Pshaw! said the Red Sea, it’s only Moses
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — Despite his role as the rescuer of Israel, the Torah takes great pain to de-emphasize the role of Moses in the Exodus. Credit for the miracles is given to God alone, Moses dies without entering the Promised Land, and no one knows where he is buried.
This tradition is carried forward by the rabbis of the Talmudic period. One famous example is the exclusion of Moses from the Passover Haggadah. Not only is Moses not mentioned but the rabbis made clear in the Haggadah’s text that the Children of Israel left Egypt, “Not by the hands of an angel, Not by the hands of a messenger, But the Holy One Blessed be Himself in His own Glory [took the Israelites out of Egypt].”
Moses was not a magician. He could not perform miracles or manipulate the natural world. He was a prophet. A prophet’s job was to communicate the word of God, nothing more and nothing less. God is the Source of all power and glory in the universe.
A midrash in the Mechilta (a collection of midrashim based on the book of Exodus) makes the same point dramatically through a parable.
When the Children of Israel were trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, “Moses held out his arm over the sea.” (Ex. 14:2) According to the Mechilta, the sea defied Moses and stood fast. Moses said to the sea, “Split!” but the sea remained as it was. Moses then lifted his staff. The sea was unconvinced.
To what may this be compared? To a human king who had two gardens, one in front of the other. The king sold the inner garden but when the purchaser tried to enter it through the front garden, the king’s guard blocked his path. The purchaser told the guard that he had the king’s permission. The guard stood fast. The purchaser showed the guard the contract. The guard stood fast.
Finally the king came to the garden and guard finally allowed the purchaser passage to his garden.
The buyer was perplexed. “I told you that I had the king’s authority to enter but you refused to let me in. Now you can’t do enough to hurry me in.”
The guard replied, “It is not because of anything you have done that I let you in. It is the king I fear!”
Thus it was with Moses. When Moses commanded the sea in God’s name, the sea ignored him. It was only when God revealed God’s Presence that the sea split, as it says in the book of Psalms “The sea saw and fled…Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord.” (Psalm 114:3-7)
The midrash may also be making two additional points about the nature of prophecy. The first is that human beings must be cautious about believing those who speak in the name of God. Just because they use God’s name does not mean that God sent them. The only way to decide whether a prophet is a true or false prophet is by seeing if their words come true: “I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself [Moses]: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; …But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods-that prophet shall die.
“And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?”-if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.” (Deut. 18:15-22)
According the midrash, the Red Sea refused to believe Moses until God revealed Godself directly. The proof of Moses’ words were in the miracle itself.
The second point the midrash makes may be a polemic against the miracles of Jesus as found in the Christian Bible. According to the Christian Bible Jesus performed many miracles in his lifetime. The rabbis reject these reports and teach us that only God can perform miracles, and not human beings.
Although Christians may answer that Jesus and God are one, for the Rabbis this impossibility goes without saying. “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God and Adonai is One!”
Rabbi Rosenthal is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego