On March 17, I posted the story of my experience surrounded by a large group of young children in a chapel service in which they were enthusiastically singing about the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea declaring that “all of Pharaoh’s army did the dead man’s float.”
Recently I came across a traditional Jewish commentary on this story that takes a different tone in thinking about the death of the Egyptians who were pursuing the Hebrew people as they fled from Egypt.
Jewish interpretation of the Scripture is call “midrash” (plural “midrashim”), from the verb “to investigate” or “to tell stories”. Generations of midrashim have been collected and passed down from teacher to teacher, embellishing , interpreting, and explaining the stories of the Bible. It is a rich and profound tradition of reflection on sacred text.
There is a famous ancient midrash based on Exodus 14:21-28, the story of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians.
In the midrash God hears the angels singing songs of joy and triumph after the Red Sea closes behind the fleeing Israelites, drowning all the Egyptian troops. God chastises the angels asking them
“How can you sing when my creatures (the Egyptians) are drowning in the sea?!”
This traditional Jewish comment on the story of the Exodus, acknowledges that, when anyone suffers, God suffers. God does not stand apart from anyone. God enters into the pain of the human condition. God is present when Egyptians drown just as much as when Hebrews suffer under the tyrannical lash of Egyptian slave owners.
A well known Rabbi once said,
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5:43,44)
When you “love your enemies” the category “enemy” disappears. The barrier between Egyptian and Hebrew dissolves. The drowning Egyptian is just as much one of God’s “creatures” as the fleeing Israelite.
I am not separate from my persecutor; we are each created equally ”b’tzelem elohim” (“in the image of God”).
My “enemy” is only my enemy because I have failed to see in him, that “image of God” which we share. The challenge my “enemy” presents to me is not to drown him in the Red Sea, but to open my heart to him, to see his suffering. Any “enemy” always represents a failure of love. Like me, my “enemy” is simply another person in pain. Like me, the person I view as my enemy is a person who, when he acts out of his pain, causes more pain in the world.
No one really wants to be my enemy. There is no joy in the suffering of another person.
After instructing his followers that they should love their enemies, Jesus went on to remind them that God
makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)
God sends blessings indiscriminately. For Jesus, God has no enemies. No one is excluded from the category of blessed by God. There is never a time when it is appropriate to sing and rejoice at anyone’s misfortune. Love turns “enemy” into my beloved.