Parshat Beshalach 5

“Hashem told Moshe that his prayers were not needed. This is a reflection on Moshe’s unique nature. He participated in a perpetual relationship with Hashem. He did not need to seek some higher spiritual plane in order to participate in this miracle.[1] And Moshe extended his hand over the sea. And Hashem drove back the waters with a powerful east wind the entire night. And it made the seabed into dry land. And the waters were divided.” (Shemot 14:27)

Bnai Yisrael flee from Egypt. The people arrive at the shores of the Reed Sea. The sea stands before the nation. The Egyptians are directly behind them. Bnai Yisrael is trapped. The Creator performs one of His greatest miracles. He splits the Reed Sea. Bnai Yisrael enter the sea. They travel across the sea over its dry seabed. The Egyptians enter the sea in pursuit of their escaped slaves. The sea closes upon the Egyptians and they are drowned.

The Torah provides some interesting details regarding this miracle. Generally, we imagine that Moshe extended his hand over the water and suddenly the waters separated and dry land was revealed. Our passage provides a somewhat different description of these events.

According to our pasuk, the sea did not immediately split in response to Moshe’s command. Moshe extended his hand over the water and a mighty wind arose. The wind blew the entire night. What was the function of this wind? Why did Hashem require this wind? Why did He not immediately split the waters.

We must begin our discussion of these questions with the comments of Nachmanides. He explains that the wind was part of an elaborate deception. The Almighty had brought the Egyptians to the Reed Sea. Here, they were to be destroyed. However, what was to induce the Egyptians to enter the sea? After all, if the Almighty had split the sea in order to save Bnai Yisrael, it was not likely He would allow the Egyptians to follow them. What would the point be of a miracle that failed to save Bnai Yisrael? Certainly, the Egyptians would realize that Hashem would not prolong His miracle for their benefit!

Nachmanides explains that the wind was part of a ruse. The Egyptians believed that the wind had split the sea. Bnai Yisrael were escaping into the sea as the result of remarkable good fortune. They just happened to reach the sea at the onset of a tremendous storm. The storm cleaved open the waters. The Egyptians felt that they too could take advantage of this opportunity. The wind would continue to drive the waters apart. They could enter the sea and overtake Bnai Yisrael. The deception worked. The Egyptians were lured into the trap!

Of course, the Egyptians were mistaken in their interpretations of the phenomenon. They were not witnessing an unusual meteorological occurrence. They were seeing a miracle. They entered the sea and the Almighty brought the waters crashing down upon them.[2]

Rashbam adopts a completely opposite approach to explaining this wind. He contends that the wind actually split the water. The Creator performed this miracle through the vehicle of natural forces. Rashbam adds some detail. He explains that the wind had two functions. First, it caused the water to back up. Once the water backed up, the seafloor was revealed. Second, it dried the seafloor and created a passable path across the seabed.[3] Ibn Ezra adds that the wind continued to blow as Bnai Yisrael crossed the sea. Only the power of the wind prevented the water from rushing in on Bnai Yisrael.[4]

In short, we are faced with two approaches for explaining this wind. Nachmanides maintains that the wind was not a factor in splitting the sea. The wind was merely part of a ruse designed to lure the Egyptians into the sea. Rashbam and others disagree. They insist that the miracle of the sea splitting was brought about through this wind. The wind split the sea, dried the seabed, and held the waters apart for Bnai Yisrael.

This raises an interesting question. We can understand the position of Nachmanides. The Almighty is the Creator of the universe. He formed the seas and established the boundaries between the oceans and the continents. Obviously, He can alter these boundaries. If He wishes to create dry land in the midst of the sea, He can. He is omnipotent. He does not need any wind to assist Him.

The position of Rashbam is more difficult to understand. It seems as if the Rashbam is limiting the Almighty. He seems to deny his omnipotence. Why does the Hashem need a wind to do His bidding?

The answer to this question is very important. It provides an insight into the Torah’s understanding of the natural world. The answer also indicates the Torah’s attitude toward scientific knowledge.

We all realize that we are required to observe the Torah. Observant Jews might dicker over the specifics of observance. However, we would agree that the Almighty revealed the Torah with the intention that we observe its commandments. The reason for observance is obvious. The commandments are an expression of the will of Hashem. As His servants, we must submit to His will.

However, it must be noted that the mitzvot of the Torah are not the only laws that Hashem created. In addition to the mitzvot, He created the laws of nature. These are the laws that govern the movement of the galaxies and the behavior of the smallest subatomic particle. Just as the Torah’s mitzvot are an expression of His will, so too the laws of nature are a manifestation of the Divine. It is reasonable for the Creator to expect that these natural laws should be observed.

Now, we can understand Rashbam’s position. Rashbam does not deny the Almighty’s omnipotence. He is not positing that the Creator needs a wind to split the sea. He is asserting that a perfect Creator would not disregard His own laws. He would not capriciously suspend or violate the laws He had established.

The Rashbam is also providing us with an important perspective on scientific knowledge. In order to understand this perspective, let us ask a question. What is religion’s attitude towards science? The answer is that science and religion have often contended with one another. Many religions have resisted science. What is the reason for this conflict?

There are many factors that have contributed to this contentious relationship. We will consider two of these. First, religion is often steeped in the mystical. For some, religion provides an explanation for the inexplicable. Religion begins where science ends. In other words, religion provides answers to the questions science cannot. In such a relationship, the advancement of science must reduce the significance of religion. As science expands our knowledge of the universe, the realm of religion is reduced. Mysteries that were once explained through some mystical truth are interpreted by a set of scientific principles. The realm of the mystical is reduced, and the danger arises that religion will become trivial.

There is a second issue. In some religions, doctrine may seem to contradict science. Religious doctrine is regarded as a revealed or, at least, inspired truth. It is not subject to challenge. Therefore, any conflict with science must be eliminated.

When these conflicts arise, these religions must respond. There are a number of responses. At the extreme, these perceived threats could lead to outright suppression of science. More commonly, these challenges lead to the disparagement of science and a marginalizing of its importance.

It is noteworthy that many of our greatest Torah Sages possessed extensive knowledge of science. Apparently, these Sages did not perceive any conflict between their religious outlook and scientific knowledge. The attitude of these Sages suggests that science and Torah can peacefully coexist. What is the basis for this coexistence?

Rashbam’s explanation of our pasuk provides a response. It is clear that Rashbam regarded the laws of the universe as a manifestation the Creator’s will. They are an expression of His infinite wisdom. Even the Almighty will not flippantly disregard these laws. This implies that these laws deserve our respect.

This attitude eliminates the conflict between science and religion. The discoveries of science are not viewed as a threat to religion. On the contrary, these insights are an inspiration to the Torah scholar. They provide awesome testimony to the infinite wisdom of the Creator. The expansion of scientific knowledge does not diminish the significance of the Torah. This newfound knowledge gives us a greater appreciation of the Almighty. These insights are a source of inspiration in our service to Hashem through the performance of His mitzvot.

It is important to note that we are not suggesting that the study of science is as important as the study of Torah. This is a completely different issue. Even within a single science, there is a proper order for its study. For example, in mathematics the study of algebra precedes that of calculus. In addition, some sciences are more easily understood and more suitable for general study. And of course, practical considerations can suggest that one science be given priority over another. All of these issues and others must be discussed in order to determine the relative merit of Torah study as compared to the study of science. Nonetheless, it is clear from the comments of Rashbam that scientific knowledge deserves our respect.

“Through the window she looks forth and cries. The mother of Sisera peers through the lattice. “Why is his chariot delayed in coming? Why are the wheels of his chariot late?” (Shoftim 5:28 – Haftarat Beshalach)

Devorah the prophetess describes the pain of Sisera’s mother. She awaits the return of her son from battle with Bnai Yisrael. He is late. She senses he will not come home. Her ministers comfort her. They assure her that Sisera has defeated the Jews. He is delayed collecting spoils. But Sisera will never return. The army of Bnai Yisrael, inspired by Devorah, has defeated Sisera. Yael has killed him.

Why does Devorah describe the anguish of the mother of Sisera? Should we feel pity for the mother of this wicked man? Does Sisera’s mother deserve our sympathy?

Sisera’s army was not merely defeated. These enemies of Bnai Yisrael were devastated. Sisera’s mother and her nation awaited the outcome of the battle. But no news came. There were no refugees from the war. No one escaped to bring news of the outcome.

The tears of Sisera’s mother represent the totality of the defeat of Bnai Yisrael’s enemies. Devorah, for this reason, included this image in her praise to Hashem.

[1] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 103.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 14:21.

[3] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot 14:21.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 14:21.