Let the Angels Sing
The Exodus & Egypt’s pursuit
The triumphant exodus was short-lived. Shortly after they journeyed into the desert, Bnei Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptian army was hot in pursuit. Instead of the feeling of exhilaration they had moments before, they were now filled with great fear. Moshe reassured the people that they would all witness Hashem’s salvation. In setting up this salvation, even before the Sea split, Hashem created a barrier between Bnei Israel and the pursuing Egyptians.
As Rashi and others explain the verses, Hashem placed both the fire pillar and the cloud pillar behind the Jewish camp so that it would create a barrier between them and the approaching army. The Torah relates (14:20):
וַיָּבֹא בֵּין מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְהִי הֶעָנָן וְהַחֹשֶׁךְ וַיָּאֶר אֶת־הַלָּיְלָה וְלֹא־קָרַב זֶה אֶל־זֶה כָּל־הַלָּיְלָה
The [barrier] came between the Egyptian camp and the Israelite camp. There was the cloud and darkness [facing the Egyptians], and [the fire pillar] illuminated the night. Neither [camp] approached each other the entire night.
The angels and singing
This phrase, “וְלֹא־קָרַב זֶה אֶל־זֶה כָּל־הַלָּיְלָה” – “Neither approached each other the entire night,” is curious. It would seem that this is belaboring the point, since the first part of the verse already stated that a barrier was placed between the two camps. Why is it necessary to additionally state that the two camps didn’t approach each other?
Our Sages infer an important lesson from this phrase. The term “זֶה אֶל־זֶה” is used by Scripture to refer to groups of angels. In a few places in our liturgy, we quote the verse from Isaiah (6:3), which portrays the angels as calling out “זֶה אֶל־זֶה” – “each one to each other” in order to recite the triple statement of “Holy, Holy, Holy” in praise of G-d. The Talmud concludes that the same words “זֶה אֶל־זֶה” are used here, because the angels, upon seeing the events at the Red Sea, wished to sing G-d’s praises. Hashem responded to the angels (TB Megillah 10b): “מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה?” – “My handiwork is sinking in the Sea, and you wish to sing?!”
The function of our added phrase is thus to allude to Hashem’s preventing the angels from singing. When it says, “וְלֹא־קָרַב זֶה אֶל־זֶה כָּל־הַלָּֽיְלָה”, it doesn’t just mean that the Egyptians and Israelites didn’t mix. It also means that the angels were denied permission to approach each other as they normally would when singing G-d’s praises.
Singing at the Yam Suf
The simple understanding as to why Hashem forbade the angels from singing is because He took no pleasure in seeing His creations drowning, and so certainly didn’t want a song of joy to be recited. The obvious question, though, is that in the very next chapter of our parsha, the Jewish people DID sing over the demise of these very same Egyptians with the “Az Yashir” song, and Hashem did not object!
However, the Jewish people were singing about their OWN salvation, and G-d deemed that acceptable. When one experiences their own miracle, it’s appropriate to thank G-d even if others were harmed in the process. By contrast, Hashem denied the angels this opportunity because it wasn’t their own miraculous salvation.
What I still find troubling about this Midrash is that if the angels wanted to sing upon seeing the Egyptians drowning, why was this verse chosen to allude to this, when it is situated BEFORE the Sea was split? It should have been several verses later (verses 27-28), which discuss the actual drowning of the Egyptians. Our current verse discusses the events that lead up to the splitting of the Sea. Why allude to the angels’ desire to sing over an event that hadn’t yet even occurred?
Benei Yisrael and Egypt separated – take 2
I would like to suggest something novel, but before I do, let me share one more Midrash. On the words, “Neither approached each other the entire night,” the Mekhilta says it means that “the Egyptian camp did not approach the Israelite camp, and the Israelite camp did not approach the Egyptian camp.”
This Midrash is truly bizarre. What information is it providing that is not already expressed by the actual text? Furthermore, why make a point of stating the obvious, that not only did the Egyptians not approach the Jews, but the Jews did not approach the Egyptians? Would I ever, in my wildest dreams, imagine that any Jew running away from the Egyptians would stop, turn around, and start running toward the Egyptians?!
This is war
I believe there’s a much deeper message here than first meets the eye. Consider the attitude that the Egyptians harbored toward the Jews, and the attitude that the Jews harbored toward the Egyptians. When you are in the midst of a war, you tend to view the enemy one-dimensionally. There are no individual people, just a singular “enemy” that you must defeat. How sad it is that we human beings fight with each other.
We really ought to be taking our cue from the angels, who put aside any differences that they might have with each other, out of their realization that the only important task in life is to serve Hashem faithfully. Why in our prayers do we invoke this imagery of the angels turning toward each other and saying, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”? It is because we are affirming that the angels have it right, and that we, as Hashem’s people, should emulate this angelic behavior, put aside our differences, and turn toward each other and sing to Hashem in unison.
Perspectives of the other
When the Talmud relates that the angels sought to sing to G-d, it wasn’t that they wanted to sing a song of joy over the demise of the Egyptians. Rather, it was simply time for performing their regularly scheduled praises to Hashem. Hashem stopped them and said, “This is not a time for you to turn toward each other and model brotherly behavior.” Just look at my handiwork, these two nations, the Israelites and the Egyptians. If only the Egyptians had seen the humanity in the “other,” they would have learned to get along and not exploit the Jews.
But alas, my creations have “sunk” into the Sea. That is, the Egyptians cannot see the Israelites as anything other than objectified slaves. By the same token, the Israelites cannot see the Egyptians as anything other than their cruel captors. Both sides have figuratively “sunk” to their baser xenophobic instincts.
In this sense, the word “טובעים”, translated as “sinking,” can also be derived from the word, “טבע,” meaning “nature.” Human beings left to their own devices tend to “sink” to their baser “nature” of not empathizing with or humanizing the “other.”
This is the deeper meaning of the Mekhilta we quoted earlier, about the reciprocal lack of drawing near between the Egyptians and Israelites. The Egyptians could not “approach” the Israelites; they were unable to connect with them empathetically as fellow members of the human race; the Israelites in kind could not bring themselves to “approach” their cruel captors since they viewed them as monsters.
Sadly, there was too much bad blood between these two peoples, and so both sides found themselves at the Red Sea with no other solution other than the death and destruction of the oppressor. It was too late for reconciliation at this point, since “neither side could approach each other for the entire night.”
Seeing beyond the “other”
Certain relationships in life are, unfortunately, beyond repair. So much bad blood and time has already transpired; it’s too difficult for one side to “approach” the other and try to see their point of view and humanity. Fortunately, though, those situations are rare, and most relationships can be repaired, provided that each party is willing to “approach” the other, and remove the opaque cloud pillar that lies between the two parties.
The necessary key, of course, is to see beyond the “other” and instead find the “brother.” If we truly wish to emulate the angels, we have to learn to turn toward each other and focus on all that we can accomplish together. Instead of pointing to all the issues that divide us, we should instead come together as brethren with unconditional acceptance of each other, and work on forging joint efforts and projects that are bigger than our own self-interests. This is true of individuals and it is true of communities. Remember, Hashem cannot accept the angels’ song when there is disunity among His creations. In order for G-d to enjoy the angelic music, we must assist the angels and come together as one people, and indeed, as one human race. May the day come when mankind recognizes this larger project of unification, bb”a.