moses said not to be afraid. To those who wanted to return to Egypt, he promised they would never see the Egyptians again. To those that wanted to do battle, Moses reminded them that God will do the fighting for them. And to those that prayed, Moses said to be silent.

It is easy to understand Moses’ command to the first three groups. Why fear after all that God had done for them? Why return to Egypt when God had already brought them so far? Why battle when God had battled on their behalf?

But what of the fourth group? What’s wrong with offering a prayer at such a difficult moment? Does it not show their faith in God? Indeed, although Moses silenced those who prayed, the following verse tells us that he himself prayed! And then it was God who silenced Moses! Why was God not looking for their prayers at that moment, and what was He looking for?

A Test of True Faith

The Talmud (Sotah 37a) fills in the details of what was going on at the time. God told Moses to stop praying, and Moses replied: “What is there in my power to do?” Moses felt powerless at that moment, and was waiting for God to act. God, however, was waiting for His people to make a move. Thus far, He had done everything for them. He had brought the plagues upon their tormentors, took them out of Egypt with riches and fanfare, and had proved beyond any reasonable doubt that He exists and protects His people.

Now, God was telling them: v’yisa’au, “go forth!” Cross the sea. Yet, the people stood still, as did Moses. Where was their faith? Did they not understand by now that God would never abandon them, or let them perish? Did they not recognize that everything had gone exactly as God had commanded? If God directed them to go into the sea, that is what they needed to do! This was not a time to pray, but a time to act.

One person did understand this. His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of the tribe of Judah. He realized that if God commanded them to cross the sea, than that is exactly what they needed to do. And so, he marched on into the waters, and as he did, the waters parted before him. The Talmud states that only at this point did God tell Moses to lift up his staff and keep the waters parted.

A Time to Pray and a Time to Act

There are many lessons to be derived from this passage. Central among them is that prayer alone is not a solution. It is certainly beneficial to pray, but we mustn’t forget to act. And this is what God expects from us in the most difficult of times: not prayers, but actions. For example, the Mishnah (Avot 1:12) teaches us that it isn’t enough to just pray for peace, but we must do as Aaron did and actively pursue peace. This is especially important today, when we are walking in the era of the “footsteps of Mashiach”. The Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes our times in this way:

“In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.”

It sends shivers down one’s spine to read these words, composed over 1500 years ago, that ring so true today: A world of abundance, yet so many hungry mouths. Corrupt government, and no one to stop it. Places of scholarship are places of immorality – a fitting description for most of today’s university campuses – and an increasingly atheist society despising those who fear sin. A world so full of information, yet ironically so full of ignorance and mistruth. A generation that resembles a dog: animalistic, licentious, unashamed. And there is no one to rely upon, save for God.

Years ago, I heard a powerful interpretation of this passage. Unfortunately, I cannot recall in whose name it was cited, but it went something like this: The last phrase in the passage – that there is no one to rely upon except for God – is also part of the list of things signifying the footsteps of Mashiach. In other words, it’s not that the Sages are listing a whole bunch of things wrong with the world, then concluding by saying there is no hope, but rather, the fact that people think there is no hope is also part of the list of things wrong with the world! When we come to the point where we think nothing can be done, and we must only pray to God, that in itself is a failure on our part.

The truth is, there is much to be done, and each person has an unlimited potential to make a difference in the world. If we really do want to usher in the era of Mashiach, we must remember that two thousand years of praying for it has not worked. Just as it was with the Israelites by the Sea, now is not the time to focus on our prayers, it is time to focus on our actions.

An Honest Look at the Film ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

This week we start a new book of the Torah, Shemot, known in English as ‘Exodus’. This volume is primarily concerned with the period of Israelite slavery in Egypt, and the subsequent salvation following the ten plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, climaxing with the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the start of the transmission of the bulk of the Torah’s laws.

Coincidentally, not long ago was released Ridley Scott’s new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and I finally had a chance to see it this week. Though it appeared to show a little bit of promise at the start, the movie soon unravelled into a bizarre re-invention of the Biblical story. Of course, there is nothing wrong with some artistic liberties when adapting an ancient text for a modern film, nor is it too much of a problem to fill in some of the gaps in the Torah’s narrative. However, Exodus: Gods and Kings presented a completely twisted version that did not even slightly stick to the basic story of the Torah. It would take an entire tome to cover all the mistakes in the film, but perhaps we can offer just a few of the most blatant ones.

From the very beginning, we see that Moses seems to be completely unaware that he is not Egyptian. That’s quite odd: Semites and Egyptians had a totally different appearance. Take a look at this depiction of Semitic tribes, as discovered in the 12th dynasty tomb of Egyptian Khnumhotep II, official of the pharaoh Senusret II:

IbschaEgyptSemites

The Semites have a different skin tone, different hair styles, clothes, and so on. The filmmakers clearly knew this, as they show Moses bearded and sporting a nice hairdo, while all the other Egyptian royals are clean-shaven and bald. His eyes look different, and he wears clothes of a completely different style than all the others. How come? Didn’t he ever question why he doesn’t look anything like his “royal brethren”?

More importantly, the Torah clearly says that Moses was initially raised by his true birth mother, Yocheved (Exodus 2:7-9). Only after he was fully weaned did Yocheved present Moses to his new step-mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter (v. 10). It is totally inconceivable that Moses did not know he was a Hebrew! The Torah states that when Moses grew up, he “went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens” (2:11). He knew full-well that he was going out to his people.

At this point, when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster violently beating a Jew, he stepped in to save the victim, killing the Egyptian in the process. In the movie, this heroic act is replaced with an enraged Moses killing an Egyptian guard who was doing nothing terrible at all. The kind, compassionate Moses, described by the Torah as the humblest man that ever lived, is turned into a violent brute who kills indiscriminately. No wonder that Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses, said of his character that he was “likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Makes sense if all he ever read about Moses was in the script for the film.

If Christian Bale did indeed read about Moses, perhaps he missed the whole part where Moses selflessly led his people for forty years in the wilderness. Where he literally sat from morning to evening to counsel the people and help them (Exodus 18:13). Or when he refused to abandon his people, even when God offered to make an entirely new nation out of Moses (Exodus 32:10). The many occasions where he convinced God to avert His just decrees and forgive the nation for their sins. The time where his sister Miriam transgressed severely against Moses, yet he did not hold even the tiniest of grudges or ill-will, and immediately prayed to God to heal Miriam and have mercy on her (Numbers 12:13). Or the simple fact that Moses led the revolution that brought monotheism (together with a higher sense of morality, starting with a set of Ten Commandments) to over two-thirds of the world’s population.

Worse than its depiction of Moses, though, was the film’s depiction of God: an irrational, pointlessly vengeful, literally childish figure. The film made it seem like the Ten Plagues were nothing more than God’s desire to kill as many people as possible. The reality, of course, was that the Ten Plagues were meant to be a measure-for-measure retribution for what the Egyptians had done; nothing more than cosmic karma. For example, just as the whole story begins with Pharaoh ordering the male-born to be drowned in the Nile, it ends with Pharaoh’s own male soldiers drowning in the Red Sea, measure for measure. Nor was God happy about any of this. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) beautifully says that at the Splitting of the Sea, when the Egyptians drowned, the angels began to sing a joyous song, mimicking the Jews that were singing as well – but God immediately stopped them. He rebuked the angels, saying sadly: “My creations are drowning, and you are singing?”

When one studies the texts and commentaries, it becomes clear that each of the Plagues was specifically tailored towards the sins of the Egyptians, and was designed to bring the rightful justice that was due. Nowhere is this fact even hinted to in the movie. Most telling was after the plague of the firstborn, when Pharaoh confronts Moses demanding an answer as to why they suffered such a tragedy. The latter gives no logical reply, saying only that no Hebrews died. Perhaps the scriptwriter should have had something along the lines of: “Hey Pharaoh, did you forget all the countless babies that you slaughtered? Or the many warnings you were given that this was coming, and to stop your evil ways?” The scene almost makes Pharaoh seem like the victim, and Moses the villain. It appears that the main aim of the movie was to cast Moses (and God) in a bad light. It really seems like the filmmakers went out of their way to do this.

Moses is shown carelessly abandoning his family when he goes back to Egypt to save his people. His wife and son are angry, emotionally-scarred, losing their faith – and Moses does nothing about it. What was the point of making this shift from the Torah’s original version, which clearly states “Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 4:20)? He never abandoned his family, but took everyone with him!

It therefore appears quite evident that the purpose of Exodus: Gods and Kings was to turn one of the most beautiful and enduring stories into an ugly, twisted, and corrupt tale. The sheer number of mistakes is both inexcusable and inexplicable. One who wishes to experience a far truer (and more entertaining) version need only to open and read this week’s Torah portion.

The Incredible Story of Serach bat Asher

In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He then invites the whole family to join him in Egypt, and the Torah records how Jacob’s family of seventy migrates southward. This begins the Jewish people’s sojourn in the land of Egypt, which would end 210 years later with the Exodus.

The identities of the seventy members of Jacob’s family that descended to Egypt are given in verses 46:8-27. Of the seventy, thirteen are his own children (the twelves sons and his sole daughter Dinah). The remaining 57 are Jacob’s grandchildren. In fact, only 56 are actually mentioned. On verse 15, Rashi explains that the unmentioned one is Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who was born during the voyage. (It is also possible that the 57th is Jacob himself, to make a total of 70 family members.)

When reading through the names, we see that of the 56 grandchildren mentioned, just one of them is a girl! This is Serach, the daughter of Asher (recall that Asher was Jacob’s son through Zilpah, original Leah’s handmaiden, and later Jacob’s fourth wife). Naturally, if Serach is the only granddaughter mentioned, there must be something special about her. But that’s not all.

Centuries later, the Torah describes the census that was taken in the wilderness before the Jewish people entered the Holy Land (Numbers 26). Again, we see a long list of names, almost all masculine. And then, amidst the long roster of sons, there is mention of a daughter: Serach bat Asher! This was roughly 250 years after the events of Jacob’s family coming down to Egypt. All the other members of that originally family of 70 had long passed away. Yet Serach’s name is still prominently displayed. What was so special about this woman?

The Immortal Serach

The Midrash describes Serach as a girl with a sweet voice who tended to her grandfather Jacob in his old age. When Joseph sent the brothers back to Israel to bring the whole family to Egypt and inform Jacob that he is still alive, the brothers did not know how to break the news to their father. After all, Jacob was already quite frail, and the shock of hearing such news could have been too much for him to bear. Perhaps the brothers were also afraid of Jacob’s reaction should he learn of their plot to get rid of Joseph many years earlier, and how they showed their father his bloodied tunic to suggest Joseph had died. So, instead of doing it on their own, the brothers asked Serach to find a way to gently reveal the news.

Serach waited while Jacob was praying, then sang the news in a soothing tune with the rhyming lyrics: “Joseph is alive in Mitzraim (Egypt), and has two sons on his knees, Menashe and Ephraim.” For breaking the great news to him, the joyous Jacob blessed Serach: “the mouth that spoke the news of Joseph’s life shall never taste death.”

Serach went on to live an incredibly long life. She lived through the entire time the Jews were in Egypt, as well as the forty-year period in the wilderness. In fact, the Midrash describes her as a sort-of matriarch in Egypt, an authority figure who gave credibility to Moses when he arrived on the scene, and informed the people that he is indeed the redeemer that Joseph spoke of before his death. Moreover, she helped Moses find Joseph’s sarcophagus in Egypt, to fulfil the vow promised to Joseph that his remains will be taken to be buried in Israel.

Later still, Serach is identified with the “wise woman” who helped King David and his general Yoav in one of their battles (II Samuel 20).

The Passing of Serach

Various traditions exist as to when Serach finally left this world. In one version, she lived to be one thousand years old, like Adam and Eve were meant to live, and died around the time that the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, exiling the northern tribes, including her tribe of Asher.

In other versions, she lived on all the way to the Talmudic period. When Rabbi Yochanan (who lived roughly 180-279 CE) was debating how the splitting of the Red Sea looked like, Serach stopped by the yeshiva and explained exactly how it occurred, saying that she had been there.

Another millennium onwards, the Jews of the Persian city of Isfahan (where some of my own ancestors are from, including the originator of the Palvanov family name) believed that Serach lived among them until the 1100s CE! The site of a synagogue named after her, with an adjoining two-thousand year old cemetery that once had a tombstone marking her grave, still exists in Isfahan today, and was a pilgrimage destination for many centuries.

Some say that Serach actually escaped the great fire that consumed that synagogue (once the central synagogue of Isfahan) and that she may still be living! Others say that long ago she was taken up to Heaven alive so that she wouldn’t have to experience death. Some even say that Serach has her own yeshiva in Heaven where she teaches the depths of Torah.

Whatever the case may be, all we can say for sure is that she is the sole granddaughter of Jacob who is explicitly mentioned in this week’s parasha!

To read more about Serach, click here to read Moshe Reiss’ “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature”.