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Dolphins in the Desert - Parshat Terumah

On the surface, this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, is very dry. It’s one of those parshas that doesn’t mention water even once. Basically, this parsha gives an overview of the construction of the Ohel Moed, the Tabernacle which served as the central focus of worship for the Israelites during our 40 years of wandering in Sinai. After we escape from Egypt, and after the Revelation at Sinai, Moses is given instruction for the building of the Tabernacle. The Parsha begins with the words: “And God said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel that they take for Me an offering, from every person who has a willing heart you shall take My offering.” (Ex. 25:1-2) It then lists everything that is needed to build the Tabernacle. In chapter 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. 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 and a modern Midrash (I’m sorry I can’t remember where I heard it) speaks of the little children, so overwhelmed by the walls of water and the fish behind them (think of the Georgia 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 saved the children of Israel, they preserved their skins and included them in the construction of the Holy Tabernacle.

Present Day

Now here we are, more than three thousand years later, talking about how dolphins saved the Israelite children from drowning, while around the world today thousands of dolphins are dying every year from entanglement in debris. Whales and dolphins are beaching themselves in record numbers around the world because they can’t escape the tremendous amount of noise pollution created by millions of ships, boats and other water craft on the Ocean every day. One of the worst contributors to sonic pollution in the Ocean is seismic blasting from oil and gas exploration. For those who are not aware, seismic blasting involves blasting the seafloor with high-powered air guns every 10 seconds and measuring the echoes to map offshore oil and gas reserves. The blasts, which can reach more than 250 decibels represent the loudest human generated sound in the Ocean and can be heard for miles. For comparison, the sound of a 747 jet engine at takeoff is 140 decibels. Now imagine that sound being blasted every 10 seconds in your living room for days or weeks on end. Seismic blasts disrupt communication, feeding patterns and breeding habits among dolphins and whales. 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 that are being killed and slaughtered around the globe.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 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, but not just the Ocean. We need to protect and restore the Ocean, the rivers, lakes, and the life that is in the water. We need to recognize that water is life, not only for us but for every living being on this planet. There are so many ways to get involved locally or globally, but it takes a conscious decision to do it.

The Midrash tells us that when the Israelites stood on the shore of the Red Sea, with the water before them and the Egyptian army bearing down on them from behind, the people were terrified. Moses had not yet parted the water so everyone was afraid and frozen in place. All except for one man named Nachshon ben Aminadav. Nachshon heard what Moses had said, and was not afraid. He walked tall and strong into the water until it reached his neck, and at that point the waters parted.

We cannot stand by in fear or complacency as the water on our planet is polluted and the life within it is destroyed. Like Nachshon, we need the courage to take that first step, to make the conscious decision to get involved. We need people, as the beginning of this week’s parsha says, “who are of a willing heart” to step forward. Donate either your money or your time to your favorite marine/water conservation organization. Get more educated about the issues. Speak up. Spread the word. Together, we can make a difference.

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

1 Comment

Feb 24, 2023

Yasher Koach. Thanks for sharing your words of Torah and Shabbat Shalom.

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