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In Parashat Beshalach we reach the climax of the exodus from the Egyptian exile―the parting of the Red Sea and the song the Children of Israel sang at the sea.
Although the Jewish people had physically left Egypt, until they actually saw the entire Egyptian army dead at the seashore, they constantly looked back in fear that the Egyptians were close at their heels. It was then that the Jewish people were released from the paranoid fear that had held them in its clutches. At that moment they saw God’s might in redeeming them so clearly that they began singing, “This is my God and I will extol Him.”
The soul’s exodus from Egypt
The collective Jewish memory of the exodus from Egypt accompanies us throughout life and it is a mitzvah to recall the day of the exodus every day, which we do by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema every evening and morning, including the verse, “I am Havayah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”
Yet, our daily recollection of the exodus from Egypt treats it as more than just a significant historical event, it also has great symbolic significance within our psyches. Our souls are held captive within our bodies in a materialistic world, and like the Israelites in Egypt, it needs to be released from the body’s physical limitations. This we attain through our daily prayers. When we recite the Shema, we reaccept God’s yoke upon us and thus free ourselves from any previous commitments to our physical existence, which threatens to enslave us in its clutches, so much so that we need to be warned “Do not stray after your eyes.” Nonetheless, just like our national exodus from Egypt, our own redemption is not complete until the sea of materiality parts and our consciousness manages to break through to a higher level where we can perceive reality’s Divine source.
In the Shema we speak about God, but we do not yet speak to God. Yet, as we stand for the silent Amidah prayer, from the moment of our opening request, we turn directly to Him saying, “God, open my lips and my mouth shall speak Your praise.” This is the moment when the “sea” that usually prevents our spiritual development splits before us and all of our enemies drown in its fathomless depths. The song that the Jews sung immediately after the sea split in a miraculous revelation of the Divine is actually prayer. Indeed, the gematria of both “song” (שִׁירָה) and “prayer” (תְּפִלָה) is 515. When standing in prayer before God, “the individual should see himself as if he is standing before the King and speaking to Him.” While praying, we should dismiss all foreign thoughts that diffuse our concentration. If we stand in prayer as we should, all foreign thoughts will drown in the sea behind us and recede from our consciousness.
While we say the Shema we close our eyes to the influence of physical reality, which the sages describe as a world of deceit, because it conceals God. But during the Amidah prayer, we pray with our eyes open to take sight of how all our enemies disappear until only pure Divinity remains, just as it was at the parting of the Red Sea. “Israel saw the great hand… and the people feared Havayah.” All negative fears disappear and all that remains is pure fear of God (which is why the silent prayer should not be interrupted in any way.)
From a Kabbalistic perspective, each part of the morning prayers corresponds to a different spiritual World, or state of consciousness. We begin our prayers in the World of Action and then rise through the World of Formation until we recite the Shema and reach the World of Creation. In order to rise to the next spiritual world, the World of Emanation, which is a state of absolute Divine consciousness, something must split in our soul. This is referred to as splitting the screen that divides between the lower Worlds and the World of Emanation.
From the silent prayer to its communal repetition
By taking this allegory of prayer as redemption one step further, we can see that there are two integral stages: first, the splitting of the sea, when the Jewish people walked through it and the Egyptians drowned, and second, when the Jewish people saw the Egyptians dead at the seashore and spontaneously broke out in a song of praise to God. Until that moment the people could not yet believe that they had indeed been saved from the Egyptians, but once they were finally released from any impression of fear and paranoia they sang God’s praises.
Correspondingly, the Amidah prayer is also divided into two parts, the silent prayer followed by the repetition out loud by the prayer leader. The Arizal explains that initially, we still need to beware of outside forces, which is why we are not allowed to pray out loud (similar to the Shema, when we must close our eyes so as not to see the outside world), but during the communal repetition by the prayer leader, no fear of outside forces remains at all and we can pray out loud.
The silent prayer corresponds to experiencing the Red Sea splitting, while we are still aware of the enemies’ existence. But the repetition corresponds to the song at the sea itself, after the final release from all foreign oppression. Indeed, the song at the sea is a classic example of communal prayer out loud, with Moses acting as prayer leader, and the people repeating after Moses, word for word, just as the Hallel is read.
When the Jewish people passed through the sea, their unity as a congregation was not yet apparent. The miracle was experienced more from a personal perspective, like the silent prayer, when each individual in the congregation stands alone in his personal prayer. Another idea that upholds this view is that the sages state that the Red Sea split into twelve different paths, one for each tribe; similarly the Arizal taught that there are twelve principal versions of prayer, each representing the specific gates through which the prayers of each tribe pass.
Yet the song of the sea was sung by everyone together; an enormous congregation of six-hundred-thousand people all sung it in unison (the women also participated in the song, and their prayer leader was Miriam the Prophetess, and they played tambourines so that the men would not hear their voices.) This state of unity is the highest level of all.
We are taught that in the future redemption the effect of the exodus and the splitting of the sea will be reproduced. We have escaped the clutches of those who threaten to enslave us physically and experienced the exodus to some extent with the return to Zion but we are still influenced by post-trauma paranoia—our mental faculties and our cultural perception are still enslaved to the non-Jewish culture and we look behind us, as it were, fearing the harsh reaction of the nations. Yet, in this way we drag the impurity of the exile behind us and bring it into the Holy Land. As it was then, so today, we must continue to advance through a “sea” that perhaps appears even more perilous than the enemies we have escaped. In doing so, we can extricate ourselves from our imagined fear and from our dependency on various oppressors and become a truly free people, serving God alone.
from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 7th Shevat 5772