Revisiting Creation (Parashat Beshalach)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

Torah tells us that in the beginning, our Creator sets about moving and assembling the pieces of the material universe. It’s out of darkness that everything we (and all of our ancestors and descendants alike) will come to experience is formed. And amid that dark void is something we may not expect so early on in the process of Creation: I’m talking about water.

The Book of Genesis tells us:

“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of [HaShem] was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 NKJV)

Before light is even created, before light is separated from darkness and day separated from night, there are waters. Scripture tells us that it is Heaven actually which first provides a metaphysical barrier or firmament between these primordial waters (v. 6-8).

And later in the Book of Genesis, when we encounter Noah and the Great Flood, it is written:

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” (Genesis 7:11 NKJV)

Water, in the metaphysics of the Hebrew Bible, is not merely something that follows modern understanding of rivers, oceans, or even clouds above us. Rather, water is also something very primordial, very original and raw to the process of Creation, and something positioned not only in our world, but beyond it, above it, and in the “deep” of it elsewhere. The separation of the waters actually results in a renaming–tehum (the deep) and mayim (the waters) become yam (the sea) when distinguished by the presence of the firmament. The flood Noah faces is not from the sea, but from the deep (is this why his story has such an existential layer to it as well?).

Crossing the Reed Sea

In this week’s Torah portion, the Hebrews cross over the Reed (or Red) Sea, yam suph, and thereafter, as with the division of yam from mayim, Israel and Jacob, Abraham and Abram, may be properly called Israelites–no longer a foreign people (Hebrews) based within a foreign country (Egypt), but a fledgling nation of their own, liberated by their Creator.

To my knowledge, we do not encounter the deep or the waters of the deep in this story, yet the episode is no less dramatic or magnificent. The Pharaoh of the Egyptians muses that the wilderness has closed in the Israelites (Exodus 14:3), having overtaken them on the banks of the water (14:9). Moses, however, stretches out his hand as commanded, and parts the sea before them, allowing for their escape (14:21). To the right and to the left, the waters are as if a wall to them, and the Israelites walk across dry land in the middle (14:21-22).

Throughout this encounter, we are told that the angel and pillar of cloud move about the Israelites, causing darkness to prevent the Egyptians from approaching them, while light shines on the Israelites clarifying their way (Exodus 14:19-20). Likewise, we are told that G-d looks down upon the Egyptians in the morning and impedes their pursuit (14:24-25), and also in the morning, Moses raises his hand back across the water, and the sea washes over them leaving none of the Egyptian pursuers remaining (14:27-28).

The Middle Pillar

What is happening here, between the movement of the waters and the separation of darkness and light, morning and night, is a retelling of Creation. The Torah is full of cycles like this. Abraham and Isaac both take their wives down into Egypt and mislead the locals into believing the women are their sisters. Both Israel and Joseph reconcile to their brothers. Both Noah and the Israelites are protected from watery deaths and the slavery of unrepentant, heart-hardened, sinful societies. And at the end of the Torah, Moses even prophesies that Israel will fall into darkness–an essence of creation we see G-d working through both here in this week’s portion as well as in the very beginning of the Torah’s scriptures in the act of Creation.

What this means, what G-d is showing us this week, is that there exists a direct lifeline of hope and grace between us and G-d, between the material universe and the world beyond. G-d has separated the floodwaters of the deep, established a firmament, and commanded there to be dry land for us to walk upon so that we can know Him and walk closer with Him, unafraid of that terrifying metaphysical depth above and all around us.

G-d has made the deep as if walls to our right and to our left, leaving the dry path before us directly up the center. This is the story of Creation, yet it is also repeated to us here at the foundation of our people, so that we might have another opportunity to get the bigger picture here.

It is no coincidence that the kabbalists conceptualize the metaphysical infrastructure of creation as a three-pillared tree. The middle pillar, the most direct pathway to G-d, is what is highlighted here. So easy is it to become disoriented in the astral detritus of the outer branches, Torah repeatedly weaves into itself the dry path of the middle, the path our ancestors walked, the ark in which Noah was spared, and the very landscape which G-d assembles first (a firmament dividing mayim from yam).

What separates this pillar from the others is that it integrates both G-d’s severity and G-d’s mercy, relying not too extremely on one over the other. It is a pathway of striving to obey G-d, failing in the depravity of our distance from Him, and getting back up to try again and again through the grace bestowed on our lives. To borrow from Rebbe Nachman, this pathway is a very narrow bridge.

It is a path though which G-d opens for all of His people. We need no special metaphysical knowledges or insight to pass upon it. We need only have a willingness to obey, to try, to strive, and to follow our Creator. And, as both the Rebbe Nachman and Moses instruct us (Exodus 14:13): “Do not be afraid.”

Ours is the G-d who opens the way forward when the darkness and depths enclose around us. Ours is the G-d who leads us forward, sets us free, and does not bring us up out of enslavement just to be slaughtered by the godless and wicked.

“Do not be afraid. Stand still and see the salvation of [HaShem] which He will accomplish for you today.” (Exodus 14:13 NKJV).

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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