The View From Field and Sea


Standing to hear a Torah reading is a rare event reserved for the Ten Commandments and Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), which we read this week and also on the seventh day of Pesach. Tradition holds that the Israelites sang this song of redemption, victory, and gratitude seven days out of Egypt. It begins: “I will sing to Adonai because God has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. God is my strength and might and has become my deliverance. This is my God whom I will enshrine, the God of my ancestors whom I will exalt.” (Exodus 15:1-2)

There is much we might wonder about in those lines, but the phrase that captivated the attention of our Rabbis might escape our attention. How could any Israelite, having lived only as a slave in Egypt, possibly say, “This is my God”? How could any Israelite other than Moses and Aaron recognize God? Who, then, uttered these words?

R. Avira answers this question in a riveting and imaginative story recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 11b; another version is found in Exodus Rabbah 1:12). The Hebrew women who came of age under Pharaoh’s edict were determined to have children nonetheless. They would collect fish from the Nile and “heat two pots, one with hot water and the other with fish, both of which they brought to their husbands in the field. There the women washed their husbands, anointed, fed and gave them to drink. Then, lying secluded between mounds in the fields, they responded to their men. After that, they returned to their homes.” They returned to the fields nine months later to give birth and left their infants there. “The Holy One sent an angel, who cleansed the infants and massaged their bodies as a midwife does to make a child look beautiful. Then God selected for each of them two breast-shaped stones, one filled with honey and the other with oil [to nourish them]. … As the infants grew up, they came running to their homes in flocks.” These infants, now grown — for whom God has been midwife and nursemaid — recognized God in the Reed Sea and said, “This is my God!”

Not only do we now know who recognized God at the Reed Sea, but also, as R. Avira tells us in his introduction to this story: “Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the righteous women of that generation.” Imagine the courage, conviction and imagination these life-giving, life-revering women possessed to forge a future when the odds were stacked against them, resources scarce, and hope even scarcer. We are their descendants. May their middot (attributes) find fruition and fulfillment in us.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is community hospice rabbi in Howard County.

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