Sotah 37

Taking the pluge.

There is a famous midrash, popularly retold today, that says the Red Sea didn’t part for the Israelites immediately. With the Egyptians bearing down from behind and the formidable sea before them, the Israelites began to despair, until Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah (Numbers 1:7), took the initiative and waded right into the waters — and only then did they part. The source of that tradition is a passage on today’s daf where, as we will discover, there’s also a lot more going on.

beraita (early rabbinic teaching) that begins on the bottom of yesterday’s page gives a different account of the parting of the waters: 

What was the incident where Judah sanctified God’s name in public? As it is taught that Rabbi Meir would say: When the Jewish people stood at the Red Sea, the tribes were arguing with one another. This one was saying: “I am going into the sea first,” and that one was saying: “I am going into the sea first.” Then, in jumped the tribe of Benjamin and descended into the sea first, as it is stated: “There is Benjamin, the youngest, ruling them” (Psalms 68:28).

Do not read it as: “Ruling them [rodem]”; rather, read it as: “Descending into the sea [red yam].” And the princes of the tribe of Judah were stoning them [rogmim otam] for plunging in first and not in the proper order, as it is stated in the continuation of the verse: “The princes of Judah, their council [rigmatam]” (Psalms 68:28). 

According to this tradition of Rabbi Meir, the people weren’t nervous to enter the sea — they were excited. And while they argued about who would go first, Benjamin dove in. The tribe of Judah, though, wasn’t having any of it and actually stoned the tribe of Benjamin for jumping the queue. In a move familiar to us by now, Rabbi Meir supports this reading by punning on the Hebrew in Exodus and Psalm 68, which mentions both tribes. 

Have we been getting the story wrong all this time? Was it actually the tribe of Benjamin that led the way? And was it an ignoble act? Not according to Rabbi Yehuda, whose opinion the Gemara records next.

Rabbi Yehuda said to Rabbi Meir: That is not how the incident took place. Rather, this tribe said: “I am not going into the sea first,” and that tribe said: “I am not going into the sea first.”

Then, in jumped Nahshon ben Aminadav and descended into the sea first, as it is stated: “Ephraim surrounds Me with lies and the house of Israel with deceit, and Judah is yet wayward toward God [rad im El]” (Hosea 12:1)

The tradition explicates Nahshon’s prayer at that moment: “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing … let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–316). 

According to Rabbi Yehuda, in contrast to Rabbi Meir, the tribes weren’t fighting because they all wanted to go first, but rather because none of them did! In this context, Nachshon, representing the tribe of Judah, takes the (literal) plunge. Rabbi Yehuda also finds verses, from Hosea and Psalms, to show that not only was Nachshon, representing Judah, first into the waves, but that he had God on his side, and that his prayer was effective: He went into the water, and rather than swallowing him up, it parted (as soon as Moses raised his staff, that is). 

So who was right: Benjamin or Judah? Possibly both. A lovely midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 14:22:1) makes the analogy that Benjamin (the younger) and Judah (the elder) represent a king’s two sons. The king says to the younger one, “wake me up at sunrise.” To the older one, he says, “wake me up at the third hour” (i.e., later in the morning). The younger one shows up at sunrise to fulfill his father’s wish but is prevented from doing so by the older brother, whose orders are to wake the king up later. In a scene familiar to anyone who has ever had young children, the altercation between the two wakes the king, who says: “My sons, both of you acted for my honor — I will not withhold your reward for this.”

Ultimately, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin occupied adjacent territories in the promised land, with Jerusalem right at the border. The Talmud relates that the tribe of Benjamin earned the right to have the Temple built in its territory, and that the tribe of Judah, which gave us the great kings of Israel, merited to govern the people. 

Read all of Sotah 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 5, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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