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06.02.2017 17:47    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  beshalach  sofer  

The Red Sea and Mount Carmel—Similarities

The exodus from Egypt culminates in this week’s reading with the splitting of the Red Sea, in which the Holy One, blessed be He, changed the course of nature with the great miracle of splitting the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross the sea on dry land, while the water formed a wall to their right and to their left.

The spontaneous response of the Israelites to the miracle of the sea spitting was no less impressive.  The entire people broke out in mighty song, at the climax proclaiming, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!” (Ex. 15:11), and further on, “The Lord will reign for ever and ever!” (Ex. 15:18).

How far did things go?  Scripture itself attests, “And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31).  If until this point, notwithstanding all that had happened to them up to now, there were those who doubted the existence of the Creator and that He had sent Moses on his mission, after the splitting of the Red Sea faith in the Creator and “His servant Moses” became firmly established.

The only trouble was that a mere three days after experiencing this sublime miraculous event, the Israelites began to wander through the desert, did not find water, and immediately began to complain to Moses.  However, as we know, that was not all.  Later on they complained about having no bread or meat, and they lamented over the fleshpots and bread, which they had eaten until sated—so they claimed—in Egypt, and even went so far as to accuse Moses and Aaron of taking them out of Egypt in order for them to die in the wilderness.  Thus, essentially, almost until the end of the weekly reading we have an extensively detailed account of their complaints[1] about the Holy One, blessed be He, and His servant Moses, and of their longing for the “pleasures of Egypt.”

This makes us wonder, not only because the Israelites behaved in such an unbecoming manner so short a while after the miracles that wrought for them, but primarily because the Torah sees fit to juxtapose its account of these events in such a dramatically contrasting way.

Looking at the Prophets, we see a remarkably parallel case to that which is described in Exodus.  During the reign of King Ahab, when the king and his wife Jezebel were fighting to the bitter end against anyone who followed the Lord and were fostering the prophets of Baal, the prophet Elijah suggested to Ahab that he gather all the Israelites on Mount Carmel and there run a test that would make clear whether the Lord was G‑d, or alternatively, Baal (I Kings 18:19-46).

The test was to be performed as follows:  Elijah would put a bull on top of the wood on an altar, but would not apply any fire, and the prophets of Baal would do likewise.  Each side was to call on its G‑d, and whoever’s bull would be consumed by fire—theirs would be proven the true G‑d.  First the prophets of Baal tried their hand, calling on Baal, but to no avail.  Then Elijah took twelve stones and built an altar of them, cut up the bull, and prayed, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me” (I Kings 18:37).  Fire immediately came down from the Lord and consumed the bull, the wood and the stones.

In response to this obvious miracle the entire people prostrated themselves and declared, “The Lord is G‑d, the Lord is G‑d” (v. 39)—a response very much reminiscent of the Israelites’ reaction to the splitting of the Red Sea:  “The Lord will reign for ever and ever,” and of their description as believing in the Lord.[2] As in the narrative about the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea, the Bible tells of Elijah’s tribulations after the miracle on Mount Carmel.  With Jezebel seeking to kill him, Scripture recounts in detail how he went off alone into the wilderness, sat down under a broom bush, and wished to die.  Further on we are told how he complained against G‑d, remaining alone, his life sought by all (I Kings 19:1-14); apparently he did not enjoy the people’s support (see especially verse 19:10), and the events on Mount Carmel failed to leave a lasting impression.

Here, too, a question arises as to the meaning of Elijah’s behavior and the Israelites’ behavior, for Elijah had just been privileged to sanctify the Lord’s name publicly and to lead the people of Israel to recognition of the Lord as the sole G‑d.  In addition, he had put to death a large fraction of the prophets of Baal and had received broad public recognition and legitimacy as the person delegated to bring the Lord’s word to the world.  But then, just a few verses later, Elijah wished to die and complained to G‑d for leaving him to fight the battle alone.

There is undoubtedly great similarity between the two events.  In both we witness a feeling of elation awakening among the people due to an overt miracle in which the natural order of things is violated.  In both the people come to recognize and believe in the Lord as the sole G‑d, there being none other.  However, immediately thereafter follows crisis and ruin.  The entire great experience suddenly appears to have been no more than a passing moment, dissipating like a fleeting morning cloud.  Moreover, from all that is described in the Bible and repeated in the Prophets, we see that we are dealing with the basic nature of human behavior in all eras, independent of time and place.  If so, what lesson are we to learn from these narratives?

A great principle seems to lie here.  Miraculous revelation cannot provide the sole basis on which faith, acknowledgment and fear of G‑d develop, no matter how impressive it might be.  It can be a contributing factor, but not the basis on which to build a way of life.  Recognition of the human position in respect of the Creator can be attained only through great and constant effort.

In light of this we can explain and understand the behavior of the Israelites in the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea.  At that point in time, the Israelites’ faith in and recognition of the Holy One, blessed be He, was entirely based on miraculous signs and portents, and nothing else.  This dates back to Moses’ return from Midian to Egypt (Ex. 4:27-31), when he assembled the elders of Israel along with Aaron.  Aaron told them what the Lord had said to Moses, but only after performing signs for them; only then does the Torah say that the people believed what they were saying.  Of course this continues through all ten plagues witnessed by the people in Egypt, until the splitting of the Red Sea.  Thus for that entire period of time the Israelites’ recognition of the Holy One, blessed be He, was based entirely on signs, portents, and miracles.  When they had to cope with practical life and the tribulations of the wilderness, they immediately began to cry out and complain, and the hardships of life in Egypt appeared preferable to wandering in the wilderness.

The same was true of the monarchic period.  In those days the Israelites were deeply imbued in pagan worship.  Ahab and Jezebel had seen to firmly securing the status of the prophets of Baal, while at the same time persecuting the prophets of the Lord.  Elijah innocently thought that after proving to the Israelites by a miracle that the Lord was G‑d,[3] the people would rally to his side and help him in his struggle against Ahab.  Indeed, for the first few moments after the miracle it appeared that the people were on his side, putting to death the prophets of Baal and definitively asserting that the Lord was G‑d.  But only a few days later Elijah found himself alone, isolated and persecuted.  Here, too, the message is clear; Elijah’s attempt at basing the people’s recognition of the Lord and fear of Him on miraculous portents was a total failure.  The people left him on his own, a wanted man by Jezebel, and themselves went promptly back to their wrong ways.

We learn that acknowledging and having faith in the Creator cannot come from the outside, as the result of a momentary event, but rather must grow from internal recognition and commitment in the context of daily life.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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