by R. Gidon Rothstein
Onkelos’ Focus on Prayer
Three times in the parsha, Onkelos treats a communication with Gd differently than the simplest reading of the text. Before Gd splits the Sea, 14;15, Gd says to Moshe, mah titz’ak elai. Mah usually indicates a question, probably why Rashi understood the phrase as a reprimand, Moshe should have known it was time for action. Onkelos, however, thinks Gd was making a statement, the prayer had been accepted, opening the way to salvation.
After the Jews pass through the sea, they sing to Gd, 15;1; following their song, Miriam leads the women in a briefer one, 15;21. In both places Onkelos translates shir, to sing, with two verbs, praise and thanks. He apparently thinks “song” comes in many forms, wants us to know the Jews at the Sea recognized the need for more than just praise in reaction to this remarkable miracle.
He gives Moshe another crack at prayer at the end of the parsha. When Yehoshu’a leads an army against Amalek, Moshe’s raised hands are named as instrumental to victory. When his hands tired, Aharon and Hur support them, and 17;12 tells us va-yehi yadav emuna until the evening. I think the simplest meaning of the word is as Ramban and Radak have it, the hands stayed steadfastly up; Rashi takes it to describe Moshe’s attitude, he did so with faith.
Onkelos takes it a step further, similar to a Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah 29a, writes perisan bi-tzelo, spread out in prayer. Moshe knows not only to lift his hands to inspire the people, but to inspire them towards Gd, in prayer, the best way to secure desired results.
Effective prayer and praise and thanks are parts of how Onkelos sees people speak to Gd in Beshalah.
Belief Isn’t As Easy As Prayer
At the Splitting of the Sea, Onkelos and Ramban remind us of how the Jews advanced in their level of belief. On 14;31, va-yaminu ba-Shem u-ve-Moshe avdo, Onkelos splits the two, says the Jews believed in Gd and in the prophecy of Moshe. It implies, as Ramban said earlier in the chapter, 14;10-11, the people were until then unsure of Moshe’s status as prophet.
Ramban offered the idea while struggling to explain how the Jews could complain about being taken out of Egypt at the same time as they prayed for salvation from the onrushing Egyptian horde. His first answer posits subgroups within the nation, some calling out to Gd, some denying Moshe was a prophet and even that the Exodus came from Gd.
By the end of the comment he backtracks, suggests it might have been the whole people, because they believed in Gd, turned to Gd for salvation, while doubting Moshe, thinking he might have performed all the miracles until then through trickery or technology. Or, that the plagues were indeed Gd sent, but not intended to take the Jews out. In his view, the Jews thought that had the Exodus been in fact brought about by Gd, there was no way Par’oh would chase after them so soon after leaving.
The Splitting of the Sea settled their doubts, while also reminding us how hard it can be to accept the idea of a prophet, even when it’s Moshe Rabbeinu.
Effort is Required
Rashi in two places, 16;17 and 22, highlights the paradoxical role of effort in gathering the man. On the first day, some gather more, some less, and all end up with the same. On the first Erev Shabbat, they come home with double portions without apparently having done any more than their usual work.
Ten verses later, 16;32, Rashi thinks the Jews stored a canister of man for eternity specifically to uncouple effort from earnings, to remind us Gd plays a role in our livelihoods. Were Jews to claim they could not study Torah because of the burdens of livelihood, the man was to remind them it comes from Gd anyway, with no absolute connection between the two.
Rashi leaves unaddressed how much effort the Jews were expected or required to invest in the gathering of man, only alerts us to the error we can make in putting in too much effort, at cost to other values.
Making a Permanent Gd More So
In the Song celebrating the splitting of the sea, the Jews say zeh E-li ve-anvehu, the last word often understood to promise to beautify Gd, such as by performing commandments in the most physically attractive way possible (a beautiful lulav, tefillin, etc.). Onkelos instead says ve-evnei lei Mikdesha, I will build Him a Temple, and then (in the next clause of the verse) takes va-aromemenhu to be I will bow (or serve) before Him.
Rashi does have the idea of naveh as a place to reside, meaning Onkelos could have read ve-anvehu as I will make a naveh for Gd. In addition, the Song includes an idea of a Mikdash, a Temple, in 15;17, so it was apparently already on their minds.
Seeing Gd in action seems to start the Jews thinking on how to find a way to ensconce Gd’s Presence in a way more permanently perceptible to people.
Permanence of Time and Possibility
The Temple permanence comes to reveal or clarify Gd’s Presence; as the Jews say in the next verse of the Song, Hashem yimlokh le-‘olam va-‘ed, a phrase Onkelos takes to refer to forever in the chronological sense, and also in the sense of all worlds, malkhutei ka-em le-‘olam ul-‘alme ‘almaya. It’s tempting—as ArtScroll did—to take both terms as about time, forever and all eternity. Unfortunately, it would mean Onkelos added an element to the verse for no reason, since ‘alme ‘almaya already means forever.
Onkelos understands the Song to mean Gd reigns also in any kind of world that could come into being, including the Messianic future and/or the World to Come. Seeing Gd split the Sea reminds the Jews Gd reigns supreme in any version of history or future.
Gd Gives the Best Chances to Succeed
The Torah notes Gd’s decision to take the people on a less direct path to Israel, lest they turn tail in the face of war and flee to Egypt, 13;17. Rashi points out they had almost that exact reaction when attacked by Amalek (at the end of the parsha, after they had crossed through a split Sea on dry land).
Rashi says it proves the validity of Gd’s idea; had the Jews encountered enemies sooner, they would most definitely have fled. Given they had the same reaction with the extra time to prepare themselves mentally or emotionally, it’s not clear what value Rashi sees in Gd’s taking them the long way. I think he means to note Gd does His best, as it were, to give people their best chance of success. Gd takes them the long way, to help them fortify themselves for war when it comes. In the event, they did not, but the Torah was teaching us about Gd.
Hashem Who Heals Us
Another way Gd helps us succeed comes in 15;26, where Gd seems to promise not to visit the plagues of Egypt upon the Jews if they follow the Torah. Bothered by the idea Gd needs or wants a pat on the back for not slamming us with troubles, Ramban instead says what happened to the Egyptians was the appropriate (I think he means natural, the way the world works without specific divine intervention) response to their rejection of a call from Gd to release the Jews.
The Healer of this verse is in the preventive medicine sense. Actions unguided by the Torah frequently lead people to deserve the kinds of punishments the Egyptians got, the reason Devarim 28;60 warns a failure to keep the Torah will lead to the Jews being visited by all the ills of the Egyptians. Not punishment, the way of the world.
The Torah’s commandments heal by putting Jews on a path protected from those ordinary travails. A life of adherence to the Torah means the Jews, individually and nationally, will not deserve those punishments, hence will not get them. It also earns the involvement of Hashem the Healer, Who will shield even from mundane illnesses of this world, let alone the horrors the Egyptians experienced.
A Future Full of Compassion
That’s in this world, a world Ramban thought was well-symbolized by the pillar of cloud guiding the Jews during the day and the pillar of fire at night, 13;21. Based on Bereshit Rabbah 51;2, he thinks Gd led the people during the day on His own, as it were, with compassion, with His (more strictly just) Court joining at night. Shemot Rabbah 19;6 says the Heavenly Court was involved in the Exodus, where the future redemption will be led by Gd alone (as Yeshayahu 52;12 says).
The future Heavenly Court will include mercy and compassion as Gd now does alone, as it were, in the day (based on a verse in Tehillim that night will be as light as day). For Ramban, Gd’s mercy in our world is extralegal, as it were, required to leave room for full justice as well. In the future, mercy and compassion will be woven more fully into the justice.
Ramban takes two more points about Gd from the phrase, 15;11, “Who is like you among the elim, Gd?” El means power, says Ramban, the Elim those powers others worshipped, whose meaningful power the Jews come to deny. The powers do impact the world, Ramban concedes, but only with Gd’s permission, awareness, and oversight. Other nations think their power can rival Gd’s, here or there, and the Jews deny it completely. To stress the idea, Tanakh sometimes refers to Gd as E-l or E-l Elyon, to keep us in mind there is no other true Power.
The end of the verse speaks of Hashem as nora tehillot, awesome in praise. Ramban notes we praise Hashem for how He punishes those who contravene the divine Will. Through that terrifying (nora) punishment, Gd gives His servants ways to recognize, praise, and obey Gd. Human kings establish power with unjust acts, such as by expropriating money. Gd is nora, terrifying, when He acts in ways so justified they lead Jews to praise Him.
Closing with the Egyptians
Before we bid the Egyptians farewell, Rashi and Ramban give us last examples of ways to learn from their failures. Rashi to 14;7 points out the Egyptians had horses to chase after the Jews to the Sea, when the Torah told us the plagues of pestilence and hail supposedly killed all the livestock. Rashi reminds us 9;3 speaks of the pestilence killing only the animals in the field, and 9;20 tells us some Egyptians heeded Moshe’s warning and brought their animals indoors before the hail.
In our parsha, Rashi points out 9;20 had referred to the Egyptians who brought their animals indoors as “those who feared Gd’s word.” R. Shim’on commented on the irony, the best of the Egyptians are still a threat to Jews, ready to try to hurt us at the first opportunity. They took the specific warning seriously without letting it percolate to the issue of whether trying to kill the Jews is a good idea.
Two other comments of Rashi’s suggested he had a tense relationship with non-Jews of his time, around the topic of the parah adumah. In 15;25 and 26, he mentions the red heifer in a list of commandments where honoring parents (which has a similar acronym) fit better. Rashi also leaves out Sifra’s original idea this was a topic the nations of the world used to mock Jewish observance, an omission that might tell us he had this very problem with non-Jews of his time.
Ramban takes us back to the Egyptians in a way we can easily imagine being true of other non-Jews or, Gd forbid, of us. He says Gd had a strong wind blow all night before the Sea split, and Moshe wave his hand over the Sea, to give it a veneer of the natural. Gd only hardened their hearts to let them think what they wanted to, this was natural, no reason to stay back, lest it return to regular and drown them.
The Egyptians did not want to believe in a Gd Who abrogates nature, and it destroyed them. As it might us, unless we follow the exhortations of the parsha to follow Gd’s Will, and thus be protected from the myriad troubles that befell them. Let’s hope.