The Egyptians Give Chase, and the Sea Splits
“Moses! You can’t be serious!” cried Datan. “The sea is in front of us, and the Egyptian Army is on our tail. The other two sides have wild beasts emerging from the wilderness. Obviously the only way is to sign a ‘peace accord’ with Pharaoh. There is no other alternative!”
“Ridiculous!” exclaimed Aviram. “After all the plagues that hit Pharaoh, he still didn’t keep his promise to let us go. Do you think we can trust his word for one minute? The only way is to fight our way out. We have spears and swords and the will to use them. Never again will Jews have to run away!”
“What will happen to our children?” asked Yossi in despair. “Will we be killed in battle after all the miracles we witnessed in Egypt? Let’s run to the desert and take our chances with the wild beasts.”
After hearing the options, Moses decided, “We must declare a day of prayer, and entreat the Almighty to save us.”
God’s response was swift and unequivocal: “What are you waiting for? Now is not the time to pray! Just go into the sea and trust Me!”
SPLITTING OF RED SEA
The splitting of the sea corresponded to the spiritual level of the Jews during the Exodus: above the laws of nature. This, in fact, marked the ongoing pattern of Jewish existence. If a Martian would arrive on planet Earth and do a study of all human history, he would formulate certain principles about the rise and fall of nations — e.g. Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Soviet Union, etc.
When he would then study the Jews, he’d discover that they break every single principle! By any law of “cause and effect,” the Jews should have disappeared long ago. The Jewish people are above nature as symbolized by the sea splitting for them.
Question: In what merit did the Jews reach this level?
Answer: The Sages say that the sea split in the merit of the Mitzvah of bris milah. This is hinted in the word “oz” (“then did Moses sing” – Exodus 15:1), which has a numerical value of 8, as in the “8th day” of circumcision.
The Sages also say that the sea split in the merit of Joseph, who ran away from his boss’ wife, so as not to sin. So too, the sea ran away.
These two answers — circumcision and Joseph — are closely related. Circumcision represents controlling our natural desires. And Joseph controlled his desires by refusing to sin. When we rise above our nature, then nature falls down before us (Rav Shlomo Wolbe).
CLOUDS OF GLORY
The Parsha begins with a description of the actual Exodus:
“A cloud of glory went before them during the day to show them the way. At night a pillar of fire took its place to light up their path.” (Exodus 13:21)
It was as if at every sunrise and sunset there was a “changing of the guards.”
EVENTS LEADING TO THE SPLITTING OF THE SEA (based on Midrash)
(1) Pharaoh sent agents to make sure that the Jews would return to Egypt after 3 days. When the time expired and it was clear the Jews had no intention of returning, the agents go back to inform Pharaoh. This all took 6 days. On the 7th day, Pharaoh realized that the riches the Jews took “on loan” from the Egyptians (really the treasure amassed by Joseph) would never come back. “No deposit, no return!”
(2) Pharaoh requests volunteers to supply horses for chariots. (The only animals left in Egypt after the plagues, belonged to Egyptians who “feared God” and had their property spared.) 600 choice chariots later, Pharaoh is on his way. He saddles his own chariot out of his hatred for the Jews, and promises his people to divide the loot with them (Exodus 14:6).
(3) The Jews stop at the shrine of “Baal Tzafon” (the only idol still standing, not in Egypt proper, but by the sea) in order to fool the Egyptians. “How could we have forgotten the power of Baal Tzafon??”
(4) The rebels Datan and Aviram complain to Moses: “Are there no graves in Egypt, that you have to take us to die in the desert?” (Exodus 14:11) (They still had a sense of humor!)
Replies Moses, “God will fight for you and you be silent” (Exodus 14:13). In other words, say goodbye to the Egyptians forever!
(5) When the Egyptians catch up to the Jews, night arrives. The pillar of fire comes before the Israelite camp, and the pillar of cloud separates between them and the Egyptians — blocking out the light and absorbing all the missiles shot their way. Moses spreads his staff over the waters and the easterly wind begins to blow. All night long, the wind blows until the sea dries up. But not before Nachshon, the leader of the tribe of Judah, jumps into the sea up until his nose (Midrash).
Every year, we commemorate these events on a special holiday, the 7th day of Passover.
Question: Why does the wind have to blow all night long? Wouldn’t the sea splitting with one whoosh have been more dramatic?
Answer: Even when God makes miracles, He does them in natural ways. Nature is the Hand of God.
CROSSING THE SEA
(6) By morning, the sea is fully split. The bottom layer has solidified so the people don’t have to descend to the sea bottom. The top layer is “dry land in the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:16) (Malbim).
(7) According to the Midrash, each of the 12 tribes had their own pathway, and the walls of the sea provided fresh water, fruits, and sweets for the children.
(8) The Revelation at the Sea was so great that even the servants saw what Ezekiel the prophet never saw. And Ezekiel saw a lot! “The Heavens opened up and I saw visions of the Almighty on His throne” (Ezekiel 1:1) (Talmud).
(9) The greatest miracle of all: The Egyptians follow the Jews into the sea! How could they be so foolish? Don’t you know a miracle when you see one?? The answer is that when someone has a predetermined conception (i.e. “it must be a quirk of nature”), he doesn’t change by just observing a few miracles.
(10) At sunrise, the pillar of cloud returns to the front of the camp, and the pillar of fire comes down on the Egyptians, making them very hot! The wheels of the Egyptian chariots melt, and the horses – seeing visions of female mares – continue racing into the sea, making the Egyptian’s stomachs feel like “milk shakes” (Exodus 14:25) (Midrash).
(11) The Egyptians finally proclaim: “It is God who is fighting for them [the Jews] in Egypt” (Exodus 14:25). The Egyptians now feel the full power of God and are able to comprehend retroactively that it wasn’t nature or magic, but the Divine Power all along. It’s worthwhile to get this realization even a few minutes before death! (Rabbi Avigdor Miller)
(12) God instructs Moses to wave his staff over the sea, and the waters return to cover the Egyptians (Exodus 14:26).
“The Israelites saw Egypt die at the shore of the sea.” (Exodus 14:30)
Question: Didn’t the Egyptians die in the sea? Why does the verse say “at the shore”?
Answer: God didn’t want the Egyptians to think that the Jews were drowning, too, nor for the Jews to think that the Egyptians are coming out the other side. So the sea expelled the drowning Egyptians when they were 99 percent dead. Each Egyptian landed in front of the Jew who he’d beaten up the most. He looked up to see the Jew, and then died (Midrash).
(13) The only survivor, again, was Pharaoh. God raised him into the air to clearly see his soldiers drowning. According to one opinion, Pharaoh later became the king of Nineveh, who repented in the times of Jonah. According to a second opinion, Pharaoh became the doorman of Purgatory who asks all the wicked anti-Semites: “Why didn’t you learn a lesson from me?” (Midrash)
THE MIRACLE OF THE SPLITTING OF THE SEA
Question: Can’t we naturally explain the miracles? Maybe it was low and high tide? (As if the Egyptians didn’t have a tide table.) Or a passing comet caused a magnetic pull that split the sea?
Answer: Even if you could explain it in scientific terms, the timing would still be miraculous. Imagine buying an alarm clock and finding that the button to set the alarm is missing. But the clock still works, and surprisingly it rings every day – at the exact time you want to get up! You open the clock and find a mini computer programmed to set off the alarm at precisely those times. Was there no miracle here? How did the computer know your schedule? So too, exactly when the Egyptians entered the sea – high tide! Haley’s comet! What a miracle! (heard from Rabbi D. Gottlieb)
THE SONG OF THE SEA
“The people feared God and believed in Him.” (Exodus 14:31)
Question: Doesn’t belief come before fear?
Answer: We are not talking about simple belief (“Hey, God, are You really there?”), but the vivid conception of reality that they perceived at the sea (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe).
“The people simultaneously sang this praise to the Lord.” (Exodus 15:1)
The women brought tambourines from Egypt in anticipation of God’s miracles.
In the song, the Egyptians are compared to lead, stone and straw. According to one opinion, the worst Egyptians died quicker: The wicked sank like lead, the mediocre ones sank like stone, and the “good” ones sank most slowly, like straw.
According to a second opinion, the best Egyptians died quicker: The good ones sank fast like lead, the mediocre like stone, and the wicked sank like straw – to suffer longer, for making the Jews suffer so much.
The “Song of the Sea” makes frequent reference to the Temple of the Lord. The tremendous revelations at the Red Sea, and later at Mount Sinai, were continued later in the Holy Temple where God’s Presence rested permanently (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe).
All the nations heard of the miracle. They trembled out of fear and awe of God, especially the Phllistines – whose hearts melted at the thought of the Jews taking back their ancient homeland (Exodus 15:14).
AFTERMATH OF THE SEA
Every morning, the tide would carry up more and more chariots studded with diamonds and precious stones, to the delight of the Jews. They reaped more riches at the sea than when they left Egypt. (Midrash)
With all the wealth pouring in, Moses had to force them to leave the sea!
The Jews travel for 3 days without water (not even Coca Cola), and start to complain (Exodus 15:22). It’s one thing to see open miracles, but to believe that God can provide daily needs still requires faith! In Marah, the water is bitter and Moses throws in a stick to make it sweet.
God promised never to bring upon the Jews the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 15:26). That’s why in the Passover Haggadah there is a big argument about how many plagues struck Egypt. Asks the Vilna Gaon, “Who cares? Isn’t it all over with?” The answer: The more the Egyptians got, the less we’ll get – since God promised never to bring upon the Jews the plagues of Egypt!
The Jews receive food from Heaven. What did it taste like? Anything you wanted – strawberry sundae, sirloin steak, spaghetti and meatballs. Wow!
But the people still complained: Eating was now less fun because it became an intellectual experience – you had to imagine all the food!
No matter how much or how little a person gathered of the Manna, s/he always ended up with the same amount as everyone else. On Friday, the people got double portions (unknown to them at the time), because on Shabbat there was no Manna.
Lesson #1: God provides all our needs, and all we do is make the effort.
Lesson #2: Shabbat is a bonus. A person’s income is all decreed on Rosh Hashana, but the expenditures for Shabbat and holidays is separate from this amount, and is reimbursed from Above (Talmud).
THE WELL OF MIRIAM
Moses hits a rock in front of the elders, and they receive a portable well (in the merit of Miriam) that accompanies them for 40 years. There is so much water that the people need rowboats to visit each other (Midrash).
The nations were scared upon hearing of the splitting of the sea. The Jews were such hot stuff that they could have just walked into Israel without a battle. The archenemy of God and the Jews, Amalek, couldn’t take it. Although he was not being threatened, he went out of his way to attack the Jews – to demonstrate to the entire world that they are not invincible and you can resist them.
Amalek lost the battle, but “cooled off” the Jews. The fool who jumps into the steaming tub – even though he gets scalded – cools it off for others.
Courtesy of Amalek, the Jews must now must fight battles to enter the land. The Jews subsequently send spies who give a bad report (in a later Parsha), and then have to wander in the desert 40 years. Moses hits a rock again and doesn’t enter the land. The entire course of Jewish history is effected by Amalek. Thus we are commanded to eradicate the memory of Amalek for all times.
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