Offered at Temple B’nai Brith – Kingston, PA, USA
Shabbat shalom! Thanks for welcoming me to your congregation on this erev Shabbat. And for giving me the chance to share a few thoughts on this week’s Torah portion, B’shallakh, from the book of Exodus. We are right in the middle of what might be the biggest drama of the entire Torah narrative. The 10 plagues have devastated ancient Egypt, and finally Pharaoh has released the Hebrews. Our parashah starts with one of the most famous sacred stories in the world – the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the march across the exposed sea floor by the Hebrew slaves, along with other escapees and refugees from the iron furnace of Pharaoh’s tyranny.
In this week’s parashah, the Hebrews have made it to the shores of the sea, but they are pinned down, trapped between the waters and Pharaoh’s army. You know what happens. God splits the sea. Pharaoh orders his charioteers to pursue. They give chase, but God causes the wheels of their chariots to get stuck in the mud, and then, once the Hebrews have arrived on the other shore of the sea, God releases the waters of the Sea of Reeds and many of Pharaoh’s finest warriors are drowned. When the Hebrews realize that they have been rescued for good, one of their prophets, Miriam, the sister of Moses, leads the women in song and dance to celebrate.
This story has had a huge impact on Jewish thought and Jewish values. And it has influenced many other religious traditions too, as well as the world of Western art and culture. And perhaps most importantly, without this story, we would never have gotten to see Yul Brynner look straight into the camera lens and, in realizing his defeat, say: “The Hebrews god . . . is God.” Or something close to that.
Tonight I’d like to focus on the ways that water, blood, and childbirth imagery animate so much of the Exodus drama, finally culminating in the spectacular rescue at the Sea of Reeds. I’ll start with childbirth.