Who did God cry out for at the Crossing of the Red Sea - the Egyptians or the Israelites?

Rabbinic reaction to the concluding events of Pesach expose a tension between particularism and universalism


Can a patriot, a “citizen of somewhere”, also be a citizen of the world with universalistic dreams of the brotherhood of man? Recent nationalist rhetoric suggests not and its speechmakers show scant regard for the wider world beyond their borders. 

But the rabbinic tradition is very different and its determination to tread both paths together — both nationalism and universalism — is never more evident than on the seventh day of Passover, which falls on Friday.

The seventh day of the festival is the anniversary of Israel’s triumphant crossing of the Red Sea. Trapped between the seashore and one of the most powerful armies in the world, the people of Israel miraculously escape through the water while their attackers are drowned within it.

Yet our celebration of this extraordinary victory is muted: the Hallel, the psalms of thanksgiving, is recited in abbreviated form on the seventh day. According to the Taz, a famous 17th-century commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, we shorten Hallel on the seventh day in remembrance of our enemies who perished. The Taz’s comment is based on the Talmud, which imagines a divine cry of pain and grief, directed at the angels about to sing their morning song: “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you sing songs?” (Sanhedrin 39b). At this moment of exhilaration and triumph, God commands us to feel empathy for the defeated.

However, this is not the full story. Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading left-wing figure in the Israeli rabbinate, whose father and uncle miraculously survived Buchenwald and the destruction of Polish Jewry, gives us a different version. 

In this version -— which Rabbi Lau believes to be an earlier, more authentic narrative from the Land of Israel rather than the later one in the Babylonian Talmud — God’s cry of pain is heard before the people of Israel enter the sea, and before their enemies are harmed.

His admonition to the angels, “My legions are in distress and you sing songs?”, occurs when the people of Israel are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. Threatened with massacre, without any possible escape, they remind us of Rabbi Lau’s father and uncle in Buchenwald. 

In this version of the legend, God’s concern is for our nation, not for theirs. God is a citizen of somewhere, not of nowhere. The universalism of the Taz is absent.
This legend of the angels’ interrupted song at the Red Sea is not the only example of rabbinic tradition passed down in dual, opposing versions.

The universalistic Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) declaring that “saving a single life is like saving a whole world” — made famous by Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List — also coexists with a nationalistic variant, declaring that “saving a single Jewish life is like saving a whole world”. And, while the authentic rabbinic tradition undoubtedly follows the universalistic text, the nationalist variant is just as well-known, appearing without apology or comment in almost every printed edition of the Mishnah.

Can we integrate these opposing forces of nationalism and universalism in our tradition? One important thinker who attempts to do so is Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Rav Kook is now an icon of the nationalist right-wing and his yeshivah, Merkaz Harav, the intellectual epicentre of the settler movement. But Rav Kook’s thinking is more complex and nuanced than that of his followers and in his poem, “Four-Part Song”, he addresses head on the tension between nationalism and universalism, between being a patriot and being a citizen of the world.

His poem enumerates four archetypes: first an individualist who sings the “song of the self”; then a nationalist who sings the “song of the nation”; then a humanist who sings the “song of mankind”; and, finally, a fourth singer (an eco-warrior?) who sings “the song of the whole world”.

Then it depicts a person who sings all these songs together: “The song of the self, the song of the nation, the song of man, and the song of the world all merge within him, continually . . .”

“And this perfect harmony ascends to become a song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel in its full strength and beauty, in its authenticity and grandeur.  The name Yisra-el stands for Shir El, the song of God. 

“ It is a single song, a two-part song, a three-part song and a four-part song.  It is the Song of Songs of King Solomon, Shlomo in Hebrew, which means peace and wholeness.  It is the song of the King whose essence is peace.”

For Rav Kook, the task of integrating the opposites —patriotism and love for the world, concern for humanity and concern for nature —is a task that belongs particularly to the Jewish people. Perhaps it is something to teach to the rest of the world too.

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