Thursday, January 17, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Beshalakh 5779-Whose Fault Is That?

This one kind of wanders around a bit, never quite getting anywhere. Then again, maybe it does get somewhere. Then again, maybe the whole point is that it doesn’t. Figure it out for yourself.

If, from my perspective, the Torah is story and not history, metaphor and not fact, teacher and not dean/administrator, why then do I get hung up on its inconsistencies? They shouldn’t matter, should they? I would argue just the opposite. Just as those who claim Divine origin insist that is is why it has internal consistency even though it may appear differently to us (the “we just can’t understand the mind of G”d theory) I suggest that those who created and shaped the Torah would have even more reason to seek to provide internal consistency. They don’t have the option of blaming our inability to truly understand why G”d does things the way G”d does, so they would likely work to avoid things that might cause us to question the narrative they have created.

I know I have argued in these musings, perhaps frequently, that the inconsistencies are there purposefully, to make us think, to make us not blindly accept the text and what it appears, superficially, to be teaching us. So today I want to argue with myself. In the end, I may come to the usual conclusion that the inconsistencies are purposeful, but for a moment I want to examine that assumption.

It’s a matter of degrees that inspired this little excursion. In this parasha we have the performance of great and awesome miracles – the parting of the sea so that the Israelites could walk on dry land between walls of water. The angel, and pillar of cloud that held the Egyptians at bay while G”d performed the (seemingly taking hours overnight) parting of the waters through the instrument of a strong wind blowing.

Ah, there’s that first crack in the picture. Is G”d able to perform supernatural acts, or is G”d limited to acting through instruments of G”d’s creation and natural forces of the Universe? Why doesn’t G”d just snap G”d’s finger and part the sea?

The verse that actually inspired me to muse upon this topic is this one:

וַיָּ֗סַר אֵ֚ת אֹפַ֣ן מַרְכְּבֹתָ֔יו וַֽיְנַהֲגֵ֖הוּ בִּכְבֵדֻ֑ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מִצְרַ֗יִם אָנ֙וּסָה֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כִּ֣י יְהוָ֔ה נִלְחָ֥ם לָהֶ֖ם בְּמִצְרָֽיִם׃

He locked the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

[Sefer HaChinukh, translated by Sefaria, 2018]

G”d locked the chariot wheels to make it hard for them to move forward, yet, according to the text they did still move forward, albeit slowly. Their progress slowed, G”d then released the waters back into the sea as G”d has planned to do all along, killing the Egyptians. So much for that apologetic midrash that has G”d remonstrating the angels for cheering upon the deaths of the Egyptians. Just like we know who is responsible for this government shut down, we know who killed those Egyptians. G”d said “Egypt will pay for that wall” er, I mean “I will harden the Egyptian’s hearts one last time so that I may demonstrate my complete and utter mastery over them and their supposed gods. Nyah, nyah.”

This “locking of the wheels” seems a rather unnecessary supernatural act, and a rather minor one at that. Then again, G”d did think that Pharaoh might be impressed by turning Moshe’s rod into a snake. (Or did G”d know all along that wouldn’t work? Of course G”d did, because G”d tells us, up front when first commanding Moses from the burning bush, that G”d is going to make this extra hard on the Egyptians to prove how mighty G”d is.

Why didn’t G”d just use a pair of angels/pillars of cloud/fire to entrap the Egyptians from both ends while they were in between the walls of water, and let the waters rush back in? Locking the wheels seems so quotidian!

But that’s precisely the point argue the sages. This section from Sefer HaChinukh is a classic example:

Sefer HaChinukh 132:2

From the roots of the commandment, [we need to] preface [that] the thing is known amongst us and among every sage that the great miracles that God does for people in His great goodness, He always does hiddenly. And these matters appear a little as if they were truly done by way of nature, or close to nature. As even with the miracle of the splitting of the sea – which was an open miracle – it is written there (Exodus 14:21), "and the Lord moved the sea with a powerful Eastern wind all of the night, and He made the sea into a dry place and He split the waters." And the enlightened ones will understand that this matter of concealment is because of the loftiness of the Master and the lowliness of the receiver. And due to this matter did He command us to burn fire on the altar, even though fire descended there from the Heavens – in order to hide the miracle. It [also] appears that the fire that came down from the Heavens was not visible when it came down because of the reason that we said – except for the eighth day of the inauguration and that of Gidon (Judges 6:21), Manoach (Judges 13:20) (and of Eliyahu), which was visible.
[Sefer HaChinukh, translation by, 2018]

So G”d is putting it in terms we can sort of understand, even though it’s not the whole story.Pay no attention to the man behind the screen. That works for some people. Not for me. So here’s a gotcha: if G”d wrote the Torah, why would G”d even bother to tell us that things are being “dumbed down” so that we puny humans, who cannot even begin to conceive even the smallest fraction of how G”d really operates, would know that we’re being sold a story? Wouldn’t it be simpler if G”d simply wrote the Torah in an manner to make us not even question or ask about such things? It’s just the way it is, nothing to see here, move along. G”d certainly has the power to conceal G”d’s warts from us, right? G”d certainly has the power to convince us that everything is just as it should be, don’t ask questions. Or was there more to our having gained the knowledge of good and evil through Chava and Adam eating of the fruit? Was G”d really afraid of humans gaining that knowledge? If so, why plant that tree in such an obvious place and make the classic parenting mistake of telling Adam and Chava to not eat from it?

I’m looking at Shirat Hayam and its descriptions of the miracles that G”d performed. Certainly something to sing about. I suppose “well there was a blinding flash, and one moment we were all still in Egypt, baking bread", and the next moment we were at the foot of Mt. Sinai eating matzah” might be a miracle sizably larger yet somehow not as impressive in the end. I get that. We have to earn something before we’ll truly consider it valuable and praiseworthy.

So hey, G”d. After thousands of years trying to figure out this Torah, have we not earned some more help from You, some more revelation from You? Are we no more capable now than we were millennia ago of understanding Your ways? Do we still need this simplified explanation, even when so many of us find it unworthy and unsatisfying? I can tell You right now, if You’re holding out for a time when all of us will accept that we will simply never be able to understand You completely, it may never come. It’s not in our nature to accept things without fully understanding them. Whose fault is that?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

B'shalakh 5778 - Revisiting G"d's War
Beshalakh 5777 - Moshe's Musings (Revised and Expanded from 5760)
Beshalakh 5776 - Mi Kamonu?
Beshalakh 5775 - I'm Not Doing It Alone
Beshalakh 5774 - A Lot Can Change in 13 Years - Or Not
Beshalakh 5773 - Moshe's Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 - Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd's War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760-Moshe's Musings
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd

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