"The sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned backwards." (Psalm 114:3)

Psalm 114 compares the greatness of the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan , enabling the Children of Israel to cross easily on dry land into their homeland, to the greatness of the splitting of the Red Sea , whereby they had been saved from their Egyptian enslavers. Likewise Joshua, who presided over the splitting of the Jordan , is specifically compared in today's text to Moses, who raised his staff to split the sea (Joshua 4:14). However it was not his staff that Joshua raised. Instead he instructed the Children of Israel to follow the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of all the Earth.

The Midrash on Psalms 114 asks what it was that the sea saw to make it flee. It answers that the sea "saw" the Ark (coffin) of Joseph being carried up from Egypt . Through the merit of Joseph, who bent and controlled his physical passions in order to serve his Maker, God bent nature and caused the sea to part for the Children of Israel. Now Joseph's descendant, Joshua, who had learned the Torah from Moses, sent the Ark of the Covenant ahead of his people to teach that God is stronger than nature and can bend it to his will. In the Ark were the Tablets of Stone and Moses' Sefer Torah.

It was necessary for the people to purify themselves to experience this miracle (ch 3 v 5) because they were about to enter a new path through which their observance of God's Covenant -- His Torah -- would enable them to transcend natural law. This was one of only three occasions when the Ark was carried not by the Levites but by the Cohanim (priests) - the other two occasions were in the siege of Jericho and when the Ark was returned from the Philistines.

To impress the lesson of this great day upon everyone, in verse 9 Joshua says to the people: "Draw close to me over here!" Our rabbis taught that "Joshua assembled the entire nation BETWEEN THE TWO POLES OF THE ARK, and this was one of the places where the little held the great".

Skeptics will wonder how this was possible. Even those who sincerely want to believe often find it hard if not impossible to understand and accept the sometimes apparently quite outlandish and rationality-defying statements found in rabbinic Midrash ("exposition, searching out"). Since this series of study notes on NaCh will rely heavily on teachings of the Talmud and Midrash illumining our biblical texts, let me say at the very outset of the series that the Bible is the Word of the Living God, revealed to us through His prophets and sages. As soon as you scratch beneath the surface of the biblical words, you see that they are far from what they appear - "deep, deep, who can find it?" The Bible teaches about the spiritual dimension of this material world in which we live. Since this spiritual dimension is often quite unapparent to those sunk in materialism, the sages of the Midrash and Talmud - who lovingly counted every single word and letter of the Hebrew text and who were alert to its every subtle nuance and allusion - developed a unique poetry of allegories and riddles in order to encourage us to jump out of our pre-existing misconceptions about the nature and purpose of the world and rethink everything we thought we knew.

Johsua's bringing the entire nation "between the poles of the Ark" may be understood as his having succeeded in bringing everyone within the bounds of a totally new level of consciousness emanating out of the Ark and what it represented, in which they all perceived that God alone rules over everything. "The Living God" (v. 10) alludes kabbalistically to the Sefirah of Yesod, the Covenant. It is precisely this quality of moral purity, embodied in Joseph the Tzaddik, that would drive out the Seven Canaanite Nations, who were the physical, mental and ideological KELIPAH (husk) over the Covenant (corresponding to the 7 days prior to circumcision, during which the Orlah-foreskin still hides the holy crown).

The greatness of the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan was enhanced because it was Nissan, springtime, when the melting snows of winter made the river so full that it was bursting its banks. It was in the merit of the Israelites having taken and slaughtered the Paschal Lamb (alluding to Aries, head of the constellations) on the 10 th of Nissan 40 years earlier, bending the constellations under the will of God, that the new generation witnessed this new, unheard of miracle of the splitting of a flowing river.

The Talmudic discussion of the splitting of the Jordan is contained in Sotah 35a ff. Just to further irritate the skeptics, the Talmud states that according to Rabbi Yehuda, when the river split and the flow from the north backed up, it caused a huge cubic pillar of water 12 by 12 miles large corresponding to the size of the Israelite camp. Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon (bar Yochai) objected, saying that the pillar was more than 300 miles high so that all the kings of the east and the west saw it, as it says, "When the kings of the Emorites heard." Just to increase the mystery, the rabbis said of the city of "Adam" mentioned in verse 16, "Did you ever in your life hear of a city called Adam? No, this alludes to Abraham, 'the great man (Adam) among giants' (Joshua 14:15). It was in Abraham's merit that this miracle took place" - because he was the first to bend nature to his will when he circumcised himself.


According to the Talmudic account in Sotah, the essential gist of which is quoted with characteristic brevity in Rashi's commentary on our text, the day of the crossing of the Jordan was one of superhuman activity by the twelve representatives of the tribes who took up stones from the Jordan to set up in Gilgal, and indeed superhuman activity by the entire people. This was a day to remember for ever.

Altogether there were three sets of 12 stones. The first had been set up by Moses in the land of Moab (Deut 1:5 and 27:8), and on them he wrote the entire Torah. Then Joshua set up a second set of stones in the Jordan itself (Joshua 4, verse 9), while a third set of stones was taken from the Jordan and set up in Gilgal (v. 8). The Torah was likewise written on these stones.

However the third set of stones was not merely taken directly from the Jordan to Gilgal. According to the Talmud, on the very day of the crossing of the Jordan the entire people journeyed to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, built an altar, coated it with lime and wrote the entire Torah on it, offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, ate and drank, recited the blessings and the curses, all in accordance with Moses' instructions (Deuteronomy ch. 27). It was only after this that they took the stones THAT SAME DAY and carried them to Gilgal, where they were set up to educate the future generations.

Thus on the very day of their entry into the Land, the Children of Israel wrote the Torah not merely on parchment but onto the very rocks and boulders of their new Land. The whole purpose of this was to teach their children and descendants in all the generations to come a profound lesson about how God works through history (ch 4 vv. 6-7). It was through the power of God's Covenant, inscribed in His holy Torah, that the Children of Israel entered their land. Using the stones to stimulate the children's curiosity and give them a lesson in history is reminiscent of the annual Seder Night recalling the Exodus. (The ancient idolaters, including the Canaanites, were wont to set up stone circles as part of their highly sophisticated systems of worship of the stars. The twelve stones of the twelve tribes, corresponding to the twelve signs of the Zodiac, were the ultimate TIKUN (repair) for this idolatry.


Ch 4 vv. 10 & 15-19 go back to narrate further miracles relating to the splitting of the Jordan . It was only when the priests carrying the Ark first dipped their feet into in the water by the east bank of the river that the main miracle - the splitting of the river -- occurred, enabling the entire people to cross on dry land. Rashi, reflecting the Talmudic discussion, which is based on hints in our text, explains that after the people crossed the river to the west bank of the Jordan , the priests returned with the Ark to the EAST bank. The moment the priests stepped out of the water, the river returned to its normal flow, after which the priests crossed the river OVER THE FLOWING WATER, CARRIED BY THE ARK - thus graphically showing the entire nation that THE ARK CARRIES THOSE WHO CARRY IT and not vice versa (see Rashi on vv. 16 and 18.).The Torah may seem like a heavy yoke, but in fact it carries those who practice it - it carries them above and beyond nature!!!

The lesson of this unforgettable day in the history of the Children of Israel is summed up in the concluding verse of our text (ch 4 v 24): "In order for all the peoples of the land to know that the hand of HaShem is mighty, in order that you should fear HaShem your God all your days."



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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