Sink or Swim

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parsha Beshalach
Sink or Swim

One of the major highlights in this week's parsha is Kriyas Yam Suf (the parting of the Sea of Reeds; Beshalach, 14:21-31). After this miracle occurred, the Jewish people sang Shiras Hayam (the Song by the Sea; Beshalach, 15:1-21). This song is so powerful that it made its way into the daily davening. Moreover, since this Shabbos we read about this song in shul from the Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), the entire Sabbath is called "Shabbos Shira" (Sabbath of Song).

In order to delve into one of the deeper dimensions of this miracle and its song, let us begin by sharing a teaching from Reb Chaim Vital (Sha'arei Kedusha, Sha'ar 2, citing Arizal) who says that every person is made up of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. All character flaws stem from these four elements. For example, arrogance and anger stem from the element of fire, forbidden speech stems from the element of air, and depression and laziness stem from the element of earth which has gravity and tends to pull us down.

Today, we are going to focus on the element of water. The negative traits of lustful passions, coveting, and jealousy stem from the element of water. We are expected to control these inner elements so that they do not get out of hand.

The Shelah (Yoma, Derech Chaim, Tochachas Mussar, 7, citing the Chareidim, chap. 66) says that this world can be compared to a stormy ocean. Just as we take every precaution necessary to prevent us from drowning at sea, similarly, we must take every measure necessary to ensure that we do not drown in the sea of ta'avos (lustful passions).

Rabbenu Bachya (Preface to Parshas Masei) adds that this world is called Olam Hateva (the world of nature). When the vowels of the word "teva" (nature) are rearranged, it can be pronounced as "toveya" (drown). This teaches us that the "teva" of this world is to "toveya" us in a sea of materialistic and physical temptations. This will happen "naturally" if we don't take the necessary measures to stop it.

In fact, this is part of a father's responsibility to a son. He must circumcise him, redeem him if he is a first born, teach him Torah, marry him off, teach him a trade, and teach him how to swim (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 29a, and Rashi). The Shvilei Pinchas suggests that teaching him how to swim is not only to be understood as actual swimming, but, in addition to that, a father must teach his son Torah in such a way that he will be able to "swim" through the stormy waters of temptations which try to drown us spiritually.

In Mitzrayim (Egypt), Pharaoh decreed that every son born must be thrown into the river (Parshas Shemos, 1:22). This is not to be taken only in a literal sense. There was an added dimension to Pharaoh's decree. Pharaoh decreed that Jewish youth be exposed to all of the watery passions that Egyptian society had to offer. Pharaoh wanted to corrupt the Jewish people by Egyptianizing them (Shvilei Pinchas). To a great extent, it worked. The Jews "sunk" to the forty-ninth level of impurity.

This is why Hashem decided to redeem the Jewish people from Mitzrayim specifically through splitting the waters and not through any other method like beaming them directly from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael. It is because, Yetziyas Mitzrayim was not just a physical redemption of their bodies, but it was also a spiritual redemption of their souls. Parting the "waters" conveyed to the Jews that God was going to move those "temptations" out of their way, at least to a degree. "Drying up" the land told the Jews that He would help them by "drying up" some of their negative impulses (Shvilei Pinchas).

This message was extremely meaningful in light of the fact that the Jews in Mitzrayim were all gilgulim (reincarnations) of those who perished in the Mabul (flood) during Noach's time (Arizal, Sha'ar Hapesukim, Parshas Shemos; Sha'ar Hakavanos, Derush 1 on Pesach). The people of the Dor Hamabul were "drowning" in their lustful passions. Immorality was rampant. Their inner water was out of control. Therefore, Hashem destroyed them with a Mabul, where outer water also got out of control. The punishment fit the crime.

Those people came back as the Jews in Egypt. They were supposed to rectify their past mistakes. Instead, Pharaoh threw the "waters of temptation" in their faces, and the Jews began sinking again. Therefore, Hashem orchestrated Egyptian bondage as a means of purifying the Jews. The slavery would also serve as a way of separating them from their Egyptian counterparts. Ultimately, God "parted the waters" before them, assisting them in getting much of their negative impulses out of the way.

Not only did Hashem help the Jews of the past, but in the future, by the final redemption, Hashem will help us as well, and complete the process, by removing all negative lustful passions. When Moshiach comes, Hashem is going to destroy the Yetzer Hara once and for all (Succah, chap. 5, "Hachalil", pg. 52a). This will be conveyed to the Jewish people when Hashem splits all the waters of the world a second time when He rescues us from the final exile at the End of Days.

There is indeed going to be a second Kriyas Yam Suf at The End of Days (Rabbenu Bachya in Kad Hakemach, Erech Ner Channukah; Yeshaya 11:15-16; Vayikra Rabba 27:4, Parshas Emor). Just as every body of water split at the time the Jews came out of Mitzrayim, (Parshas Beshach 14:21; Rashi citing Shemos Rabba 21:6) similarly, every body of water will split again when we are redeemed from this Galus Edom (Roman Exile). The parting of waters at the End of Days represents that all ta'avos will finally be removed completely.

At the End of Days, Jews will have been scattered all across the globe. Therefore, Hashem will part every body of water, indicating that no matter where Jews come from, and no matter what different types of challenges they struggle with, God will push those difficulties aside by drying up the wells of lustful passions.

This explains why the Samech Mem angel only prosecuted the Jewish people (claiming that they were idolaters, undeserving of redemption; Yalkut Shimoni, Beshalach, Remez 234) when they crossed the Sea of Reeds on the seventh day of their departure from Mitzrayim, and not when they marched out of Mitzrayim on the first day. It is because the Samech Mem understood the message of Kriyas Yam Suf which was that it represented Hashem beginning to dry up lustful passions. He understood that this was just a precursor to the End of Days when Hashem would completely eradicate those negative impulses by destroying the Yetzer Hara altogether.

Since the Samech Mem is the Yetzer Hara (Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 21, pg. 60a) he was frightened of being destroyed. If his prosecution would be accepted, the Jews would not deserve redemption, and the Yetzer Hara would continue to live. Therefore, the Samech Mem only prosecuted on the seventh day, when he felt that his life was being threatened (Shvilei Pinchas).

At this point, it would be fitting to add the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Mikeitz, 92:2; Tehillim, 114:1) which says that when the Jews passed through the Sea of Reeds, Hashem brought Ya'akov Avinu from the Machpeila Cave to the Yam Suf to watch the miracles that Hashem performed for his descendants. There are a few reasons why specifically Ya'akov was chosen by Hashem to witness this miracle and not Avraham or Yitzchak.

First of all, Ya'akov paved the way for the miracle of Kriyas Yam Suf to happen. After all, the Yarden (Jordan river) parted for Ya'akov when he returned to Eretz Yisrael. Ya'akov touched the Yarden with his "Makel" (staff), and it split (Rashi citing Midrash Aggadah, Parshas Vayishlach 32:11). This is the first time in history that a body of water parted for a person. This broke the ice and paved the way for water to part for Ya'akov's descendants.

Moreover, it was in the zechus (merit) of Ya'akov that the Yam Suf parted (BereishisRabba, Parshas Vayishlach 76:5; Yehoshua 4:22; Tehillim 114:5-7). Therefore, it was fitting for Ya'akov to be present when the Yam Suf actually parted, because Ya'akov triggered this miracle, and it even happened in his zechus.

The zechus of Ya'akov was that he represented the pillar of Torah, and the Gemara (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis, pg. 30b) says that only through Torah study can we overcome the Yetzer Hara. Therefore, both Ya'akov and Kriyas Yam Suf represent the same thing; overcoming temptations. How fitting it was that Ya'akov would be present for Kriyas Yam Suf. The Zohar (vol. 1, pg. 261a) adds that Ya'akov will also be present for the Kriyas Yam Suf of the future. The same reason applies (Shvilei Pinchas).

This also explains why Eisav's guardian angel attacked specifically Ya'akov (Parshas Vayishlach, 32:25) and not Avraham or Yitzchak. Since Ya'akov's power was Torah (Ya'akov excelled in Torah, Avraham excelled in Chesed, and Yitzchak excelled in Avodah), only Ya'akov possessed the weapon which can destroy the Yetzer Hara. Since the Samech Mem is the Yetzer Hara, he only attacked Ya'akov, because if he could defeat Ya'akov, he could prolong his own life. The Samech Mem was trying to save his own skin (Shvilei Pinchas).

This approach also enlightens us about the importance attributed to the staff of Moshe Rabbenu. First of all, the very staff which Ya'akov used to split the Yarden, was used by Moshe to split the Sea of Reeds. It is with that very staff that Moshiach will part the waters in the future (Midrash Aggadah, Parshas Vayishlach). Before explaining the relevance between the staff and parting the waters, let us share the history behind this staff.

Hashem created this staff Himself during the Days of Creation. Hashem gave Adam Harishon this staff, which he used as his walking cane when he was expelled from Gan Eden. Adam bequeathed this staff to his third son, Shes. After using this staff, Shes gave it to Noach, who in turn gave it to his son, Shem. Eventually, Shem handed it over to Avraham, who later gave it to Yitzchak, who handed it to Ya'akov who used it to split the Yarden. Ya'akov gave it to Yehudah. Perhaps we could add that Yehudah was chosen from the rest of Ya'akov's sons because Yehudah was the progenitor of kings. As such, he deserved to carry the staff of sovereignty. This is why Tamar asked specifically for Yehudah's staff as a pledge to insure payment for her services (Parshas Vayeishev, 38:18). This is something Yehudah would most certainly come back for. Later on, Yehudah gave it to Yosef because, after all, Yosef was practically the king of Egypt. As such, he deserved to use the staff of sovereignty. When Yosef died, the staff remained in the Egyptian parliament. However, when Yisro, one of Pharaoh's advisers, heard about Pharaoh's harsh decree to murder Jewish babies, Yisro wanted nothing to do with that government. Therefore, Yisro fled to Midyan, but, right before he left, he took that staff with him. Once he purchased a piece of land in Midyan and built his house, Yisro thrust that staff into the ground in his backyard. Magically, neither Yisro, nor any other strong man, was able to pull it out of the ground. Yisro understood that any person who would be able to pull it out of the ground would be the rightful bearer of the staff. So, when Moshe killed the Egyptian who was beating a Jew to death, he had to flee for his life from the Egyptian authorities.
Eventually, Moshe wound up in Midyan, saved Yisro's daughters from the shepherds' attacks, and was invited to have a meal with Yisro. After the meal, they went out to the backyard. When Moshe saw the staff, it intrigued him. He reached for it and pulled it out of the ground without any difficulty. It was obvious that Moshe was the rightful bearer of the staff. Although Aharon had his own staff, sometimes Moshe would give his staff to him in order to perform various wonders (Parshas Vaeira, 7:10). Moshe went as far as the threshold of the Promised Land. That staff was preserved by the Jews. Nobody dared claim ownership of it, until Dovid Hamelech arrived. Dovid used that staff, as it says right before he defeated Goliath, "And Dovid took his staff in his hand" (Shmuel Aleph, 17:40). This staff was passed down to every subsequent king. It went to Shlomo Hamelech, and then to the king after him, until the Churban Bayis Rishon. When the temple was destroyed, the staff disappeared. When Moshiach comes, the staff will reappear and Moshiach will use it to destroy all of the sworn enemies of the Jewish people (Yalkut Shimoni Parshas Chukas, Remez 763; Yalkut Shimoni Parshas Shemos, Remez 168).

Getting back to the connection between the staff and the parting of the "waters," the staff was meant to remind its owner that he must strike at the Yetzer Hara and his "lustful passions" at every opportunity, as one would do with a stick (Shvilei Pinchas). However, the staff also reminded its owner that without Hashem's assistance, we don't stand a chance at overcoming the Yetzer Hara (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis, pg. 30b). This reminder (that we always have to rely upon Hashem's help) was hinted to on the staff itself because it had Hashem's Name Havaya (spelled: yud, hey, vov, and hey) engraved on it (Devarim Rabba, Parshas Eikev, Rebbi Nihorai, 3:8; Tehillim, 114:3).

In fact, when the ocean saw the Name Havaya engraved on the staff, it split before the Jewish people. This demonstrated that only with Havaya's (Hashem's) help will the waters of lustful passions be pushed aside. The Shvilei Pinchas says that there is even a hint in the name of the staff which indicates that me must ultimately rely upon Hashem's aid in order to defeat the Yetzer Hara. Although the staff was called a "Mateh" (Beshalach, 14:16) when Moshe used it, it was called a "Makel" when Ya'akov and Dovid used it (Vayishlach, 32:11; Shmuel Aleph, 17:40). The word "Makel" is spelled: mem, kuf, lamed. These three letters serve as the acronym for, "Mey-olam Kivinu Lach" (we have always put our hope in You; Birchas Modim in the Shmoneh Esrei).

Today, we have a Segulah which can help us overcome our challenges with our evil inclinations and negative impulses. The Shelah (Yoma), Chareidim (chap. 43), and Chidah (Avodas Hakodesh, Tziporen Shamir, 2:24) advise us to imagine, every day, that we are literally standing in the middle of Kriyas Yam Suf, surrounded by walls of water. We are to imagine that, while we emerge unscathed, the water crashes down upon the Egyptians. Then, we should say the Shiras Hayam, in a raised voice, filled with happiness, thanking Hashem and praising Him for the salvation. If we do this, we will be forgiven for all of our sins. This is because of the rule which says that anyone who has a miracle happen to him, and says shira (song), is forgiven for all of his sins (Midrash Shocher Tov, Tehillim, chap. 18; Beshalach 15:22). By imagining that we went through the Yam Suf, it is considered as if we actually did. By reciting the Az Yashir song afterwards, we belong to the category of people who praise and thank Hashem for the miracles performed for them, and we are forgiven for all of our sins.

The reason why we are encouraged to imagine ourselves standing in the middle of walls of water is because we are to be reminded that we are surrounded by lustful passions. By imagining that we are standing on dry land, we are reminded that we are protected from those pitfalls because Hashem has pushed those obstacles out of our way. Just by imagining all of this serves as a way of making it a reality which helps subdue our unhealthy cravings. This daily practice will also help us deserve to sing this very song again with the resurrected Moshe Rabbenu and the Jewish people at the End of Days (Zohar, Beshalach, pg. 54b; Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 91b, Rebbi Meir), when Hashem repeats this miracle and finally destroys the Yetzer Hara completely.

It is not surprising that Moshe and B'nei Yisrael prayed for the building of the Third Beis Hamikdash in the Az Yashir, as it says, "The Mikdash (Temple) my Lord, that Your hands established" (Parshas Beshalach, 15:17; Rashi ibid, citing Mechilta). The Jews davened that Hashem send the Third Beis Hamikdash down from Heaven (Tosafos, Succah, chap. 3, "Lulav Hagazul", pg. 41a, Divrei Hamaschil "Iy Nami") because they understood that Kriyas Yam Suf was a way of preparing for the future. Kriyas Yam Suf was about pushing the waters of temptation away. That was just the beginning of the process. The conclusion will come when the Third Beis Hamikdash will be built. Then, the Yetzer Hara will be destroyed completely, thus removing negative impulses from us entirely.

So, may we all be blessed to say Shiras Hayam every day, imagining that we are surrounded by the waters of lustful passions. Let us recite it with concentration and simcha thanking Havaya for the ability to strike our Yetzer Haras down as one would do with a stick, preventing us from drowning in the sea of ta'ava, in order to deserve the coming of Moshiach who will part the waters again and remove all negative lustful passions completely, while Ya'akov Avinu will stand by and watch his children become Samech Mem free, and thus serve Hashem in the third and final Beis Hamikdash, singing this very song to Hashem again together with Moshe Rabbenu and B'nei Yisrael, which will fill our father Ya'akov with such incredible nachas.