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Friday, February 19, 2010

Wild and Wonderful Water / Sotah 34a

I am struck by three accounts in our tradition that concern water.

We find the first, concerning the crossing of the Reed Sea, in sefer Shemot (Exodus):
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the Israelites went into the midst of the sea on dry ground; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left… Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned (הים וישב – vayashov ha-yam) to its strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. And the waters returned (המים וישב – vayashuv ha-mayim), and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; there remained not so much as one of them. (Exodus 14: 21-22, 27-28)
The second concerning the crossing of the Jordan River 40 years later. It is described in the Book of Joshua, and elaborated upon in the Bavli (tractate Sotah). Joshua suggests that the Jordan River crossing 40 years later was a replay of the Reed Sea crossing; the Sages envisioned it with enhanced special effects.
When the feet of the priests were dipped in the water [of the Jordan River], the water flowed backward; as it is said: And when they that bore the ark were come unto the Jordan … that the waters which came down from above stood and rose up in one heap (Joshua 3:5f). What was the height of the water? Twelve mil by twelve mil in accordance with the dimensions of the camp of Israel. Such is the statement of R. Yehudah; and R. Eleazar b. Shimon said to him, According to your explanation, which is swifter, man or water? Surely water is swifter; therefore the water must have returned and drowned them! It rather teaches that the waters were heaped up like stacks to a height of more than three hundred mil, until all the kings of the East and West saw them; as it is said: And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were beyond Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard how that the Lord had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel until they were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel (Joshua 5:1). And also Rahab the harlot said to Joshua's messengers, For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea etc. (Joshua 2:10); and it continues, And as soon as we heard it, our hearts did melt neither did there remain any more etc. (Joshua 5:11). (Sotah 34a)
The third account is not a water crossing, but involves water flowing backward (as the Talmud does in Sotah) comes from another Talmudic passage concerning Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’ efforts to convince his colleagues that his view of the kashrut of the oven of Aknai was correct. Having exhausted all logical arguments, R. Eliezer worked three miracles (the second involves a stream of water), but his colleagues reject wonder-working as a valid halakhic argument:
[R. Eliezer] said to them [his colleagues in the Academy]: “If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined. (Baba Metzia 59b)
In each case, water defies its nature to accommodate the Israelites, or a rabbi in need of a powerful argument. In each case, water contravenes the laws of physics to serve the purposes of people who are pursuing God’s will. The natural world yields to their needs of the moment to enable them to do the extraordinary in response to God’s will.

In a sense, all three water accounts relate to key pillars of our relationship with God. The Crossing of the Reed Sea bespeaks redemption, which is the goal and promise of our covenant with God. Moreover, it was the redemption from Egypt that paved the way for Israel – as a nation – to enter into a covenant with God. The Crossing of the Jordan River bespeaks our relationship to the Land of Israel, which has from the beginning been integral to our understanding of the covenant and our relationship with God, as well as the importance of living together as a community. R. Eliezer’s pursuit in the House of Study was one of elucidating and applying Torah, and in fact generating Oral Torah, in response to our covenant with God. So too does each of us respond individually and personally to God and our place in the covenant, and when we do, we too generate torah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

Simcha said...

I have nothing to argue against the symbol of water as pure and holy. As you know, in Judaism there are many references to water as a healing and important source of community connection. It bothers me to read in Sota that there is also a dangerous side of water, which seems to carry a heavy political flavor. There is a different “Torah” to be learned.
Joshua is saying to the Israelites: “You are crossing the Jordan so that you can concur the inhabitants of the land. If you have no intention to do so, the water will wash you and me away”. I believe there is no need to explain how this could show Israel’s conquest as a pitfall.
Water could be harmful if one does not follow God’s commands. This is scary when you think of Tzunamis and other hurricanes etc.