Over the past few weeks, several people have sent me a graphic of a three-lane highway through Yam Suf, complete with a truck labelled “Moses Transports” and a road sign indicating “Split sea next 4 miles.” It’s a cute picture, but it has nothing on the midrashic account of how Gd split the sea.
Per the midrash, Gd split the sea into twelve separate corridors, one for each tribe, with nutrition - and more - provided by the walls of water themselves.
That image of a twelve-tunneled sea with tribal lanes is fascinating, but troubling – why does Gd want this? The Jews left Egypt as one nation, ובני ישראל יוצאים ביד רמה, and they are praised for arriving at Sinai as a unified nation, so why divide them into tribes for the trip through the water?
The image is especially troubling when we study the history of those tribal divisions. From the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, to the division between the children of the various matriarchs, to the sale of Yosef by his brothers, the origins of tribe-specific identity hardly bode well for their descendants.
And then, when we examine that future, we find it only gets worse. In the days of the Shoftim, when the Jews were oppressed by Canaanites, the judge and prophetess Devorah found she couldn’t inspire certain tribes to fight on behalf of the others. And then, later on, strife would develop between the Yehudah region in the south, and the other tribes to the north.
On the whole, particularism never worked out well for the Jews as a nation – so why did Gd divide up the tribes in a great demonstration of particularism at their moment of united origin,as they left Egypt and crossed through the Sea?
A mystical idea might help us understand this Divine decision.
R’ Chaim Vital taught, in the name of the Ari ז"ל, that each shevet (tribe) inherits a certain spiritual character from its original progenitor. Reuven with his teshuvah. Yehudah with his leadership. Yosef with his charm as well as his activism. Even Shimon with his violence. Each of Yaakov’s sons charted a path of personal identity and Divine connection, based upon traits inherent to his own soul and passed down to his descendants.
Therefore, each shevet possesses its own means of prayer, its own words and its own structure which enable it to communicate optimally with HaShem. For the most part, including the Amidah, our davening is the same, but each tribe has special quirks in its shared soul, which are reflected in the ideal form of prayer appropriate for that shevet.
Each tribe is therefore charged with a mandate: To be particularistic in its spiritual life and to celebrate that which is unique to its character, inherited through mystical spiritual genetics as well as the language of shared experience and shared commitment.
To return to the Sea, then:
Chazal testify that every Jew who crossed the sea witnessed Gd in a way that even the greatest prophet, even Yechezkel in his vision of the Divine throne room, never experienced. This was a moment of supreme, sublime connection to the Gd who created not only the Jewish nation, but each individual Jew as well.
Lumping the Jewish nation together as a single bloc at that spiritual moment would have obliterated that celebrated heritage which was special to each tribe. Better to provide each tribe with its own passage, highlighting that which was special about each.
Today, we don’t know our individual tribal identities; we daven in the nusach we have received, and we hope that’s sufficient.
But taking the lesson of tribe-specific spirituality a step further, we can find a method of davening that works for our personal natures, as individuals. Whether that means more singing or less, more contemplation or more verbalization, more spontaneous additions or less, there is a path, within the bounds of halachah, for each of us to connect – but we need to put the work into finding it, whether in one shul or another, on a daily basis. Trying sporadically, on a shabbos or a yom tov or a random Monday, is not a promising way to reach the deepest parts of our spiritual identities; we need to be open-minded, we need to be thorough, and we need to be consistent, if we hope to find the path that resonates best for us.
Those unique passages through the Sea promise us that we will be best served when we recognize the character of our personal relationship with Gd, and turn it to our advantage.
This same theme of spiritual particularism shaped the mishkan, the traveling shul the Jews built in the desert.
The mishkan is usually seen as a symbol of unity – it was parked at the center of the Jewish camp, it was built by everyone together, and many of its elements, such as the menorah, the keruvim and the trumpets, were made out of single blocks of metal.
Nonetheless, the mishkan itself – the tent in which the rituals of service to Gd were performed – celebrated particularism. The mishkan tent was formed, in part, of the hide of an animal called a תחש. The sages translated תחש as ססגונא, explaining that this animal is שש בגוונים הרבה, it rejoices in its many colors.
The sasgona, the tachash, does more than just preen; this animal thrills in its diversity.
Yes, the mishkan was a central site to which all Jews could gather for a unified avodah. But each Jew, each tribe, would bring its own individual approach to that central site, would draw on those characteristics that had marked them as unique at the Sea, and through the combination of those disparate elements we would create a sasgona-like whole, many colors reaching Gd together.
1. The midrash on the twelve tunnels is in Mechilta to Beshalach 4; the midrash on what the Jews experienced at the Sea is in Mechilta to Beshalach 3.
2. That special spiritual character of each shevet is visible in their placement around the mishkan, as well as the portions assigned to each shevet in Israel.
3. The idea that we stick to our inherited nusach because we presume it to be tribally appropriate is halachically important, and greatly debated regarding switching between nusach ashkenaz and sephard.