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The Amphibian Soul

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And the children of Israel walked on dry land within the sea.

Exodus 14:29

Everything that exists on land has its counterpart in the sea.

Talmud, Chullin 127a

Land and sea mirror each other, yet they are vastly different worlds. Both are life-supporting environments, providing sustenance and protection to a myriad of creatures. Both are complex ecosystems, complete with the great variety of minerals, vegetation and animals which form a “food chain” and multi-runged ladder of life. But despite their similarities, land and sea are different in many ways, particularly in the manner in which the creatures who populate them relate to their environment.

Our sages have said that “man is a miniature universe,”[1] a microcosm of the entire created existence. The human being thus includes both these worlds—man has both a terrestrial and an aquatic aspect to his life.

The Secret of the Deep

Creatures of the land are to be found upon the land. Some species burrow under for a certain part of the day or year, and there are even species which rarely, if ever, show themselves above ground; but on the whole, land creatures live their lives on the surface of the earth. In fact, there is nothing to pre­vent them from severing all direct contact with the land for extended periods of time (20th-century man has all but done so).

Not so the creatures of the sea: they live submerged within their environment. And for most sea-dwelling animals, this submersion is a matter of life and death—a fish out of water is not only a creature out of its element, but a creature who cannot survive more than a short while.

Of course, the creatures of the land are no less dependent upon the land than their sister creatures of the sea are dependent upon the sea—without the land and its resources a land ani­mal could not live. The difference lies in how this truth is reflected in their day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and minute-to-minute existence. With the sea creature, this dependence is constant and obvious. The sea animal cannot separate itself from its sustaining environ­ment; its life and its life-source are inexorably bound together.[2] The land creature, on the other hand, can receive its nourish­ment from the earth and then forget about it, even deny it. Conceivably, a land creature can live an entire lifetime without acknowledging, or in any way demon­strating, from where its sustenance is derived.

This is the significance of the “land” and “sea” personalities within man. There is a part of man that is disconnected from his purpose and source: a “land” self that is oblivious to the fact that his soul is a “spark of G-d above,”[3] that he is granted life anew, each and every moment of time, by his Creator, that his existence has meaning only in the context of its role in the divine purpose. A “land” self that defines its existence in the narrow terms of personal ego and its individual desires and as­pirations.

But man also possesses a “sea” persona—a spiritual self which transcends ego and individuality to attune its every deed and thought to the higher goals for which he was created. When this self is manifest, nothing about the person is distinct from his connection to his source; like a fish in water, his every living moment is an attestation to his utter dependence upon, and devotion to, his source of nourishment and life.

The Kabbalistic masters tell us that there are tzaddikim (righteous individuals) who live their entire lives as “fishes of the sea,” wholly submerged within a perpetual awareness of and subjugation to the divine reality. Such an individual was Moses, whose name expresses the “aquatic” nature of his soul (“And she called his name Moses and said: Because I drew him from the water”[4]). Thus the Torah attests that “Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth.”[5] Moses was certainly aware of his own greatness; certainly he knew that he was the single human being chosen by G-d to serve as the conveyor of His wisdom and will to man. Yet Moses did not view his qualities as his “own” attainments, for he had utterly nullified and submerged his self within the sea of the divine reality. His own life was merely the divine plan being realized through an egoless vehicle; his teachings, the “Divine presence speaking from his throat.”[6]

Land Fish

This is not to say that our “terrestrial” self—our sense of identity and individuality—is to be uprooted or suppressed. Selfhood is not, in and of itself, a negative trait; it is only that, left to its own devices, it is prone to develop some very negative attributes. If a person fails to develop an “aquatic” consciousness and behavior—if he loses sight of the source and goal of life—his self is sure to turn selfish, identity translating into self-centeredness and individuality becoming disconnectedness and rootlessness.

Only when we have submerged ourselves within the sea of the divine reality can we exploit our ego as the positive force it inherently is. Only then can we properly harness our unique worth as an individual to optimally realize our mission in life.

This is the ideal expressed in Jacob’s blessing to his grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim—

“They shall swarm as fish[7] in the midst of the land.”[8]

The ultimate challenge for man is not only to be a “fish,” but to be a fish “in the midst of the land.”

Therein lies the deeper significance of the splitting of the Red Sea seven days after our Exodus from Egypt. In recounting the miracle, the Torah describes the children of Israel as “walking on dry land within the sea.” Following our redemption—in both the physical and spiritual sense—from Egypt and its pagan culture, we were empowered to “walk on dry land” as distinct and unique beings, and at the same time walk “within the sea”—immerse ourselves within the sea of the all-embracing, all-pervading, universal truth of truths.

Our sages tell us that the splitting of the Red Sea was but the first step of a process that spans the whole of our history; that the song which Moses and Israel sang upon traversing the sea is but the first stanza of a song that culminates in the era of Moshiach, the end-goal of creation.[9] The splitting of the sea was the precedent that enables and directs our centuries-long quest for that perfect synthesis of land and sea which will be fully realized in the messianic age, when  “The land shall be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the sea.”[10]

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Sukkot 5721 (1960), Shabbat Yitro 5725 (1965), and on other occasions[11].

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

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[1]. Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3.

[2]. A sea-creature’s utter identification with its environment is also reflected in a ruling of Torah law. When a person immerses in a mikvah to attain ritual purity, nothing must interpose between him and the mikvah’s waters; if the slightest particle of any substance adheres to his body, the immersion is invalid. Yet this rule does not apply to anything which grows in water; the body of a fish, for example, or any product thereof, is not considered an “interposition” (chatzitzah) but an integral part of the waters themselves.

[3]. Job 31:2; Tanya, ch. 2.

[4]. Exodus 2:10.

[5]. Numbers 12:3.

[6]. Zohar, part III, 232a.

[7]. Ve’yidgu, from the word dag, “fish.”

[8]. Genesis 48:16.

[9]. See Talmud, Sanhedrin 91b; Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 10.

[10]. Isaiah 11:9.

[11]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XX, p. 172; vol. XI, p. 76. See Likkutei Torah, Tzav 14b ff.

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