Thursday, May 19, 2016

Firewater From Heaven: The Red Sea, the Ten Plagues, and World Peace

Published in Nitzachon, the Adas Torah journal.

One of the great mysteries of the redemption from Egypt is the Splitting of the Red Sea. It may be the premier supernatural event of the Exodus, but it all seems so unnecessary. His country in ruins, Pharaoh had already surrendered. The Jew were on the march to Mount Sinai, laden with the spoils of Egypt and savoring the thrill of freedom. Why ruin the party with more drama?
Make no mistake, Hashem deliberately instigated the pursuit of the Egyptian army.
Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Speak to the Children of Israel. They should go back and encamp… by the sea. Pharaoh will say the Children of Israel are wandering about the land; the desert has closed them off! I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue after them. I will then be honored through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am God. (Shemos 14:1-4)
Had Hashem not told the Jews to go back and camp by the sea, had Hashem not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he never would have taken chase. The Splitting of the Sea thus holds the strange distinction of being the greatest miracle we didn’t need. Couldn’t we just leave Egypt in peace? Why split the sea?[1]

Right vs. Left
After the tenth plague, Moshe presents the mitzvah of tefillin and repeatedly relates it to yetzias mitzrayim:
Moshe said to the nation, “Remember this day that you departed from Egypt, from the house of slaves. For with a strong hand, bechozek yad, Hashem took you out…
“It will be for you a sign on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes… for with a strong hand, b’yad chazaka, Hashem took you out from Egypt…
“It shall be a sign on your hand and totafos between your eyes, for with a strong hand, b’chozek yad, Hashem took you out of Egypt.” (Shemos 13:3,9,16)
If tefillin is supposed to remind us that Hashem took us out with a “strong hand,” why do we wear it on the left arm, typically the weaker of the two?[2]  The surprising answer is that Hashem’s “strong hand” is actually His left! The Ohr HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (d. 1743), explains:
We need to understand why Hashem didn’t choose the superior right hand for the performance of this mitzvah. Our rabbis have said it is because the [left arm] is adjacent to the heart which is on the left side.[3] What they said is true, but I believe I can [also] offer a good reason based on the Torah’s own explanation, “for with a strong hand [Hashem took you out of Egypt].” You should know that the attributes of the Almighty, He should be blessed, have two dimensions; one is called yad hagedola, the “great hand,” and the other is called yad hachazaka, the “strong hand.” “The great hand” is the quality of chesed and goodness, and the “strong hand” is the gevurah, the divine might, that makes evildoers pay for their crimes. Now, at the time of the Exodus, Hashem reached out with His “strong hand” and struck His enemies with ten plagues. This is why the Almighty ruled that tefillin… should be placed on our weaker hand which is symbolic of the “strong hand” that took us out of Egypt.
We can better understand this teaching of the Ohr HaChaim by quoting what he writes elsewhere:
Know that there is a divine attribute of chesed, kindness. To help humans understand it, it is called the “right hand”[4] and the “great hand.” The divine attribute of gevurah and din, might and justice, is called the “left hand”[5] and also the “strong hand.”[6]
To summarize. As an infinite being, Hashem obviously lacks a body and has no hands. The Torah’s references to divine body parts are just metaphors[7] to help us understand how Hashem relates to people: His “strong hand” refers to His judgement, and His “great hand” refers to His kindness.  Despite the fact that the strong hand is called “strong,” the great hand of kindness is actually the stronger of the two.[8] The divine “great hand” is thus symbolized by our right and the divine “strong hand” corresponds to our left.[9] This is consonant with the Kabbalistic tradition that “right” is chesed and “left” is din. It follows that since tefillin is meant to recall the judgement of Egypt by the (so-called) “strong hand,” we wear it on our left arm.

Strong vs. Great
On the one hand, the Ohr HaChaim’s contention that “yad hagedola” refers to chesed is consistent with the standard usage of the word gadol.[10] On the other hand, it flies in the face of the single place in Tanach where the expression is actually used. The Torah tells us that after the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, “the Jews saw hayad hagedola, the great hand, Hashem used in Egypt and the Jews feared Hashem” (Shemos 14:31). The “great hand used in Egypt” is obviously a reference to the Ten Plagues and this is why it elicited a fear response. The “great hand” of the verse is thus not divine kindness, it is divine judgement, and this is exactly how both Rashi and the Ramban explain it.
“The great hand – the great gevurah performed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu” (Rashi ad loc.). “According to the teachings of Kabbalah, the yad hagedola was revealed to them, namely midas hadin, the divine attribute of justice, which Hashem expressed in Egypt” (Ramban ad loc.).
If pshat and Kabbalah are in agreement that the “great hand” is gevurah and din, how can the Ohr HaChaim claim that it is chesed?!
In all fairness, the Ohr Chaim ends his exposition on tefillin with this caveat: “Although we do find that the “great hand” is often used [to refer to justice], this is just the attribute of compassion agreeing with the attribute of justice, but the primary term for justice is the strong hand [not the great hand].” To be frank, his defense is unsatisfying. If the “strong hand” is the primary term for justice, why does the Torah say the Jews saw Hashem’s “great hand” in Egypt? It should say we saw His “strong hand”!
The problem here is not only with the Ohr HaChaim. The fact is, Hashem did take us out with His “strong hand.” Moshe said to the nation, “Remember this day that you departed from Egypt… for with a strong hand Hashem took you out…” (Shemos 13:3). If Hashem used His “strong hand” for the Exodus, why didn’t we see it? Why did we see His “great hand”?

The Ambidextrous Redeemer
After the Sea crashes down on the Egyptian Army and the Jews are saved, they celebrate and express their thanks to Hashem by singing the Song by the Sea. Its lyrics include this anthropomorphism:
Your right hand is decorated with strength; Your right hand smashes the enemy. (Shemos 15:6)
Rashi explains:
“Your right hand… your right hand” – twice. When the Jews fulfill the Will of Hashem, the left becomes right.
“Your right hand is decorated with strength” – to save the Jews, and Your other right hand smashes the enemy (midrash). In my opinion, the very same right hand [that saved the Jews also] smashed the enemy, doing something humanly impossible, performing two tasks with a single hand.
All of Rashi’s comments are in agreement about the basic meaning of this verse. The two stanzas refer to two different acts, the salvation of the Jews and the destruction of the enemy, and both acts were performed by Hashem’s “right hand.”
Now, the idea that Hashem saved the Jews with His right hand is understandable; after all, it was an act of chesed and chesed comes from the right. But how can we say that He destroyed the Egyptians with His right hand? Punishments are always performed by the left!
The midrash tells us that the revelation at the sea was such that even the lowest Jew saw something that the prophet Yechezkel never saw.[11] In what way was splitting the sea a greater revelation than prophecy? How was it a bigger miracle than the Ten Plagues? The answer is that the plagues were indeed miraculous, but they had a single function, to punish the Egyptians. The splitting of the sea, however, had a dual function. At the sea, Hashem saved the Jews with chesed and decimated the enemy with gevurah, and he did both in the very same act. Retribution and redemption occurred simultaneously. This revelation of achdus, Hashem’s unity, was unparalleled by the plagues. Ordinarily, Hashem keeps His unity hidden from man. Although we know it to be true, in our world diversity reigns and the infinite oneness of the Creator is unfathomable.[12] At the sea, however, Hashem revealed His achdus for all to see in a selfless act of love.[13]
Like Creation itself, splitting the sea was not something Hashem had to do – and that is precisely why it was so meaningful. By definition, an act of love is voluntary, and ideally it discloses something personal. Hashem wanted to forge an intimate relationship with the Jewish People and that required a revelation of His essence. This is why He split the sea.
Hashem charged into battle like a man of war, ripping the sea in half and drowning the Egyptians, and He did it all as a gift for the Jewish People. When they saw how much Hashem loves them, they realized that He does not have two different hands at all. The yad hachazaka and the yad hagedola are one and the same; Hashem’s left hand of justice is His right hand of kindness! “The Jews saw the great hand… and the nation feared Hashem and they believed in Hashem” (Shemos 14:31). They feared His justice, they believed in His love, they recognized His unity, and then they began to sing.
Your right hand is adorned with strength;
Your right hand smashed the enemy!

Fire vs. Snow
המשל ופחד עמו, עשה שלום במרומיו.
“Dominion and terror are with Him; He makes peace in His heights” (Iyov 25:2).
“Dominion” – this is [the angel] Michael. “Terror” – this is [the angel] Gavriel.
“He makes peace in His heights” – [In His heights] fire and water mix together and the water does not extinguish the fire. (Rashi)
The two halves of this verse appear unrelated until you read the midrash. “He makes peace in His heights” – Reish Lakish taught, “[The angel] Michael is entirely snow and [the angel] Gabriel is entirely fire,[14] and they stand next to each other without harming each other” (Devarim Rabba 5:12).
Michael is snow? Gavriel is fire?! If not for the assistance of our trusted commentators, the meaning of these strange statements would be over our heads. The Eitz Yosef (Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef, d. 1867) explains, “Michael is entirely snow – this means he represents the attribute of compassion, which ‘cools off’ the attribute of justice.[15] Gabriel does the opposite.” Citing multiple sources, The Maharzu (Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn, d. 1862) asserts, “Michael… is always chesed and Gavriel is din.” The idea appears in the Zohar. “In every place, Michael is first from the side of chesed” and “Gavriel is from the side of gevurah.”[16] These characteristics fit neatly with what we say in the nighttime Shema, “On my right is Michael and on my left, Gavriel” (Maharzu ad loc.). 
This may all sound like esoterica bordering on the mystical, nonetheless, it is in the gemora. When, due to the many sins of Israel, the time came to destroy Yerushalayim, Hashem ordered Gavriel to “fill his cupped hands with burning coals from between the heavenly cheruvim and throw them upon the city” (Yechezkel 10:2). Instead of taking the coals himself, Gavriel had Michael pick up the coals first (ibid 10:7).
Rabbi Shimon Chasida said, “Had the coals not cooled off [as they passed] from the hands of Michael[17] to the hands of Gavriel, there would be no remnant nor survivor from the enemies of Israel.[18] (Yoma 77a)
To the prophet Yechezkel, the tempering of Hashem’s justice appeared as a vision of the angel Michael cooling off the burning coals of the angel Gavriel. This is a not a vision of God Himself, but of the differentiation and interaction of His attributes, chesed and din, as they make their way down into our world. The roots of divine compassion, high above the angels, cannot be seen by Yechezkel. Unfathomable to the human mind and impossible to depict in a vision, the higher reality is the seamless achdus of Hashem. The unity of left and right may not be visible to the prophets, but it was experienced by all who stood by the Red Sea and they put the revelation to verse. “Your right hand is adorned with strength; Your right hand smashed the enemy!” At the sea, even the lowest Jew saw something Yechezkel never saw.
This is not a minor theological distinction, it is night and day. The midrash is explicit.
Rabbi Eliezer said, “At the sea, a maidservant saw something that Yechezkel and Yeshaya did not see… For the prophets only saw prophetic visions, as the verse states, “The heavens opened and I saw visions of Elokim” (Yechezkel 1:1). Since they saw seraphim and holy chayos on the right and on the left they therefore did not recognize the honor of their creator.[19] However, when HaKadosh Baruch Hu was revealed by the sea, not angel, nor seraph, nor holy chayos appeared with Him, and as a result, the Jews recognized the honor of their creator with the sight of the neshama and the sight of the heart – and it seemed to them as if they saw it with their eyes! Even babes and the nursing young saw the honor of their creator, pointed at Him with their fingers, and said, “This is my God!”[20]
Some Kabbalistic secrets are not so secret. This one appears in the Halachic code of the Tur, in the Laws of Kaddish.
[Then you say] “oseh shalom bimromav,” He who makes peace in His heights. This is a reference to the angels which are fire and water, two opposites, and neither one extinguishes the other. (Tur, Ohr HaChaim 56)
Later in Ohr HaChaim (123), the Tur describes the well-known ritual at the end of Kaddish.
When saying “oseh shalom bimromav,” he turns his face toward the left, and when saying “hu yaaseh shalom” he turns to face toward the right.
This halacha is based on the gemora (Yoma 53b) which adds that since we are facing Hashem when we daven, our left is Hashem’s right and our right is Hashem’s left. After all we have learned, the Maharsha’s comments will not surprise us.
When he says “oseh shalom bimromav” (He who makes peace in His heights) i.e., above where compassion is found, he turns his face to Hashem’s right, and when he says, “hu yaaseh shalom aleinu” (He shall make peace for us) i.e., below, he turns to face towards Hashem’s left which indicates the attribute of justice.
At the end of Kaddish, in a powerful combination of words and movements, we make an appeal for Shalom, for peace. We speak not of the ordinary peace between men, but of the peace and perfection of Heaven. It is a prayer for Hashem’s unity to flow into our world so that the flames of justice will be smothered by the cool waters of His infinite compassion.

The plague of hail did more than knock down trees and kill the fools who remained outdoors. It also damaged the harvest. “The flax and barley were broken, for the barley was ripe and the flax had stalks. But the wheat and spelt were not broken because they were afilos” (ibid 9:31-32). What does afilos mean? It might mean “late.” Wheat and spelt grow later in the season and might have been pliable at the time of the hail. This would explain why they did not crack when struck like the hardened flax and barley. Rashi offers another possibility. “In the midrash (Tanchuma) there are sages who debate this and understand the word afilos to be a contraction of pilei pilaos.[21] [Hashem] performed a wonder of wonders for them that [their wheat and spelt] were not destroyed.”
Every one of the Ten Plagues was a great miracle. Why does the survival of some grain stand out as a “wonder of wonders”? Because it was an act of kindness in the midst of a plague. Here Hashem is hammering the Egyptians with a furious hailstorm and He makes a miracle so they will have food to eat. Judgement and kindness working in tandem is a truly wondrous thing, especially for polytheists who believe in competing gods. The hail was a sign of the Creator, the One God in whom justice and kindness live together in peace.
There is a second example of miraculous coexistence in the plague of hail.    
Moshe stretched out his staff on the heavens and Hashem gave thunder and hail, and fire traveled towards the earth. Hashem rained down hail on the land of Egypt. There was hail and fire flashed inside the hail… (Shemos 9:23-24)
 Hail is ice. How could fire burn inside hail? Rashi explains.
[It was] a miracle inside a miracle; fire and hail combined. Hail is water, but to fulfill the Will of their Master they made peace with each other.
Once again, we are faced with what appears to be a meaningless miracle. Fire and water made peace? What for? Why is Hashem wantonly violating the laws of nature? The answer is that the plague of hail came from a different place, a place beyond nature.
Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Stretch your hand on the heavens and there will be hail on the entire land of Egypt…” (Shemos 9:22)
“On the heavens” – According to the midrash (Aggadah), HaKodosh Baruch Hu raised Moshe above the heavens.” (Rashi ad loc.)
Above the heavens!” In our universe fire and water are incompatible, but the hail was not of our universe. It came from outside, from above the heavens, from a place of pure peace. “Oseh shalom bimromav” (Iyov 25:2). “In the heights there is nothing other than Shalom” (Ramban ad loc.).

The Gift of Plagues
The plagues were not so much about punishment as they were about religious education. As the Ramban explains, the plagues addressed the old problem of paganism.  
From the time paganism arose in society in the days of Enosh, man’s faith in God began to falter. Some denied God’s existence altogether, claiming the world always existed… others denied God’s knowledge of the details [of human behavior]… others conceded His knowledge, but denied His providence, making man like the fish of the sea that are not supervised by God and for whom there is no punishment or reward…
However, when Hashem favors a community (i.e., Egypt) or an individual (i.e., Pharaoh) and performs a wonder for them, altering the world’s ordinary course and its nature, the falsity of all those positions becomes clear to everyone, for the amazing wonder demonstrates that the world has a God who created it; He knows, He supervises and He is omnipotent. (Ramban to Shemos 13:16)
Hashem’s agenda was to convert Pharaoh from polytheism to monotheism, and to that end, He signed Pharaoh up for an introductory course in Jewish theology, otherwise known as the Ten Plagues. For the seventh class, fire and ice are the instructors and the lesson is unity, a unity unlike anything in human experience.[22] As Pharaoh was told explicitly, the hailstorm happened “so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the earth” (Shemos 9:14). On earth there is division and conflict; above there is only peace.
One thing is clear. Hashem wants Pharaoh and the Egyptians to know Him well, and according to the Ramban, it is because He favors them. They may not have received it as such, but the plagues were actually a gift.[23] There is nothing better for the condition of man and society than the knowledge of God.[24]
In light of what we know about the symbols of fire and snow, we can well understand how the wheat survived the hail. The hail was firewater from another world, a revelation of the wondrous coexistence of divine justice and compassion. It destroyed the barley, it protected the wheat, and it served as a sign that Hashem was moving forward with His plan to end paganism and bring peace to earth though the creation of His Chosen People. Of course, skeptics claimed it was meaningless. The wheat was soft and pliable and it survived the hail naturally. They had a point, but such arguments could only be entertained until the Splitting of the Sea.
Viewing the plagues in retrospect from the revelation at the sea, “the Jews saw the yad hagedola, the great hand, that Hashem used in Egypt” (Shemos 14:31). Great hand? We were taken out of Egypt by the yad chazaka, the strong hand, not the great hand! This is true, but after they were saved, the Jews had an epiphany. The yad hachazaka of Egypt and the yad hagedola of the sea are one and the same! There was miraculous chesed concealed within the terrible plagues – concern and caring for the welfare of both Jew and Egyptian. Hashem’s justice and compassion, punishment and kindness, destruction and creation, the left and the right, it is all one. This is the greatest wonder of all.
May the One who makes peace in His heights make peace for us and for all of Israel, and say: Amen!

[1] Classical commentators have addressed this question. See, for example, Ohr HaChaim 3:18 (end).
[2] The halacha that tefillin is worn on the left arm is derived from the Torah’s use of the word ידכה (Shemos 13:16), a conjunction of יד כהה, the weaker hand, which is the left (Menachos 37a).
[3] Menachos 37a; cf. Rambam, Hilchos Tefillin 4:2.
[4] “Every turn you make should only be towards the right…” (Yoma 15a).
[5] “Is there “left” above [in heaven]? Rather, there are those [angels] who “go right,” i.e., argue in favor [of the accused in the heavenly court] and there are those who “go left,” arguing to prosecute” (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemos 8). “A person should always push away with the left and draw in close with the right” (Ruth Rabba 2:16).
[6] Chefetz Hashem to Shabbos 89a. Cited by the “Yismach Moshe” commentary on the Ohr HaChaim (Korngot, 2009).
[7] Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:8-9
[8] “Which divine attribute is greater, the attribute of goodness or the attribute of punishment? It should be said that the attribute of goodness is greater than the attribute of punishment…” (Yoma 76a). “The attribute of goodness is five hundred times stronger than the attribute of punishment” (Tosefta Sotah 3:4).
[9] Man was created “b’tzelem Elokim.” Although Hashem is infinite, incorporeal and unknowable to a physical being, man was designed in a way that enables him to have some insight into divine providence. For example, the statement that Hashem’s “eyes are always on the land of Israel” (Devarim 11:12) only has meaning to beings with eyes, and only someone who has experienced love can appreciate what it means when Hashem says, “I love you” (Malachi 1:2). The use of the left hand as a symbol of divine justice may thus allude to the fact that Hashem prefers not to use it. “I do not desire the death of the wicked one, but rather the return of the wicked one from his ways so that he will live!” (Yechezkel 33:11). Nonetheless, we would do well to remember that ultimately “the human mind is incapable of fathoming or investigating the true reality [of Hashem]” (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:9).
[10]Ha’el hagadol.” “Ha’el is the creator, and He is the gadol with chesed” (Rabbenu Bechaya to Devarim 10:17). The Jewish Nation praying to “Elohei Avraham,” the God of the man of chesed, is thus a fulfilment of Hashem’s promise to make Avraham into a גוי גדול (cf. Pesachim 117b). “לך ה' הגדולה” (Divrei HaYomim I 29:11) refers to the acts of creation (Berachos 58a). The Maharsha explains, “gedulah is the attribute of chesed, and with this attribute the acts of creation came to be, as the verse states, “עולם חסד יבנה” (Tehillin 89:3).”
[11] Yalkut Beshalach 244; cf. Rashi to Shemos 15:2.
[12] See Nefesh HaChaim 3:4-6.
[13] Chesed and din working in unison appears to be the central theme of the Song by the Sea. Examples abound. “The strength and vengeance of our God was our salvation” (Rashi’s translation of 15:2; see also Kli Yakar ad loc. and Ramban, s.v. zeh eli v’anveihu). “Hashem is a man of war; Hashem is His name” (15:3) – “The midas harachamim also waged war… at the very same time that Hashem waged war against the Egyptians He related to the Jews with midas harachamim” (Ohr HaChaim; cf. Seforno ad loc.). “With the wind of Your nostrils the waters piled up…” (15:8) – “This is the wonder: with the midas hadin He saved the Jews and with the midas harachamim he drowned the Egyptians!” (Chasam Sofer al HaTorah). “You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed [the enemy]. With Your kindness You guided us – You redeemed this nation!” (15:12-13). The unity of the event allows us to understand why Miriam only thanked Hashem for destroying the Egyptians (15:21) and did not even feel it necessary to mention the salvation of the Jews.
[14] Gavriel said… “I am the officer of fire” (Pesachim 118a). “There is a fire that overrides fire: [the fire] of Gavriel” (Yoma 21b).
[15] “Originally, they tied the red string on the inside of the door of the [Temple] Hall. When the goat reached the desert, [the string] turned white, as the verse states, ‘If your sins are red, they will be whitened like snow’ (Yeshaya 1:18)” (Yoma 67a).
[16] Zohar, Vayechi 235b and Tikkunei Zohar 455, 89a. For a plethora of Zoharic sources about the competing natures of Gavriel and Michael, see Margolis, Malachei Elyon, 24-31; 116-121.
[17] The Vilna Talmud has “cheruv,” following the verse in Yechezkel, but a shoulder note cites “Michael” as an alternative from the Ein Yaakov.
[18] When saying something negative about the Jewish People, the sages commonly use the euphemism “enemies of Israel.”
[19] לא היו מכירין כבוד יוצרם. [Sic!]
[20] Midrash Seichel Tov (Buber), Shemos 15.
[21] אפילות=פלאי פלאות
[22] “There is no other unity in the universe like the unity [of Hashem]” (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:70). 
[23] “We know the truth that HaKadosh Baruch Hu only wants to bestow goodness. He loves his creations like a father loves his son, but because of this love it is appropriate that a father discipline his son for his own good in the end, as the verse states, ‘Just like a man disciplines his son, so does Hashem your God discipline you’ (Devarim 8:5)” (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem 2:8:1). 
[24] According to the Rambam, when Dovid HaMelech said “Being close to Hashem is good for me” (Tehillim 73:28) the closeness he speaks of refers to “knowledge, i.e., the intellectual comprehension [of Hashem], not physical proximity” (Moreh Nevuchim 1:18). In short, knowledge of Hashem is good for mankind (cf. The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Vol. I, pg. 216). Further evidence of Hashem’s interest in the fate Egyptians can be deduced from His dismay at their failure. After the Egyptian army is destroyed, the angels in heaven began to sing. Hashem rebuked them, “The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea and you are singing songs?!” (Yalkut Beshalach 233).

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