As readers, we are aware that the nation is pinned between the Sea and the approaching Egyptian army precisely because God orchestrated it to be so. Pharaoh’s mighty chariots draw near on the horizon, and the heart of the people sink into despair; a feeling of dread mixed with betrayal, causing them to cry out in a panic.
“…God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “The people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” Hence God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea…” (Ex.13:17-18)
They experience dread, because of the real possibility that this is the end for them. They are trapped, and Pharaoh is not coming with glad tidings. Betrayal, because they view their circumstance as entirely avoidable:
“Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Ex.14:12)
Then, of course, there is a miracle which occurs. In the Hebrew Bible, there is no other miracle as famous or as profound. It is known in Hebrew as Keriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Reed Sea.
The crossing of the Red Sea is connected to creation and rebirth in the same way that Shabbat is connected to Messianic redemption and the World to Come. Both are represented in the story, and both ideas, when put together, reflect the struggle of our souls in our pursuit of God.
The presence of water, and the fact that Israel must pass through it to safety and deliverance from the enemy is obviously symbolic of immersion in a mikveh for purification or conversion into the Jewish faith, a ritual that is adopted by the disciples of Yeshua Messiah for initiation of converts to becoming followers of the Master. In this vein, it signifies rebirth, or put another way, being born again. But there is something more. God is intervening with human affairs; changing the order of things. We see this at the very beginning of the Torah.
“The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” (Gen.1:2-5)
In Jewish teaching and midrash, the expanse of formless water represents chaos, which God, in His infinite wisdom, brings to order. It is taught that the spirit of the Messiah hovered over the waters (Genesis Rabbah 1:2), alluding to Isaiah 11.
“…The spirit of the LORD will rest on him…” (Is.11:2), referring to the Spirit of the Messiah hovering, or resting over the waters.
God brings order to the chaos of the formless deep by splitting the water. He separates the waters above from the waters below (Gen.1:6-7), immediately after He split the light from the darkness.
“And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.” (Gen.1:8)
The creation narrative is not viewed in Jewish tradition as a scientific account, but as a way of understanding how God interfaces with humanity. He separates light from darkness, day from night, and normal days from Sabbath. And in this way, based upon both the Torah and Prophets, the sages surmised that He would also separate this age from Messianic kingdom, and, ultimately, the World to Come.
The events at the Red Sea reflect the same pattern. He separates light and darkness, and separates the waters, and in bringing His people to Himself, He also separates the people.
The sages teach that God offered the path of escape, knowing that they may not exercise the option. The sages speak of this possibility as a risk that God took, but a risk that was required in order to enter into committed relationship.
Keriyat Yam Suf, however, represents a form of forced commitment, does it not? It is fair to ask: What type of free will does Israel truly have when the only alternative is death?
The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni interprets this passage, through anomalies in the Hebrew, to be suggesting that the walls of water on either side of Israel are full of anger, tension and fear.
“…the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” (Ex.14:22) “ve-ha-mayim lahem heimah,” the water was anger for them.
This parallels a passage in the Talmud concerning the giving of the Torah at Sinai, where Israel is once again seemingly faced with a forced commitment:
“The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ĥama bar Ĥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aĥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
This is troubling. Yet, we should remember that neither the miracle at the Reed Sea or the miracle at Sinai represent Israel’s ultimate destination, which is the Promised Land. That journey lies ahead of them.
It is a journey of relationship. God has selected a bride, but will she prove faithful?
We must see in the journey between the waters a profound revealing of the struggle and conflict within us as we seek to be the partner God desires us to be.
The deep, resonate tension of the relationship between God and His people cannot be avoided here. This miracle does not represent the end, but the beginning of becoming holy unto the LORD. The Talmud relates this dynamic to the fidelity of marriage and to the law of Sota:
“Rabba bar bar Ĥana says that Rabbi Yoĥanan says: And it is as difficult to match a couple together as was the splitting of the Red Sea, as it is stated in a verse that speaks of the exodus from Egypt: “God makes the solitary individuals dwell in a house; He brings out prisoners into prosperity [bakosharot]” (Psalms 68:7). God takes single individuals and causes them to dwell in a house by properly matching a man to a woman. This is similar to the exodus from Egypt, which culminated in the splitting of the Red Sea, where He released prisoners into prosperity.” (Talmud Sota 2a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
At first, we are led to think that the deliverance of God is purely and only Divinely orchestrated.
A miracle is performed, and the people are saved. Simple.
But the events that follow the crossing betray this understanding, and rather suggest a progressive revealing by God of His purposes that is full of nuance and changing perspectives. As time goes by, the Israelites (like us today) find it challenging to maintain a childlike faith in the powerful hand of God Almighty, and they become discouraged and at times overwhelmed by the physical realities of their surroundings. They halt between a place of trust in His providential care and their own obligations before Him. Where do His promises blend with our responsibility?
The splitting of the sea is akin to the splitting of the soul. The water is one, yet is separated for a purpose before being brought back together. God opens a wound in the soul, and offers the solution before sewing it up again.
As we will see, this relates to our souls, but it also, in a positive sense, relates to the sanctuary in time that is the Sabbath.
Was the splitting of the Sea a miracle, or was it “supernaturally natural”? The text tells us that Moses raised his staff, at God’s command, and split the sea himself (Ex.14:16). Yet, a few verses later, we are told that Moses had nothing whatsoever to do with the affair:
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided.” (Ex.14:21)
This is a miracle of deliverance that can be reasonably explained by natural causes. Perhaps the miracle is not only the separation of the waters, but the timing of their separation. Perhaps, also, it is the fact that the mud at the bottom of the sea became dry land, enabling the people to travel safely without becoming stuck. The psalmist appears to reference this concept:
“He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm.” (Ps.40:2)
Sabbath is in view in mystical fashion in the narrative of the Torah concerning the crossing, as well.
“The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night.” (Ex.14:19-20)
We see that the light in the camp was for God’s people alone, and not for the Egyptians.
At Erev Shabbat, during twilight, the Sabbath candles are lit, and we celebrate and embrace this light as a representation of the eternal light of God’s love and care, shining for us through the dark night ahead, splitting the days of common activity from the holiness of Shabbat. During the night, at some point, we sleep, which the sages tell us is a miniature form of death, and in the morning, we give thanks (Modeh Ani prayer) that our souls have been returned to us, and that our souls have successfully traversed the darkness. This relates to the rite of baptism, representing the death of what has gone before, and the rebirth of new life. But the light of the Sabbath candles cannot be construed to be a miracle, can it? We light them ourselves. And further, the sun will rise in the morning whether we do so or not. Is Sabbath truly holy, or is it a creation of our own imagination that we ascribe holiness to it? Where does the divine enter into this ritual, other than through commemoration?
In like manner, this event at the Reed Sea must be understood both historically, nationally, and also spiritually; even esoterically. For the Israelite experienced their rescue at the Sea by walking through it.
On the people marched, in martial array (Ex.13:18) into the darkness before them, with the light of the World to Come, as it were, guiding their steps, the ground miraculously firm beneath their feet, with angry water on either side ever threatening to engulf them and snuff out their fragile lives. They traveled with urgency and a trembling hope, trusting beyond reason that they would reach the opposite shore in one piece, and still drawing breath. On they strode, all through the night.
The water is one, and then it is two, having been divided. It’s basic nature is unchanged, but something has entered into that that must be preserved, until it is safe.
The teachings of kabbalah mesh with the teachings of Paul in this aspect. For man is a singular being who has two inclinations. The job of the disciple is to learn to split the sea of his soul, by distinguishing the evil from the good inclination. Paul is clear on this, teaching us that this is the very purpose of the Word in our lives.
Before the spark of God was awoken within us, there was little discernment between our natures. All was water, and all was a mystery.
We had not yet been separated from the formless void. But then faith came. The path of holiness is narrow and treacherous, with an angry wall of broiling iniquity and chaos on either side, and at any moment we feel as though we could be swallowed up by the very dark expanse we have been miraculously delivered from. If we could only make it to our destination, we would be safe.
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb.4:12)
Paul speaks of the struggle of the soul in its journey home:
“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” (Rom.7:7)
The Sea is like our life of faith. There is the revealed, physical life, but there is also the hidden life of the spiritual man, often buried beneath the surface. This constant tension creates much of the struggle we experience to reconcile our godly impulse with our base natures.
The Tanya, a brilliant resource of Hasidic thought, explains this in an interesting way, presenting the rasha (the man who is given over to his evil impulse), the tzaddic (the righteous man who has achieved a sort of permanent victory over this impulse) and, finally, the beinoni (or intermediate man).
Most of us find ourselves in the place of the beinoni. We desire to walk right with God, but our evil impulse is constantly warring against the godly spark that has been awoken within us.
“For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh…For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” (Rom.7:14-15)
We must finish our journey to the other shore, if we are going to be free from the dark foreboding threat of our evil inclination.Victory is coming, but we must trudge on, longing in faith for when day breaks and the kingdom of God arrives.
“…we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Rom.8:23)
When we are as children, a miracle is simply a wonder that we get to experience. Children don’t have an adult perspective as to their place in the narrative. But many children in faith never mature beyond the aspects of signs and wonders and deeds of the miraculous as the only satisfying confirmation of their journey with God. But the mature man, who has been disciplined by the Word, recognizes that even the miraculous is wrapped up in his own choices and decisions to walk in the direction that God has led him, and cling to this path he must!
“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Heb.12:11)
Had we known what trials lie ahead of us at the moment of our faith’s conception, would we have ventured forth? Would we have confidently plunged ourselves into the sea?
To guide our steps we have the light.
This is the significance of Shabbat in relation to our redemption. God has commanded His people to light the candles of Shabbat as a way of capturing the World to Come even while we journey through the dark night. The light from the candles not only represent the future, but also shield us and separate us from the darkness that lies behind. Shabbat is our sanctuary, our rebirth, to begin the journey anew.
In a real sense, then, the journey of our soul does not require a physical miracle so much as a spiritual one. What one philosopher termed a “rupture in ontology” through which a significant event changes both us and our view of the world. Paul experienced this. His experience in meeting his Master, the Messiah, on the road to Damascus forever guided him in his journey from that point forward. Was he “reborn” then? In a sense, one could say so. Yet, by his own testimony, he learned what it all meant only over a long period of time, as he ventured to walk it out. Also, he was a faithful Jew both before and after this experience. What changed for him was not so much external, but internal.
Some of us experience a dramatic intervention, like Paul, while others experience a sort of quiet dawning that grows in our hearts and minds like the dawn of the sun. But there is a shared testimony between both categories: We must both enter the sea. For when day comes, all will be changed.
“So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state at daybreak…” (Ex.14:27)
At the point of twilight, we light the candles.
“Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight. They were: The mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the mouth of Balaam’s donkey, the rainbow, the manna, the staff, the Shamir, the writing on the Tablets, the inscription and the Tablets. Some say: also the demons, Moses’ burial place, and the ram of our father Abraham…” (Pirkei Avot, 5:8)
The twilight period is a time in which it is difficult to discern between day and night. It is during this time that we are to light the candles of Shabbat against the onset of the darkness before the night falls.
We keep the fire lit, and we walk the muddy path at the bottom of the sea of our soul, a path that God makes firm for us, and this truly is a miracle; a miracle that is part the hand of God and part the intentional effort of ourselves to keep moving forward.
Like the nation of Israel before us, we sing the song of victory for our deliverance, but we walk with fear and trembling before the One Who gives us life and also has the power to take it away. The dread we sometimes feel, and the sense of betrayal that often dogs our emotions (why does this have to be so hard? has God left me?) is normal.
But this night will end.
When the day breaks, we will hear the comforting sounds of our Master, inviting us into our joy. And at that moment, when we look back towards the split sea to retrace our steps, we will find that it has vanished in the mists of time, having swallowed all our enemies and accusers as well as our failures, the sea is once again calm, and, like the Song of the Sea, our sorrow and fear will turn to dancing and celebration.