What Did the Sea See?
The week’s Torah portion begins with the Jewish people leaving Egypt. What was Moses doing at that time?
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him…
The Midrash states that the splitting of the sea was in the merit of these bones. This is hard to understand in light of the fact that Moses, Aaron, and millions of others were standing at the sea; what was it about Joseph that caused the Sea to split in his merit?
Joseph had a tough life. He was ostracized by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused and sent to prison. But he was not the first one to endure difficulty; from his great grandparents-Abraham and Sara-to his parents, he had descended from people who had lead lives of hardship. In Jewish consciousness, the trait Joseph embodies is inner strength; what is the definition of strength in Judaism? The Mishna provides the answer.
Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination. Strength is not measured in terms of physical might or fighting ability, but in restraint as it relates to being in control of one’s passions. The Mishna does not even entertain the notion of physical strength as being the determinant of a person’s might; humans are the weakest, slowest, and most fragile in the animal kingdom. It seems that G-d did not create us to be the ultimate specimens of physical strength and endurance; we are destined for something far greater.
What is the barometer of the true strength of a person? Strength of spirit. In practical terms, it is called willpower. When a parent, who is exhausted after a long and hard day, is able “not to loose it” when their uncooperative screaming child has a tantrum, that’s strength. When a normally no-nonsense man drives his wife to a hospital for a minor cosmetic surgery and she angrily yells at him for simply changing the radio station but he knows that she is nervous about the surgery and therefore holds back the choice words he has for her, he is a strong man. When a woman is having an upsetting conversation with her critical mother, who always seems to “push her buttons,” but is able to maintain her composure and remain silent, she is truly a strong person. In Judaism, the weak person is the one who slams the door, yells, or is cold to someone they love but the gibor-strong person-is the one with the self-restraint required to control themselves in challenging situation.
One of the greatest demonstrations of strength is in the area of illicit sexual relations. When a man is able to control a physical urge to be with a married woman, he demonstrates a high level of strength. In classical Jewish ideology, Joseph is the paradigm of strength because of his victory in a superhuman struggle. When he was a house slave in Egypt, his master’s wife attempted to seduce him daily but this good looking, seventeen-year-old boy was able to reject the persistent advances made by an attractive older woman. According to the Talmud, he almost did but, ultimately, he was able to maintain his integrity.
We now return to our original question: what did the sea “see” in Joseph that caused it to split? He demonstrated the highest level of strength by having the ability to live in contradiction to (the pull of) his physical nature. Just as he went against the natural order, so too G-d counteracted nature when He split the Sea for the Jewish people. Going against nature is the common denominator Joseph shares with the splitting of the sea.
This idea also sheds light of the significance of Moses taking the “bones of Joseph,” i.e. his essence, before leaving Egypt. Symbolically, Moses was giving a message; Jews must have the willingness to break their natural tendencies in order to reach the purpose for which they were created.
John Adams wrote, “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation.” The reason why Jews have been a guiding light to the nations is because we have epitomized the concept of being ready to counteract nature or sometimes the values of the society in which we lived. King David articulated this idea by writing that the Jewish people are referred to as Joseph. He called G-d’s flock, the Jewish people, Joseph; Shepherd of Israel, hearken, He Who leads Joseph like a flock…(Tehillim/Psalms 80:2).
How will you go against your nature this week? Will you make that dreaded phone call and make amends to the person you wronged? Will you be more helpful at home even though you would rather veg on the couch? Will you call your old Aunt that your mother keeps asking you to call but you just don’t feel like it? Will you give tzedaka for no reason other than the fact that you are Jewish and supposed to help trustworthy Jewish causes even though you are not by nature a generous person? Will you refrain from going to websites you know are inappropriate? If you do any of the above, or some other thing you know is the right thing, even one time this week, you too will symbolically be taking the bones of Joseph as you leave your personal Egypt and go to-i.e. find-a place in your soul in which you find the strength to be the person you were meant to become.
(Sources: Bereishis Raba 87:1; Pirkei Avos 4:1 with Rabbeinu Yonah; Nesivos Shalom p. 104; John Adams, letter to F. A. Vanderkemp (February 16, 1809), as quoted in The Roots of American Order by Russel Kirk.)