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April 6, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Passover and porpoises

By RABBI ED ROSENTHAL Executive Director, Hillels of the Florida Suncoast

If you have spent any time on Tampa Bay in a sail boat, a power boat, a jet ski or just on a beach or a bench, you have probably had at least one of those magical encounters with our local dolphins. I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time on the Bay and have had many encounters with these incredible animals. And so you ask, as we approach the end of Passover, what do dolphins have to do with this holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt? In Parshat Trumah, after the Jews escape from Egypt, and after the Revelation at Sinai, Moses is given instruction for the building of the Tabernacle. In Exodus 26:14 the Torah says: “You shall make a covering for the Tabernacle of ram skins dyed red and dolphin skins.” Seriously? Dolphin skins for the Tabernacle? Dolphins? Where did they find dolphin skins in the desert?

Back to the Exodus. The culmination of the Exodus was the Parting of the Red Sea. Arguably one of the most spectacular events in the entire Torah. Yet we’ve heard this story so much and seen it recreated in movies and cartoons so many times that the power and awe of the event has been lost on us. There is a modern Midrash (and forgive me that I can’t remember where I heard it) which speaks of when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea on dry land. Overwhelmed by the miracle, while terrified by the threat of the pursuing Egyptian army, the Israelites descended into the depths while the walls of water on both sides loomed over them. Yet, despite the circumstances, kids will be kids. The Midrash speaks of the little children, so overwhelmed by the walls of water and the fish behind them (think of the Florida Aquarium) that they kept walking into the water to reach the fish. To keep the children from being engulfed by the water, the dolphins swam back and forth along the wall of water and pushed the children back onto the dry land to keep them from drowning. However, when the sea closed on the Egyptians, many of the dolphins were caught in the vortex and impaled by the swords and spears of the Egyptians. Once the Israelites were safe and free on the other side of the Sea, they stood on the shore and the bodies of hundreds of dolphins washed up before them. And so the Midrash tells us that to honor the dolphins who save the children of Israel, they preserved their skins and included them in the construction of the Holy Tabernacle.

And here we are today, remembering the Exodus, while around the world thousands of dolphins are dying every year from entanglement in debris or beaching themselves for reasons we still don’t understand. In the Torah, we honored the sacrifice of the dolphins by including them in the construction of the Tabernacle. Today, we don’t even take notice of the dolphins (or the sharks, whales, turtles and countless other marine animals) that are being killed and slaughtered around the globe. Most of us in the Jewish Community are not aware that there is more plastic in the ocean today than fish. Most of us are not aware that 100,000,000 sharks (Yes, you read that correctly 100 million) are slaughtered every year for soup in Asia. Most of us aren’t aware that whales and dolphins are beaching themselves in record numbers because of the tremendous amount of noise pollution in the ocean. And most shocking of all; according to the most current scientific data, if we do not do something about over fishing NOW, all major fisheries on the planet will collapse by 2048.

The story of the Exodus teaches us that action is necessary for substantive change to take place. When we stood on the shore of the Sea and cried out for help as the Egyptians bore down on us, Moses said (Exodus 14:13) “Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you and you shall hold your peace.” Ironically, in the very next verse God said to Moses: “Why are you calling out to me. Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and stretch out your hand over the sea... AND DIVIDE IT.” In other words, God did no divide the sea. It was Moses and the people who did it. The people went forward with confidence and courage, and Moses through his conviction and leadership; and together they parted the water.

It’s a fact that the ocean is dying. And when the ocean dies… we die. I believe that when the Jewish community gets involved in any issue, substantive change takes place. It’s time for the Jewish community to get involved in saving the ocean. Here in Tampa Bay, we are leading the way to raise awareness in the Jewish community about the many threats that face the marine environment and how our tradition teaches us to address the challenges. If you would like to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors to move forward with courage to help save the sea, visit to be part of the Jewish community’s effort to raise awareness and take action against the threats to the ocean.

When our people were redeemed from Egypt, we were saved by the Sea. It’s time for us to return the favor.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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