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Rabbi Clark on Parashat Beshalach

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At first glance, some translations of one verse in the Song of the Sea are very un-Canadian. Upon further consideration, the problem is deeper than a slight to the maple leaf.

In this dramatic and poetic recounting of the Israelites’ escape from Pharaoh’s charioteers, God famously parts the sea so that the Israelites can walk through on dry ground. In describing what happens to the waters as they are blasted by God’s nostrils, many translations say they “congealed” or “were heaped up.” Here in Canada, we have a different word for what happens when liquid water becomes solid: it freezes. Why don’t all translations use this word?

As Rashi points out, air comes out of God’s nostrils when God is angry, and this divine air is hot. If God’s expelled breath is hot, then the water did not freeze, which seems to explain why some translators go with “congealed” over “froze.” The problem with this word choice is that hot air causes water to evaporate, not to become solid “like a wall,” as the verse also says. Ice heaps up, but evaporating water does not.

The translations that avoid “froze” gloss over the contradictions in the verse, which is to the reader’s loss. These translations seek to conform the story to our understanding of the states of water at various temperatures and aim for an internal consistency that is simply not in the verse. Rather, God’s deliverance of the Israelites from their pursuers at this crucial moment is a miracle. Only a translation that conveys cold, God’s hot anger and solid water captures all of God’s grandeur, including the parts of it that we cannot easily fit into our knowledge of the natural world.

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