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Saturday, March 30, 2013

'My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'

My friend Michael Cymbala once defined an "outsider" as "an Egyptian at the Easter Vigil." We can try all kinds of ways to interpret and finesse the scripture, in the light of the New Testament, but we're still left with the carnage. But what is comforting to me is that we are not, by any means, the first to struggle with this, nor is it peculiarly Christian to do so. Here are some Jewish writings on the Exodus story, with a final more modern interpretation that is startling in its moral and emotional complexity. Going dark until tomorrow afternoon. Blessings to all!


Midrash
(from Megilla 10)
"The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: 'My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'"
From “Torah on the Web”:
Indeed, this midrash can be found in Pesikta de- Rav Kahana (ed. S. Buber, p. 189a):
"Why does Scripture give no [explicit] command to rejoice during Pesach?
Because the Egyptians died during Pesach. And similarly do you find that although we read the [entire] Hallel on each of the seven days of Sukkot, on Pesach we read the entire Hallel only on the first day and on the night preceding it. Why? Because of what Shemuel would quote: "Bi-nefol oivekha al tismach" - "Do not gloat at the fall of your enemy." (Proverbs 24:17).
This supplements the well-known gemara (Megilla 10b and Sanhedrin 39b): "The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not rejoice over the fall of the wicked."
From the “David in DC” blog, I found this:
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.
Finally, from Wrestling with God, by Stephen T. Katz, et al., Oxford University Press, p 429:
...A much-quoted Midrash relates that when the ministering angels beheld the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, they wanted to break out into song. God, however, reproved them, saying, “My children lie drowned in the Red Sea, and you would sing?” This Midrash is much quoted, for it encourages moralistic sermons concerning a God endowed with universal benevolence. The real content of the Midrash, however, is otherwise. Even in the supreme but premessianic moment of His saving presence God cannot save Israelites without killing Egyptians. Thus the infinite joy of the moment—a moment in which even the maidservants saw what no prophet saw—is mingled with sorrow, and the sorrow is infinite because the joy is infinite….
So there’s even support, ancient but ambiguous, for a careful reading even of the joy of Exodus. Isn’t life just full of surprises?