Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Out of Egypt: Yosef's Bones & Michah's Idol

Part-one of this post dealt with the foreshadowing of our story back in Parshas Lech Lecha. Read it here.

When the time comes for the Jews to leave Egypt, the state of their spiritual health is the question of the hour. After so many years of slavery, what remains of their faith and identity? Actually, this is the central question for all the rest of Chumash. How much damage has Egypt inflicted on the soul of the Jew?

The answer is sad. At the Red Sea, the angels of heaven famously questioned God, "Both the Jews and the Egyptians are idolators! Why are You saving the Jews and killing the Egyptians?!" The Jews were so assimilated, even the angels couldn't tell them apart from Egyptians. But in order for the Jews to merit an Exodus from Egypt, they must first get Egypt out of their system. How is this going to be accomplished?

First, they will have to disavow Egyptian culture. Second, they must affirm their Jewish identity. And indeed, Hashem commands them to do these two things before they leave the country. First they were commanded to slaughter a sheep - an animal sacred to the Egyptians - and place its blood on their doorposts (12:6-7). In this way, they rejected Egyptian paganism. And then they were told to circumcise themselves, affirming their identity as Jews (12:48). It was due to the merit of these two mitzvos that the Jews were able leave Egypt (cf. Rashi to 12:6).

As we have seen, this was unfortunately insufficient. At the Red Sea the angels still couldn't tell the difference between the Jew and the Egyptian. For the sea to split, the merit of an even greater rejection of Egyptian culture was needed and this was found in none other than the bones of Yosef.
"The Sea saw and fled" (Psalms 114:3). It saw the coffin of Yosef descending into the sea. Hashem said, "Flee before the one who fled!" As the verse states, "He left his garment with her and fled and went outside" (Bereishis 39:12). (Yalkut Shimoni 873)
Like his forefather Avraham before him, Yosef was a man of steel, uninfluenced by the fleshpot of Egypt. And in the end, it was the bones of Yosef HaTzaddik, the bones which withstood the seductions of exile, that split the sea.

It is perfectly natural to be seduced. But when man refuses to be assimilated into his environment and transcends his nature, then man is truly free - and nature itself will transcend its laws in his service and deliver him to freedom.

But the bones of Yosef was not the only unusual baggage the Jews carried across the sea. The Talmud tells us that the spoils of Egypt included some contraband as well.
"A rival crossed the sea..." (Zechariah 10:11). R. Yochanan said, "This refers to idol of Michah."
Sanhedrin 103b
The Red Sea was not amused.
The administering angels were astounded. "People who worship idols walk on dry land in the midst of the sea?!"
How do we know that even the sea itself was filled with anger? For the verse states והמים להם חמה  - "The water was a wall for them" (Shemos 14:29). Don't read it חומה, "wall," rather read it חימה, "anger." ["The water was angry at them."]
Mechiltah; see Baal HaTurim ad loc. that the anger was due to the presence of Michah's idol.
[The word for wall - חומה - is spelled here in abbreviated form without a ו (as opposed to just a few verses earlier (14:22) where it is spelled with a ו). This allows the word to be vowelized in a way which transforms its meaning from "wall" to "anger."]

We learned that the sea split before the bones of Yosef, for Yosef withstood the seductions of Egypt. The Red Sea is willing to violate the laws of nature in deference of one who transcends human nature, but it is rightly incensed to have to stand as a wall before Jews who succumb to paganism and dare carry the idols of Egypt across its seabed.

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