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Leave the Straits of Egypt Today

The painting is courtesy of the painter Baruch Nachshon – Nachshonart

This article is excerpted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s soon-to-be-published book, “The Inner Dimension.”

In the Torah portion of Beshalach, we read how the Red Sea split. At this ecstatic moment, the Children of Israel sang the Song of the Sea, praising God for His miraculous kindnesses. Although the Splitting of the Red Sea happened thousands of years ago, it is reenacted in every soul. We can experience this miraculous event every day in our prayers.

Healing Paranoia

Physically, the Israelites had left Egypt, but inwardly they were still in exile. They looked back apprehensively. The Egyptians were close at their heels. “The Children of Israel raised their eyes and saw, and behold, Egypt was approaching them from behind, and they feared greatly, and the Children of Israel shouted out to God.”[1] This paranoia held them in its clutches until they saw the entire Egyptian army lying dead at the seashore. At that moment, their redemption by God’s mighty hand became so clear to them that they began singing, “This is my God and I will extol Him.”[2]

The sages teach us that the final redemption will be a reenactment of the Exodus and the Splitting of the Red Sea.[3] The Return to Zion in recent times could have been the beginning of the ultimate redemption experience. Yet, although we returned to our Holy Land, the Jewish People remains haunted by fear. We have not yet experienced the Splitting of the Red Sea. The State of Israel remains psychologically captive to Western culture. Jewish leadership looks back at their foreign roots and asks apprehensively, “But, what will they say?” This approach attracts the exile to pursue us into the Land of Israel.

Now as then, this irrational paranoia can be healed. Once our dependence on foreign opinions is cured, we will be free men, servants only to God. Then we will exclaim, “This nation have You redeemed.”[4]

The Exodus of the Soul

In addition to the impact of the Exodus on our national identity, redemption from the straits of Egypt had a profound effect on every individual Jewish soul. In his seminal work, the Tanya, Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains the significance of the Exodus in our personal service of God.[5]

“In every generation and every day, every individual is required to regard himself as if he had left Egypt that very day.”[6] This refers to the release of the Divine soul from the confines of the body… to be absorbed into the Unity of the light of the blessed Infinite one … in particular by accepting the Kingdom of Heaven during the recital of the Shema, wherein the individual explicitly accepts and draws over himself His blessed Unity, when he says: “God is our God, God is One…”[7] It was therefore ordained that the paragraph concerning the Exodus from Egypt be read specifically during the recital of the Shema.

The collective Jewish memory of the Exodus accompanies us throughout life. It is a mitzvah to recall it twice a day. We observe this mitzvah when reciting the third paragraph of the Shema every evening and morning, including the verse, “I am God your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”[8]

In the first verse of Shema we proclaim out loud, “God is one,” yet the world around us remains full of disorder. While we say the Shema, we close our eyes to this world of falsity that conceals Divinity, so that it will not confuse us. Like the Egyptians who chased the Jewish People after the Exodus, at this stage of prayer, the evil inclination still pursues us. The third paragraph of the Shema warns us, “Do not stray after it.”[9] In the Shema we speak about God (in the third person), but we do not yet speak to God.

During the Amidah prayer, we can pray with our eyes open. As we look at the words in the siddur (Jewish prayer book), we see our enemies disappear, until only pure Divinity remains, like at the Splitting of the Red Sea, when “Israel saw the great hand… and the people feared God.”[10] Once all negative fears disappear, all that remains is pure awe of God. This is why the silent prayer should not be interrupted in any way. The “sea” that usually blocks our spiritual advance then splits before us, and our enemies drown in its fathomless depths.

The Amidah prayer corresponds to the song that the Jews sung immediately after the sea split. Appropriately, the numerical value of “prayer” (תְּפִלָה) is 515, which is the same as “song” (שִׁירָה).

When one stands in prayer before God, “One should see oneself as if one is standing before the King and speaking to Him.”[11] We turn directly to God in the request that precedes the silent Amidah prayer, “My God, open my lips and my mouth shall speak Your praise.”[12] In the Amidah, we continue addressing Him directly: “Blessed are You, God.” Our main endeavor during prayer is dismissing foreign thoughts. This is why we allow no interruptions to disturb our prayer. If we stand in prayer as we should, all foreign thoughts are drowned out, never to rear their ugly heads again.

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 Asiyah (the World of Action), rising through Yetzirah (the World of Formation) until we reach Beriah (the World of Creation), where we recite the Shema. We continue our climb to Atzilut (the World of Emanation), the next spiritual world, which is a state of total Divine consciousness. Kabbalah teaches us that like the Red Sea, which hindered our advance towards the Holy Land, a screen divides between the lower Worlds and Atzilut. For our souls to rise to Atzilut, that screen must split.

The Silent Amidah and its Audible Recital

Taking this allegory of prayer as redemption one step further, we note that there were two stages to the revelation at the Red Sea:

  1. The sea split, the Jewish People walked through it and the Egyptians drowned;
  2. 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 Israelites did not believe that they had been saved from the Egyptians.[13] Once their doubts were dismissed, they were released from their paranoia and sang God’s praises.

Similarly, the Amidah prayer is recited in two stages: the silent prayer, followed by its audible repetition by the prayer leader.

In the silent prayer, each individual in the congregation stands alone in his silent devotion to God. This corresponds to experiencing the Red Sea splitting. As they passed through the sea, the Jewish People experienced the miracle from a personal perspective. They did not yet manifest as one congregation.

The Arizal explains that during the silent Amidah, we need to beware of outside forces. This is why we do not audibly articulate the prayer. The sages state that the Red Sea split into twelve different paths, one for each tribe.[14] Similarly, the Arizal[15] taught that there are twelve principal prayer versions, each of which is directed through the special gate of each tribe. These different versions are represented during the silent Amidah. During those moments, our unity as a congregation is not yet apparent.

The repetition of the Amidah corresponds to the Song of the Sea, which followed the final release from all foreign oppression. The Song of the Sea is a classic example of a communal prayer that is recited aloud. Moses acted as prayer leader, “The Jewish People repeated the song after Moses, word by word, as the Hallel is read.”[16] Once the sea returned to its regular state, everyone sang the Song of the Sea together. Imagine hearing six-hundred-thousand people singing together. How splendid that experience must have been!

The women also participated in the song, with Miriam the Prophetess as their prayer leader, accompanied by tambourines. During the communal repetition by the prayer leader, no fear of outside forces remains and we may pray aloud.

The Giving of the Torah and Entering the Holy Land

Let us complete this meditation by identifying where in our daily service of God we experience the Giving of the Torah. The basic requirement for every Jew is to learn some Torah after the morning prayers, “Stepping out of the synagogue and into the study hall.”[17] The sages deduced this law from the verse, “They will progress from strength to strength,”[18] i.e., from prayer to Torah study. Torah study after prayers corresponds to the Giving of the Torah that followed the Exodus, the Splitting of the Red Sea and the Song of the Sea.

The redemption of the Jewish People does not conclude with the Giving of the Torah. After their sojourn in the wilderness, they arrived at the Promised Land. Our ultimate goal is to reach the Land of Israel and to keep all the mitzvot of the Torah in our beloved homeland. In our daily service of God, this means leaving the study hall and going out into the world. The sages refer to work and livelihood as “the way of the land [of Israel].” [19]  The public standard set by the sages is, “Guide them in the practice of the way of the land” (מִנְהַג דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ). The numerical value of this phrase is 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah.

In the Land of Israel, we construct the Temple. The conclusion of the abovementioned verse from Psalms states explicitly, “They will progress from strength to strength; he will appear to God in Zion.”[20]

Minchah, Ma’ariv and Good Night

Torah study in the morning before prayers corresponds to the Patriarchs, who observed the mitzvot before we received the Torah as a nation. Their principal occupation was with faith and knowledge of God and following His ways. Similarly, Torah study before prayers should deal mainly with knowing God, as Jewish law states, “Before prayers one should ponder on God’s supremacy.”[21] This is one of the most suitable preparations for prayer, as the sages teach, “Know [by contemplation] the God of your father [and then] serve Him [in prayer, the service of the heart].”[22] After this preliminary stage, one can observe the teaching, “Know before Who you stand [in prayer].”[23]

Our day begins, as it were, with the forefathers; then the prayers (sacrifices and Psalms) begin with our own descent into Egypt. As we recite the Shema we ascend from Egypt, until we stand in the Amidah prayer to experience the Splitting of the Sea and the Song of the Sea. By studying Torah following our prayers, we receive the Torah. We then enter the Land of Israel by turning to our mundane activities.

Later in the day, our dealings with the mundane begin to irk us and new foreign thoughts find their way into our minds. The most irritating thought is that “My strength and the power of my hand has achieved me this success [all that I have achieved in my work-day…].”[24] As we begin to feel this way, we need to purify our thoughts once more by halting our day to pray Minchah, the afternoon prayer. We then return the credit to God, “Who gives you the strength to succeed.”

Finally, before we return home from work to the warm family atmosphere, we pray Ma’ariv, the evening prayer. The day’s work is over, and we reach a state of rest. We ask God, “Lie us down, our Father, in peace.”[25] This stage corresponds to the construction of the Temple.”

The innermost sanctum of the Temple is the Holy of Holies, which is sometimes referred to as the “bedroom.”[26]

Sometimes, another discreet service of God takes place at home—marital union. When standing in prayer we dismiss all foreign thoughts. Similarly, at home, we must direct our thoughts to none other than our spouse. The name of the evening prayer, Ma’ariv (מַעֲרִיב) alludes to “mutual responsibility” (עֲרְבוּת הַדָדִית) and the “pleasantness” (עֲרֵבוּת) of marriage. The Ma’ariv prayer has no communal repetition. This reflects the discreet aspect of marital union, and the care we must take to conceal it from the public eye.

Refreshed after a good night’s sleep, we begin the day anew the following morning with the Exodus from a new state of Egypt.

[1]             Exodus 14:10.

[2]             Ibid 15:2.

[3]        Shemot Rabah 15:11.

[4]             Exodus 15:13.

[5]        Tanya ch. 47.

[6]             See Mishnah Pesachim 10:5.

[7]             Deuteronomy 6:4.

[8]             Numbers 15:41.

[9]             Numbers 15:39.

[10]           Exodus 14:31.

[11]           Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chayim 74:7.

[12]       Psalms 51:17.

[13]       See Rashi on Exodus 14:30.

[14]       Mechilta on the verse, “And you, raise your staff” (ואתה הרם את מטך).

[15]       Sha’ar Hakavanot, Derushei Aleinu Leshabeach; see also the introduction to Sha’ar Hakolel.

[16]       Sotah 27b.

[17]       Moed Katan 29a.

[18]       Psalms 84:8.

[19]       Berachot 35b.

[20]       Psalms 84:4.

[21]       Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1.

[22]       I Chronicles 28:9.

[23]       See Berachot 28b.

[24]       Deuteronomy 12:9.

[25]       The blessing before the Shema in the evening.

[26]           II Kings 11:2.

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