Crossing the Red Sea (Parsha B’shallach Ex. 13:17-17:16)

This weeks (1/30/21) Torah Parsha is Parsha B’shallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). This weeks Torah reading includes the account of the crossing of the Red Sea. Philo of Alexandria gives a midrash to this account, which relates to Stoicism.

Israel is led by a pillar of cloud which came between the army of the Egyptians and the assembly of Israel (Ex. 14:19). Philo identifies the Children of Israel as “temperate and beloved by God” while he identifies the Egyptians as “devoted to the passions and a foe to God.”. Philo goes on to say of the pillar of cloud that it was:

a covering and a protection to its friends, but a weapon of vengeance and chastisement against its enemies; (204) for it gently showers down wisdom on the minds which study virtue–wisdom which cannot be visited by any evil. But on those minds which are ill-disposed and unproductive of knowledge, it pours forth a whole body of punishments, bringing upon them the most pitiable destruction of the deluge. (Who is Heir of Divine Things 203-204).

Philo identifies the water, which parted for the assembly of Israel, but destroyed the Egyptian army as representing the passions:

Accordingly, the body-loving race of the Egyptians is represented as fleeing, not from the water, but “under the water,” that is to say, beneath the impetuous speed of the passions. And when it has once placed itself under the power of the passions, it is shaken and agitated; it casts away the stable and peaceable qualities of virtue, and takes up in their stead the turbulent and confused character of wickedness; for it is said that “God shook the Egyptians in the middle of the sea, fleeing under the Water.” (Ex. 14:27) (On the Confusion of Tongues 70)

On which account it is said, “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-Shore.”(Ex. 14:30.) … And this announces three most glorious things to the soul; one, the destruction of the passions of Egypt; another, that this has taken place in no other spot than near the salt and bitter springs, as if on the shore of the sea, by which sophistical reason, that enemy of virtue, is poured forth; and, lastly, the sight of the disaster. (On Dreams 281)

Our Torah reading says:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. (Ex. 15:1 KJV)

Philo understands the “horse” to represent the passions, being four legged irrational animals (Philo counts four passions) and the riders being the minds mounted on the passions:

On this account also it was that Moses praised God in his hymn, because “the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea,” (Ex 15:1.) meaning that he has thrown the four passions, and the miserable mind which is mounted on them, down into ruin as to its affairs, and into the bottomless pit, and this is almost the burden of the whole hymn, to which every other part of it is referred, and indeed that is the truth; for if once a freedom from the passions occupies the soul, it will become perfectly happy. (Allegorical Interpretations 102)

(82) And the same hymn is sung by both the choruses, having a most admirable burden of the song which is beautiful to be sung. And it is as follows: “Let us sing unto the Lord, for he has been glorified gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the Sea.”(Ex 15:1.) (83) For no one, if he searches ever so eagerly, can ever discover a more excellent victory than that by which the most mighty army, four-footed, restive, and proud as it was, of the passions and vices was overthrown. For the vices are four in genus, and the passions likewise are equal in number. Moreover, the mind, which is the character of them all, the one which hates virtue and loves the passions, has fallen and perished–the mind, which delighted in pleasures and appetites, and deeds of injustice and wickedness, and likewise in acts of rapine and of covetousness. (On Husbandry 82-83)

(111) And Moses indeed, in the same manner, when he saw the king of Egypt, (Exodus 14:7.) that arrogant man with his six hundred chariots, that is to say, with the six carefully arranged motions of the organic body, and with the governors who were appointed to manage them, who, while none of all created things are by nature calculated to stand still, think nevertheless that they may look upon everything as solidly settled and admitting of no alteration; when he, I say, saw that this king had met with the punishment due to his impiety, and that the people, who were practisers of virtue, had escaped from the attacks of their enemies, and had been saved by mighty power beyond their expectation, he then sang a hymn to God as a just and true judge, beginning a hymn in a manner most becoming and most exactly suited to the events that had happened, because the horse and his rider he had thrown into the Sea;”(Ex 15:4.) having utterly destroyed that mind which rode upon the irrational impulses of that four-footed and restive animal, passion, and had become an ally, and defender, and protector of the seeing soul, so as to bestow upon it complete safety. (On Drunkenness 111)

So from Philo’s midrash on this weeks Torah portion, we see that the raging waters of the passions are parted for the Stoic mind of temperance, but overcome and destroy those whose minds are mounted upon their emotions.

As Philo elsewhere writes:

“For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.”
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)

And as we read in 4th Maccabees:

21 Now when Elohim fashioned man, he planted in him emotions and inclinations,
22 but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all.
23 To the mind he gave the Torah; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.
(4Macc. 2:21-23)

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