Many Ways Across The Sea

by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut
The Jewish Week

February 4, 2009

The Twelve Tribes have now become an “am,” a people, a nation. On the verge of attaining freedom, the tribes stand on the shores of the Reed Sea (its proper name), pursued by the Egyptian army. The sea splits only after it was entered. Did the tribes enter the perilous waters as one unit, facing danger together, or did they separate themselves into tribes, into families? The Torah does not explicitly provide this information, which leaves the door wide open for rabbinic interpretation. The rabbis do not disappoint.

The Mekhilta and the Talmud [Sotah 36b] creatively describe this dramatic scene. The rabbis agree that the tribes crossed the sea separately, but they disagree about which tribe was the first one in.

The tribes of Benjamin and Judah argued as they stood before the sea. Rabbi Meir says that each tribe wanted to be the first. Suddenly, the tribe of Benjamin jumped in, angering the tribe of Judah, who pelted them with stones!

However, according to Rabbi Yehuda, neither tribe wished to be the first since they both feared the waters. Therefore, they stood there quarreling until Judah’s Nachshon Ben-Aminadav courageously waded in and the sea split.

The Midrash adds a strange but wonderful image. According to the Mekhilta, the sea divided into lanes, becoming a 12-lane highway, permitting each tribe to stay together. However, the lanes were divided by water, transparent as glass, through which each tribe could view the others. Although divided, they could see that they were part of one nation. Thus, they crossed through the sea.

Upon reaching dry land, the Torah records that Moses and the Children of Israel together sang a song of praise to God. We assume this choir consisted of both men and women. Then, amazingly, the women separated themselves from the men, and, accompanied by musical instruments, sang and danced in a circle [Exodus 15:20]. Not separated into tribes, the women created a new form of unity, a circle, where every person is equal to every other. (See Maor Va’shemesh, Kalonymous Kalman of Krakow, on this verse). According to some commentaries, the Shechina, God’s presence, was in the middle of the circle, which enabled each woman to be equally close to the presence of God. The women showed that it was possible to ignore differences, to overcome tribal divisions, in order to praise the “One God” who had rescued them. Their circle dance taught that now they were indeed one nation, one “am.”

As the tribes traveled across the desert, they marched in an established formation, as separate tribes, each with its own flag and its own set location within the group. But, when they stand at Sinai, this formation yields to a different arrangement. God instructs Moshe to make a boundary “saviv” (around) the mountain [Exodus 19:12]. God provides a new model of national gathering. When God speaks to the people, they encircle and surround the mountain, tribes mixed and mingling, men and women together. (True, men and women had to separate from each other for three days prior to the giving of the Torah, but after the three days of preparation, this separation no longer applied).

We have seen that there are different ways in which we, as one people, one “am,” can organize ourselves. Sometimes we divide into tribes and stress our differences. We are Ashkenazim and Sephardim; we are Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Conservative, unaffiliated, and secular. Our distinctiveness may enable us to strengthen ourselves and to unite with those who share our viewpoint.

Women and men may need to separate in order to speak to or better understand our Creator. An example: the women who have been praying in an all-female group at the Kotel have also crossed tribal, denominational barriers in order to pray together.

But interestingly, when God speaks to us, we are instructed to stand together, without tribal or gender divisions. In Deuteronomy 31:12, God instructs us to organize the Hakhel ceremony once every seven years. We are told to gather together, everyone, old and young, men, women and children, to hear the Torah read aloud by the king. This ceremony took place in the women’s court of the Temple, the largest court, where public ceremonies were held [Rambam, Hagigah 3:4].

Often, our different ways of praying enable us to approach God on a deeper level; however, when God speaks to us, God sees us as one nation, one “am,” with no divisions: “So may God bless us, all of us together, with one blessing.”

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