As Difficult as Splitting the Sea
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We begin with a story that is found in the Midrash – one of my all-time favorites.
Once upon a time, an anonymous Roman matron happened upon Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta and asked the great sage: “How long did it take your God to create the world?”
“Six days,” Rabbi Yosi replied. “It took God six days to create the world.”
“So,” challenged the matron, “what has your God been doing ever since?”
Rabbi Yosi responded, “God has been coupling people up – making matches.” (In Yiddish we would say “making shidduchs.”)
The matron laughed, “Is that all? And for this you have faith in God? Even I can do that!”
Rabbi Yosi replied, “Though this may seem to be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” Kasheh hi lifnei Hamakom k’kriyat yam suf.
Determined to prove her point, the matron went home and lined up all of her male and female servants, pairing them off one with another. She pronounced: “You’re all now married,” and she sent them off to live together. When the matron woke up the next morning, her estate, well, it resembled a battlefield. One servant had a bashed-in head; another had lost an eye; a third had a broken leg. “What happened?” the matron inquired. Each servant pointed at their assigned partner with tears, with anger, and with accusations. “I don’t want this one!” was countered with “I don’t want that one.” Hearing the servants dismay and demands, the matron summoned Rabbi Yosi and humbly said, “Your God is not like our god and your Torah is true. You spoke wisely. Making matches is indeed as difficult, kasheh, as splitting the sea.” (Bereishit Rabbah 68:4).
The story, despite its lack of political correctness and its heteronormative underpinnings, is a sweet one – one of many exchanges in the Talmud between Roman matrons and rabbis, imagined dialogues that serve as literary devices to put Jewish wisdom safely into conversation with non-Jewish interlocutors. The story has been interpreted widely through the ages, shared under more wedding huppahs than can be counted, and been used to explain everything from the nature of love to ruminations on divine time management. Given the day, the seventh day of Passover, the question I want to pose about the story is “Why kriyat yam suf?” Of all the points of reference Rabbi Yosi could have used to describe the difficulty of making matches, why the splitting of the sea? God performed many miracles – flooding the earth, giving the Ten Commandments, inflicting the ten plagues, feeding Israel with manna for 40 years, and causing the sun to stand still – to name but a few. Why did this miracle and not the others become the gold standard for a difficult miracle? Furthermore, why should this miracle be hard, kasheh, for God at all? Didn’t God create the sea in the first place? Didn’t God create the whole world? For God to split the sea, one would think, is child’s play! For that matter, why would any miracle be hard for God? This is, after all, God we are talking about. One would think, or at least I would think, that in God’s estimation all miracles are equal and equally easy. Why the equivalence? What is the connection between the difficulty involved in God making matches and God splitting the sea?
I had a lot of fun writing this sermon. The other day I even posted the question I just posed on my Facebook page, and I received all sorts of answers, some of which I will share and all of which you can see for yourself online. Delightfully, I discovered that I am not the first person to ask this question about kriyat yam suf. I want to review the possible answers – ancient, medieval, and as recent as this past week – before I share my own.
The oldest and most traditional answer, as found in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 2a), establishes that the connection between the Exodus and the formation of a relationship is that both are acts of liberation. Loneliness, according to Psalms (68:7), is a form of spiritual imprisonment. To find a loving partner, to enter into a covenant with another, is understood as an act of emancipation, akin to the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage and their eventual covenant with God at Mount Sinai.
Other answers, similarly, seek to establish the connection between the aquadynamics of sea splitting and the psychodynamics of making a match. For instance, one of my colleagues reminded me that that just as the first human being was once one, then split into two, only to be reunited with their counterpart, so too the sea was initially one, then split by God, then reunited.
Another person pointed out on my Facebook page that the imagery of the splitting sea has long been understood by scholars as a birthing metaphor, bringing forth the new life of the Israelite nation. What is, he wrote, the act of matchmaking if not the act of giving life to something completely new?
An old pal of mine from Chicago said that the miracle of the sea is about the miracle of timing. If the sea had split too late or too long, there would have been no Exodus, no Israel, and no subsequent Jewish history. Just like in a relationship, he wrote, everything depends on timing.
Another colleague suggested that God’s splitting of the sea was an assertion of order over the chaos of the waters, just as at the core of any relationship sits the tension between chaos and order – an observation interesting both unto itself and as insight into my colleague’s marriage.
One of my favorite answers came by way of someone who did not post on my Facebook page, the twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides. As a rationalist, Maimonides downplayed the supernatural element of so-called miracles. The rise and fall of tides need not be explained by way of divine intervention; such things can occur within the bounds of nature. (Yesodei Ha-torah 8:1) The thing about these so-called miracles, however, is that in retrospect, when we recall them, we see the hand of God, and we assign the overlay of the supernatural. So too in our relationships. The fact of two people meeting and falling in love, that is something that can be explained contextually, physiologically, even chemically. In retrospect, however, when we reflect on our love stories, we say it was bashert, meant to be, romances made possible by way of God’s guiding hand.
All these explanations, and there were many others, are beautiful. Each explanation is an interpretive possibility as to why the splitting of the sea and matchmaking are drawn into conversation one with the other. None of these explanations, however, answer our initial question: the question of difficulty. God is God. Why would either splitting the sea or matchmaking be considered kasheh, difficult, for God?
You may have noticed that I keep using the word kasheh, usually translated as “difficult,” as in “miracles of varied levels of difficulty.” The great scholar of Hebrew folklore Avigdor Shinan, in an article on this subject, cited the founder of modern Hebrew – Eliezer Ben Yehuda – who long ago pointed out that sometimes kasheh doesn’t just mean hard as in “difficult,” but also hard as in “complicated.” For God, the decision to split the sea was a complicated one because it was a miracle that put values into conflict. You may be familiar with the midrash that describes the ministering angels beginning to sing as the Israelites crossed the sea, singing that was silenced by God, who scolded the angels for celebrating as God’s creatures were drowned in the sea. The splitting of the sea was kasheh, complicated, in God’s eyes because it came with a cost – the cost of Egyptian lives.
What does all this have to do with making matches? Well, it leads me to me to one of the most intriguing, and for some people, the most inspiring explanation of all. The thirteenth-century Tosafot Shantz explains that these matches that God has been working on since creation are not just any matches, but a subcategory of matches, specifically second marriages. The miracle of a second marriage, of two individuals finding compatibility after a first marriage, explains the Tosafot Shantz, is an extraordinary one, arguably greater than a first marriage, but it is a miracle that is complicated for God. Complicated because the learned wisdom of a second marriage only arrives by way of the dissolution of the first marriage either by death or divorce. Why is the creation of second marriages as kasheh, complicated, as the splitting of the sea? Because they are moral conundrums – miracles, victories if you will, that come in the wake of loss and at the expense of something else. (Tosafot Shantz on Sotah 2a)
As you can begin to sense, there has been much ink spilled on this question of kriyat yam suf. One scholar suggests that kasheh does not mean “difficult” or “complicated,” but rather “rare,” meaning that a good shidduch, a good match, is in God’s eyes as rare and important as crossing the sea. Another scholar notes the similarity in language between the splitting, literally the tearing, of the sea and the tearing away of a man from his mother to cling to his wife, as described in the book of Genesis – a mighty miracle that has eluded many a nice Jewish boy. Probably the sweetest of explanations is that both crossing the sea and entering a relationship involve a leap of faith. You may recall the famous story of Nahshon ben Aminadav, who steps into the sea prompting the waters to split, just as a person must do in order to enter a new relationship. A beautiful thought, but again, one that does not address our fundamental question. The difficulty was God splitting, not the people crossing. It was for God, not Nahshon nor the Israelites, for whom the splitting of the sea was kasheh.
So what is my answer? Why do I think Kasheh hi lifnei Hamakom k’kriyat yam suf, that making matches, for God, is as kasheh as splitting the sea?” Well, I believe that God had no trouble, no trouble at all, splitting the sea. There is no difficulty level for God, on this or any other miracle. What was kasheh for God is that God had to split the sea not knowing how the Israelites would respond, or if they would respond at all. Would they turn back? Would they freeze? Would they refuse to step forward? God had to take the first step, put the divine Self “out there,” not knowing whether this ragtag crew of newly liberated slaves would take the cue, exercise their own free will, and despite their self-doubt and backsliding ways, meet God halfway.
To put yourself out there, to muster the courage to make yourself vulnerable, to signal that bold gesture not knowing whether you will be rebuffed – that my friends, however you define kasheh, is kasheh. And it is a courage that is fundamental to building any relationship. What is, after all, the act of building trust, building confidence, and building commitment if not the repeated willingness to extend beyond one’s comfort zone, even when, if not especially when, one is not sure whether that gesture will be reciprocated. It is an interesting thought, and a bit heretical, to think that the faith established at the crossing of the sea was not Israel’s faith in God, but God’s faith in Godself, faith that Israel would follow God into the sea.
Some of us may be in the business of matchmaking; some of us may even be looking for a match. All of us, are, in one way, shape, or form standing at the banks of the sea. We always are, but today, it is the calling of the hour. There are things we are all called on to do, destinies we are asked to fulfill, and relationships of one kind or another we are asked to build. We hear the challenge to be Godlike, to perform that courageous act of making ourselves vulnerable by extending ourselves not knowing how our efforts will be received and our future unfold. The waters are before us and the Egyptian chariots are fast approaching from behind. If we stand still, our fate is sealed. Every step forward comes with its risks. What must we do? Let us “be strong and of good courage” – acting for the best, hoping for the best, and taking what comes – through the sea and into the Promised Land.