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Torah Sparks

January 22, 2005 - 12 Shevat 5765

Annual: Ex. 13:17 - 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 13:17 - 15:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 - 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Having fled from Egypt after the final plague, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the approaching Egyptian Army and the Red Sea. On what was the first of many such occasions, the Israelites panicked and expressed their desire to return to Egypt. "What have you done to us?" they asked Moses, "It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." Moses calms the people and tells them, "Have no fear… witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today… ." Raising his staff over the sea, a strong east wind drives back the sea and the people lurch forward "into the sea on dry ground." When they reach the other side of the sea and witness the drowning of the Pharaoh and his army, they join Moses in song. We continue to sing this song "Az Yashir Moshe" as well as "Mi Kamochah" as part of the daily liturgy.

But the story does not end here. No sooner do they leave the sea, the people continue to complain about the lack of water and food. The miraculous events do not change the very nature of the people. It would take a full generation for them to become independent and free.

Theme #1: Caring for the Dead

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, "God will be sure take note of you; then carry up my bones from here with you." (Exodus 13:19)

Derash: Study

  • Joseph earned merit by burying his father and there is none among his brothers greater than he... whom do we have greater than Joseph since Moses occupied himself with his burial? Moses earned merit through the bones of Joseph and there is none greater than he, as it is said, "And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him." Who have we greater than Moses since none other than God occupied himself with his burial? As it is said, "And He (God) buried him in the valley." Not only concerning Moses did the sages say this but concerning all the righteous, as it said, "And Your righteous shall go before You, the glory of God shall be Your reward." (Isaiah 58:8) (Sotah 9b)
  • "And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him" (Exod. 13:19). The sages taught: Pause and consider how beloved the commandments were to Moses, our teacher -- while the people of Israel, all of them, were occupied with spoils, he was occupied with performing commandments. (Sotah 13b)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why wasn't Joseph buried in the land of Canaan at the time of his death just as his father Jacob was? Why do you think he exacted an oath from his family to make sure that they would take his bones with them back to the land of Canaan?
  2. Do you think it is important to respect the final wishes of someone who is about to pass away concerning their burial? What happens if one's parents or loved ones ask you to do something that is against the Jewish religion (for instance they ask to be cremated) or they ask you not to do something that would be personally meaningful (they insist that you should not sit Shiva)?
  3. Why does the Talmud suggest that God personally saw to the burial of Moses? How does seeing to a person's burial both confer honor on the one who is being buried and on the one who is doing the burial?
  4. In what way do we honor the dead in the Jewish funeral service? How does the Jewish funeral service allow people to openly express their emotions and their sense of loss?
  5. One of the things we do in a Jewish funeral service is to deliver a eulogy in which we speak about the most enduring values in the life of the deceased. Today relatives often choose to deliver the eulogy. How do you feel about this practice? What types of things are appropriate and inappropriate to speak about in a eulogy? Think of three things you would like people to be able to say about you in your eulogy (many years from now, of course!).
  6. Should children attend funerals? At what age? Discuss with your children or grandchildren what happens at a Jewish funeral and why we do the things that we do. You may want to refer to other sources that are most helpful on this topic. Here are three sources:
    1. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm
    2. Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener
    3. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein (see chapters on funeral practices and bereavement)

Theme #2: The Splitting of the Red Sea: What is a Miracle?

When Israel saw the great hand which the Lord wrought against Egypt, they feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and in Moses His servant. (Exodus 14:31)

Derash: Study

  • During all the ten plagues the Israelites had doubts whether these incidents were pure chance or acts of God. However, when they came "to fear the Lord" and they trembled in the presence of God's exalted power, only then could they understand that these were all acts of God. One spark of awe or reverence in the presence of God was worth as much as all the wonders and miracles. (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk)
  • We are missing the point of these extraordinary events if we understand them as ancient superstitions. Instead the miracle is a symbol of spontaneity in history, a faith in the changeability of oppressive regimes. What appears as historical necessity, a small people subject to a great empire, is revealed as an illusion. God's miraculous intervention in Egypt presents history as an open text drama. There is an unpredictable Power present in the universe, a God of surprises. Belief in miracle is the basis of the hope model of Judaism. Exodus becomes a call to revolutionary hope regardlessof the conditions of history. (A Different Night: A Family Participation Haggadah)
  • The concept of Miracle which is permissible from the historical approach can be defined as its starting point as an abiding astonishment. The real miracle means that in the astonishing experience of the event the current system of cause and effect becomes, as it were, transparent and permits a glimpse of the sphere of sole power, not restricted by any other, is at work. (Moses by Martin Buber)
  • A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. (David Hume, Scottish Philosopher 1711 - 1776)
  • The British war time prime minister, Winston Churchill invited the Hasidic Rabbi of Gur to come and see him and advise him on how to bring about Germany's downfall. The Rabbi gave the following reply: "There are two possible ways, one involving natural means and one involving supernatural. The natural means would be if a million angels with flaming swords were to descend on Germany and destroy it. The supernatural would be if a million Englishman parachuted down on Germany and destroyed it." (Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How do the events at the Red Sea affect the people of Israel? What does the Torah tell us about their response to the splitting of the Red Sea?
  2. According to David Hume, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Does a miracle have to diverge from the laws of nature? Can you think of a modern day occurrence that you would consider a miracle?
  3. What does Noam Zion mean by "Hope Model" of Judaism? How can we apply the lesson of the splitting of the Red Sea to contemporary events? What events in contemporary history portray God as the "God of surprises?"
  4. If you had been at the Red Sea, how do you think you would have responded first on the Egyptian side of the sea and then on the far side of the sea? Would you have considered this to be a miracle?
  5. According to Noam Zion and Martin Buber do miracles exist in the objective sense of the word? Have we lost the innocence to experience a miracle today? According to the Rabbi of Gur what makes a miracle a natural event or a supernatural event? According to the Rabbi what aspect of the splitting of the Red sea would have been most miraculous?


  • Mishnah - The Mishnah is the first codification of the oral law. Edited and published around the year 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Prince, it is the basis of the Talmud and the foundation of Jewish law.
  • Sotah - Is a section of the Mishnah which deals with the trial by ordeal of an unfaithful wife (see Numbers 5:12-31). While this practice no longer existed even in the time of the Mishnah, the Rabbis thought it important to discuss its implications and significance.
  • Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk - Lived from 1787 - 1859. He was a well known hasidic Rabbi in Poland. Unlike most hasidic leaders he was respected for his sometimes harsh and unrelenting teachings. His focus, his zeal, his goal was for truth. To achieve truth he was ready to sacrifice everything else. There is only one truth, stressed Menachem Mendel, and anything outside of this truth is false.
  • Martin Buber - 1878 - 1965 A twentieth century theologian and scholar, he is best known for his famous work, "I and Thou." Buber was a pioneer in his study of hasidic thought and was a Zionist known for his unorthodox ideas.

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