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Beshalah 5770

Parshat Beshalah
Shabbat Shirah
(Judges 4:4- 5:31)
January 30, 2010
15 Shavat 5770

Preachers preaching horrific explanations for natural catastrophes have much been in the news in recent days. What is one to make of such messages? Do these preachers really believe their outlandish hypotheses? The rabbinic sages, too, offered explanations for the punishments meted out in the Tanach. An analysis of a midrash on this week\’s parashah and haftarah might offer a valuable lesson to both preacher and listener alike. In the Mechilta d\’Rabbi Yishmael, a midrash on the book of Exodus from the period of the Mishnah (2-3rd century CE), the sages analyze certain idiosyncrasies in the language of how certain biblical stories are told, among them the punishment of the marauding Egyptians at the sea in the exodus story and Barak\’s battle against Sisera, the enemy of the Israelites in the time of the prophetess Devorah.

In an interpretation of the words of praise for God found in the Song of the Sea: \”for He is highly exalted\” (Exodus 15:1), the Mechilta comments: \”He is exalted above all those who exalt themselves. For with the very means with which the nations acted haughty before Him, He punished them.\” This principle is known to the sages as \”mida kneged mida – measure for measure\”. It is similar to what we call in English \”poetic justice\”. This principle is applied to the fate of the Egyptian army at the sea: \”And you find this in the case of the Egyptians that with the very thing in which they prided themselves before Him, God punished them. As Scripture says: \’And he (Pharaoh) took six hundred chariots\’ (Ex. 14:7), and afterwards it says: \’Pharaoh\’s chariots and his hosts has He (God) cast into the sea\’ (Ex. 14:4)\”

Similarly, we find regarding Sisera: \”For it says: \’And Sisera gathered together all of his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron […unto the brook Kishon]\’ (Judges 4:13). What is written afterwards? \’They fought from heaven, the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.\’ (Ibid. 5:20)\” (Mechilta d\’Rabbi Yishmael Shirta 2 Horowitz Rabin ed. p. 123) In this case, the use of \”measure for measure\” is less clear. Professor J. Goldin suggests that it might involve the mention of the \”brook Kishon\” in verse 13 and verse 5:21: \’The brook Kishon swept them away\”. (The Song of the Sea p. 94)

These proofs are quite literary and playful. Such is the way of poetry and literature which find playful ways to tease meaning from texts and events. Why do the sages do such things? Their intension is probably to prod us to be aware that all of our actions have consequences that we should be aware of. Obviously, this medicine is easier to swallow when it is presented in stories of days gone by. This way it lacks the \’arrogance\’ found in some of the religious \”know it alls\” who make the news these days. The sages understood their \”poetry\”. One could only wish the same of those who enjoy today\’s headlines.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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