Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's From a Midrash

In my previous post, I mentioned a Jewish tradition that supposes G-d's reaction to angels celebrating the death of the Egyptians at the Red Sea as the children of Israel escaped to freedom. Laughing ... asked

I don't remember any angels singing at the red sea.

The only singing angels I remember from the Bible were singing about the birth of Christ. You probably don't remember that one.

Seriously, is it actually in the Bible, or is this a later made up thing?

Fair question. The story comes from later rabbinic commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, called "Midrash".

Here's the best summary I could find easily on the web. It comes from an April 2003 sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron. The whole sermon can be found here.
[The story is] found in the midrash and sometimes is printed in Haggadahs [Passover meal prayer books] around the reading of the ten plagues.

Imagine the angels watching anxiously as the Israelites leave Egypt and begin their march towards the desert. The rabbis describe the angels sort of like fans at a ball game, sitting up in the bleachers, watching what's going on, and cheering on their favorites.

Hurry up, the angels urge the Israelites, who are only slowly leaving Egypt.

It's taken some time to get the Israelites moving. Packing up their belongings is a job after all they've been in Egypt for 400 years. There are children to prepare for the trip and old people. The Israelites are unaware of any danger, but the angels can see everything at once, notice Pharaoh regretting his decision to free the people, and calling up his horsemen and chariots to chase after them and recapture them.

Oh no, the angels cry, when they see the Israelites heading off in the direction of the Sea of Reeds, the Pharaoh's chariots will catch up to them from behind. They'll be trapped, the angels moan, they can't move forward into the sea, and behind them is all the might of Egypt.

It's hopeless, they exclaim, there is no way out. The angels join in the cries of the Israelites, who by now have turned around and realize the desperateness of their situation.

Of course you know what happens next. In ancient times, since they didn't have night vision goggles, armies hunkered down in the dark and didn't attack. All night the two groups remain still, the Israelites at the shore of the sea, and the Egyptian army just behind them. Then a Ruach Kaddim, a wind from the east, creates a path through the sea.

Following Nachshon ben Aminadab, the first Israelite courageous enough to step into the sea, the Israelites are able to cross safely, but when the Egyptians follow with their soldiers and heavy chariots, they become stuck in the mud and as the waters come rolling back over them, they drown in the sea.

At that point the angels break out into song, they are so happy, so relieved that the Israelites are finally safe. All that God had done for the Israelites has finally paid off, the Israelites are free at last.

God sees the angel's rejoicing, but God isn't pleased. "My creatures are drowning in the sea", God says, "and you sing songs".

The Midrash tells us that God was not angry with the Israelites for singing and rejoicing at the shores of the sea. The people had just escaped great danger. It was only human that they express their relief and their joy. But the angels were supposed to have a somewhat broader perspective. They should have kept their awareness of the spark of God that is in every person, even the Pharaoh himself.

They should have remembered God's teaching, "it is not the death of the wicked that I seek, but only that he should turn from his evil ways and live."

That story from the ancient Midrash is preserved in our Passover seder rituals even to this day. When we come to the retelling of the ten plagues, we pour some wine out of our cup, or some families take a little bit of wine with their finger at this point. We show God that we understand that our cup of joy cannot be filled to the brim, as long as others, even if they were our enemies, have lost their lives.

So where does that leave us today? From all our various vantage points, we join to pray that the war will end soon. We ask for God's guidance too in the postwar period, understanding the rejoicing of Kurds, Shiites, and others at the fall of their enemies, we pray to find the wisdom to turn enemies into friends, and establish the foundation for a more lasting peace.

For Jews, Midrash is part and parcel of learning Torah.

I leave the question of whether the Hebrew Scriptures, their later commentaries, or the Christian Gospels are "a ... made up thing" for another day.

In all of them, and in the Qu'ran too --- amidst a lot of stuff it's hard to wrap a modern mind around --- are inspired bits of wisdom.

Whether they are G-d-inspired, I am never quite sure.


Anonymous said...

I like learning new things about other religions. Though I am not all that religious these days, finding new things out about other faiths still facinates me.

Thanks for the understanding on the last post and the answer.

Rachel said...

I love learning about the history of Judaism. It is so rich and has so many different layers of meaning.
I go to a non-denom Christian church and we go back to the Old Testament in Hebrew all the time. The numbers and placement of words and poetry and incredibly fascinating.

laughing said...

Is this one of those things written during the four hundred years between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

David in DC said...

E-e: glad to oblige. Thanks for asking.

Rachel: Looking for the sermon I quoted, I ran across a lot of Christian sites with Haggaddahs (the prayerbooks for use at a traditional Passover ritual meal --- called a "seder".)

I think it's because many Christian denominations are recognizing the roots of Christianity in Judaism.

The Last Supper was, most likely, a Passover Seder.

And if you like the poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, check out the Song of Songs. It's attributed by Jewish scholars to King Solomon and the sensual imagary is both beautiful and quite erotic.

Check out

One excerpt will make my point. This is all from the King James Version:

1 How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's daughter!
The joints of thy thighs are like jewels,
the work of the hands of a cunning workman.

2 Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor:
thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.

3 Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.

4 Thy neck is as a tower of ivory;
thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath–rab'bim:
thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon
which looketh toward Damascus.

5 Thine head upon thee is like Carmel,
and the hair of thine head like purple;
the King is held in the galleries.

6 How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

7 This thy stature is like to a palm tree,
and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

8 I said, I will go up to the palm tree,
I will take hold of the boughs thereof:
now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine,
and the smell of thy nose like apples;

9 and the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved,
that goeth down sweetly,
causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

10 I am my beloved's,
and his desire is toward me.

11 Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the field;
let us lodge in the villages.

12 Let us get up early to the vineyards;
let us see if the vine flourish,
whether the tender grape appear,
and the pomegranates bud forth:
there will I give thee my loves.

13 The mandrakes give a smell,
and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old,
which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.

Laughing: It mostly survived as oral tradition only --- from the earliest days recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures until after the fall of the Second Temple, around 70 C.E.

In the couple of centuries after that, Jewish academies (one in Galilee and one in Babylonia) reduced all of the oral traditions to writing and decided which would be included in the canon and which would not.

So as a written story, the Midrash about the angels celebrating the death of the Egyptians and G-d rebuking them probably dates back to 100 or 200 C.E.

But as a folk tale, it is probably much more ancient than that.

Anonymous said...

DiDC: I've gone to several such Christian seders. At the start, great care was made to make sure the food elements were authentic and traditional. That part went downhill from there, people kept complaining and one by one they were nixed. (Lamb? No! Salt water? No? Moror? No! It's too BITTER!) Eventually, the food became beef-and-potato stew!!! We stopped going after that. Wonder if it continued evolving into a typical Protestant pot luck.

I described this to a Jewish friend. That is, the ceremony early-on when everything was traditional and proper. He was quite offended, and saw it as a Christian attempt to subvert, take over, and destroy something important and unique to Jewish people.

David in DC said...

Some Jews take this position. It doesn't make a helluva lot of sense to me. I think learning about what we have in common, and what we believe differently about, is important.

A more narrow objection that does hold some weight with me is the superimposition of later Christian theology on a Seder, at least unless it's made very explicit that this is not the way Jews see that part of the Seder.

A concrete example might help. If I was a guest at a Christian Seder and heard reference to the lamb's shankbone on the Seder plate, I would want to hear any interpolation of Christian theology explicitly described as such.

It's way too much to ask a Christian participating in a religious ceremony and seeing a lamb to refrain from connecting this to Jesus as the Lamb of God. The connection is almost instinctive for a believer in Jesus as Christ.

But I don't think it's too much to ask that it be pointed out that Jews don't see the lamb as holding that particular significance.

laughing said...

The only significance that I currently see in eating lamb is that you might end up with the human version of mad cow disease. I'm sure I already have enough holes in my head without the sponge-brain. It never even occurred to me that people might have a religious problem with it.

dmarks said...

David said: "at least unless it's made very explicit that this is not the way Jews see that part of the Seder."

Well, I think you would have liked this version, at least until they tampered with the food part. The booklet used contained the Jewish ceremony, complete (but there might have been something left out here and there, and if there was it was talked about). The Christian material, which was mostly at the end, was in a sort of different font to stand out for the regular Jewish material. In the execution of the ceremony, there was an effort to make sure to point out when something that was not part of a Jewish seder was inserted into it.

Lamb? Not sure if I mentioned it, before, but my dentist died of the human form mad cow disease. Supposedly, only 3 or so Americans have.

Ceremony-wise, I'm pretty sure that the section describing the significance of the lamb in the sedar was left unaltered.

Moonbeam said...

This is such a wonderful and I must say informative, make me think, post. Especially the Songs of Solomon excerpt.I like that. Nice to find this late at night when I cannot sleep. Thanks for the bedtime story...I am off to bed.

David in DC said...

laughing: Some people can find a religious issue with ANYTHING.

dmarks: Sounds like a seder I'd like. As I said, the more we all learn about each other (both similarities and differences) the better.

Sorry to hear about your dentist. It sucks to to win that kinda 1 in 100 million people kind of lottery.

moonbeam: Thanks. Glad you found it informative. Hope the poetry made for sweet dreams.