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Walls of Water

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by Ari Sollish

And the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.
Exodus 14:22 and 14:29

On the 21st day of Nissan in the year 2448 from Creation (1313 bce), the young Jewish nation met with their first communal crisis. Seven days earlier, G-d had “extracted a nation from the bowels of a nation”[1] by pressuring Pharaoh to release the Children of Israel from the shackles of bondage that had oppressed them for the past 210 years in Egypt. But Pharaoh had since reconsidered his decision to let the Jews go, and now, after a furious chase, he and his army had successfully cornered them at the Red Sea. There was no escape.

The Children of Israel cried to Moses, who in turn pleaded with G-d on their behalf. The response? A command: “Go! Move forward!” One man, Nachshon Ben Aminadav from the tribe of Judah, took heed of G-d’s call and jumped into the sea. When he began to drown,[2] Moses raised his staff above the sea and G-d miraculously parted its waters, thus allowing the Children of Israel passage on the dry seabed. When the Jewish people were safely out of the water, Moses once again lifted his staff, this time sending the full force of the waves crashing down on the Egyptians. This act finally ended the Egyptian slavery and brought closure to this painful chapter in Israel’s history.

It is in commemoration of this miracle—known as “keriyat Yam Suf – the parting of the Red Sea”—that we celebrate every year with Shevi’i Shel Pesach (the seventh day of Passover) and Acharon Shel Pesach (the eighth and final day of Passover).

While many of us are familiar with the Torah’s account of the splitting of the sea, few are aware of the fierce battle waged in the heavens that ultimately determined the fate of the Jews and the Egyptians.

On the verse, “And the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left,” the Midrash relates that just as the Jewish people were about to cross the sea, the celestial angels appeared before the heavenly court, challenging the events that were about to transpire. “Why,” they demanded, “should the Children of Israel be spared from the sea and the Egyptians fall victim to it? Both nations are equally guilty of idol worship!” The Midrash continues: “In which merit was Israel saved? ‘On their right and on their left’: ‘on their right,’ in the merit of the Torah that they would accept, as it says, ‘From His right hand He presented the Fiery Torah to them’; and ‘on their left,’ this is [the merit of] tefillah (prayer).”[3] In other words, Torah and tefillah were the two merits that acted as a “wall,” protecting the Jewish people on either “side” from being likened to—and thus destroyed with—the Egyptians.

But why were two merits necessary? From an anecdote in the Talmud it would seem that Israel’s acceptance of the Torah alone should have provided sufficient merit to distinguish between Jew and Egyptian. The Talmud states that of all the nations to whom G-d offered His Holy Torah, only the Children of Israel accepted every word unconditionally.[4] Thus, at Mount Sinai, G-d reciprocated Israel’s “choice” by proclaiming them His “chosen nation,” forever setting Jew apart from non-Jew.[5] So if the Jews were “chosen” based on their acceptance of the Torah, why was the second merit of prayer necessary to justify their deliverance at the sea?

“Freedom” in two acts

Like most liberating experiences, the Exodus did not occur in an instant. Two unique steps were required to transform a band of slaves into a nation of free men.

The first step occurred on the 15th day of Nissan, the day Pharaoh ordered the Jews to leave the Land of Egypt. On that day, the Children of Israel experienced freedom in the most literal sense of the word—their bodies physically left the borders of Egypt. However, although they had left Egypt, Egypt had not left them. Psychologically and emotionally they were still enslaved—they thought and felt like slaves, for the roots of more than two centuries of slavery could not be destroyed by merely transplanting them to another land. No, they needed to experience something that would shake them to their very core, something that would purge any remaining residue of Egypt. This experience came seven days later, at the “parting of the sea.”

Keriyat Yam Suf accomplished what no simple turn of a key could: it freed their minds and hearts, rousing them from their slavery-induced slumber that had prevented them from truly integrating the transformation their bodies had undergone days earlier.[6] When they saw their former taskmasters being plunged into the sea just moments after they had been spared from its abyssal grave, their freedom suddenly became a reality. No longer were they enslaved. No longer did they think or feel like slaves. And realizing this for the very first time, they rejoiced—and sang.[7]

Contemporary Hieroglyphics

Today, although there might not be a literal “Egypt” threatening our freedom, there exists a “quasi-Egypt” within each one of us and within society as a whole, an element that like the Egypt of old attempts to ensnare and enslave us. As the Sages state: “In every generation (and every single day) a person must regard himself as one who has personally come out of Egypt (today).”[8] Consequently, our focus must be to destroy this “Egypt,” and break free of its shackles.

What is this modern day “Egypt,” and how does it enslave us? On a personal level, “Egypt” is the multitude of thoughts, feelings, desires, and habits that run contrary to the Divine will. On a communal scale, “Egypt” is a society that promotes existentialism as a theology and selfishness as a way of life, while all but rejecting the notion of spirituality, selflessness, and a “higher purpose.”  Thus, every day our mission and mandate is “Exodus”—to forsake and disavow the “Egypt” that attempts to prevent us from accessing the wealth of spirituality that is our essence, and to reach a state of spiritual transcendence, a state in which we are able to comfortably express and actualize our spiritual yearnings.

But just as it was with the Exodus of thirty-three centuries ago, our personal modern exodus is similarly comprised of two distinct stages.

The first step in this journey—which corresponds to “physically” leaving our personal “Egypt”—is to affect behavioral change in our service of G-d. At this stage our personality is still intact, but the liberation has begun due to our change of behavior and attitude. Nonetheless, this is only freedom of a literal sort, for true freedom involves transcending our very nature, even our good habits. As long as our actions are an extension of our disposition, we are not truly free of our past. Complete exodus means freeing ourselves of the parameters of our own character and personality.

To better illustrate this, let us look at two individuals. One who is a thinker by nature, preferring quiet study to heated debate, might naturally feel more inclined to quench his spiritual thirst with Torah study, an intellectual activity that suits his strengths. Someone who is more passionate and emotionally charged, on the other hand, might prefer investing the majority of his energy into prayer, which our Sages have termed “service of the heart.”[9] Have these two individuals achieved a personal exodus? On the most external level, yes, for they are serving G-d. On a deeper level, however, they are still enslaved, for the amount of energy channeled to the mind and heart is determined by the individual’s nature, and not by what G-d wants, namely, a seamless synthesis of the two. Thus, their freedom is as of yet incomplete, for their minds and hearts are not equally and completely open to G-dly service.

The second and ultimate step in personal exodus is “keriyat Yam Suf,” when we free ourselves from our natural tendencies and dispositions, thus completely erasing every remaining trace of “Egypt” within us. Such freedom is demonstrated when we not only serve G-d, but also do so with equal measures of mind and heart, despite our natural propensity toward one or the other. We transcend our natural tendencies. Conducting our spiritual affairs in such a manner means that we have experienced complete exodus—“leaving Egypt” and witnessing the “parting of the sea.”[10]

Thus, the Midrash maintains that to experience the “parting of the sea,” the culmination of exodus when freedom illuminates even the deepest, darkest recesses of our being, requires both merits of Torah (mind) and prayer (heart), for it is only through serving equally in these two realms that we may touch upon the true meaning of freedom—freedom from our very nature.

Magic & Mirrors

In addition to concluding the exodus from Egypt, keriyat Yam Suf served another purpose: it paved the way for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.[11] And this too required Israel’s fusion of mind and heart.

When G-d gave the Torah to the Children of Israel on the sixth day of Sivan, He redefined reality. Until that moment in time, things were destined to remain stagnant—trapped, as it were, in their status quo. No one possessed the ability to truly “recreate” matter, the power to cause a qualitative shift in any given object. Sure, you could use a raw material such as wood to craft a table, but the table remains of the same quality (substance and matter) as the original, unprocessed wood—essentially all you have done is modify its form. All of this changed at Sinai. Mold animal hide into the black boxes of tefillin, said G-d, and you have not just reshaped the original leather, you have now recreated it as a holy object, with specific rules governing its treatment. Fashion tzitzit from ordinary wool, and the wool is now infused with an acute measure of holiness. The same is true with the citron we use as an etrog on Sukkot, and with the matzah we eat on Passover. Any physical object that is used in the performance of a mitzvah is transformed from mundane to divine, the ultimate in qualitative transformation. Indeed, this is the purpose for which we were given the Torah and mitzvot at Sinai: to transform matter into spirit. We take the world on its most material, base state, and transform it into a channel for Divine energy.

But how is that possible? How can an ordinary object transform into something spiritual, if “physical” and “spiritual” are polar opposites? The truth is, it can’t. But then again, it doesn’t have to. For at the core of every created entity lies a spark of the Creator, a spark that is as genuinely G-dly as the loftiest of souls and the most supernal of angels. The material facade need only fade, and what remains is the pure expression of divine will, thought and speech that is ready to unite once again with her Originator. This, then, is the power of mitzvot. When we utilize something in the act of a mitzvah, we are essentially stripping away the object’s trivial, material shell, and instead demonstrating its role in the implementation of G-d’s Will.

This is the deeper significance of the parting sea. Metaphorically speaking, the natural state of being is “sea”: the divine energy that enlivens every creature is buried and hidden deep within the mask of materialism, much like the literal sea conceals the life that is submerged within its depths. At keriyat Yam Suf, though, the sea split—the smoke and mirrors of materiality disappeared momentarily, and all that was left to see was the “master illusionist” Himself. Nonetheless, keriyat Yam Suf was merely the first step, for no real permanent changes occurred—the miraculous transformation in nature lasted only temporarily. What it did accomplish, however, was to pave the way for the revelation at Sinai, where every single Jew was granted the ability to access the spiritual spark within physicality and affect a permanent change on any object used in the performance of a mitzvah.

The Chassidic masters explain that before anything transpires in the macrocosmic world, it must first occur within the microcosm of man.[12] Thus, in order for the sea to split, in order for the divine spark of creation to become manifest, the Children of Israel had to first uncover the G-dly soul within themselves.

How does one reveal his soul? When one’s spiritual service transcends his nature, for the capacity of transcendence stems exclusively from the soul, which like its source is limitless and not bound by any “nature.” Thus, the Midrash maintains that before the sea parted, before G-dliness revealed its face within creation, the Jewish people required both merits of Torah (mind) and prayer (heart), the dual service that is the litmus test of one who has tapped into his soul and reached beyond his natural proclivities. And once Israel’s soul became manifest, the rest of creation followed suit.

Living the Future

The third Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel,[13] once remarked that the first two days of Passover celebrate the exodus from Egypt, while the last two days of Passover celebrate the Geulah, the Final Redemption. Thus, the splitting of the sea and the ultimate Redemption are intimately intertwined.

The Final Redemption is the ultimate embodiment of the transformation of materiality experienced at keriyat Yam Suf and Mount Sinai, for it is then that our physical senses will actually perceive the G-dliness inherent in creation. And like the G-dly manifestation of keriyat Yam Suf and Sinai, this too is dependent upon Israel’s divine service.

The implication is a powerful one. Sometimes we look at the world around us and doubt if things will really change for the better. Certainly, we think, we cannot change the world. What we must remember is the lesson of keriyat Yam Suf: that the key to “parting the sea” and producing global change lies in our hands. All it takes is for us to “split” our own “sea,” to rouse our soul from its slumber and allow its flame to illuminate our life, and the world automatically becomes a better place—a place with greater light. This, then, is the catalyst for the ultimate “splitting of the sea,” the complete and Final Redemption, when spirituality will be manifest in creation so that “all flesh together will see”[14] the divine tapestry woven throughout mankind and the universe.

Based on an address of the Rebbe given Shabbat Parshat Beshalach 5723 (1963)[15]

 


[1] Deuteronomy 4:34.

[2] Mechilta, Shemot 14:22.

[3] Ibid. 14:29.

[4] Avodah Zarah 2b.

[5] Cf. Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 60:4—“When one says [in the prayers before the Shema] ‘And You have chosen us [from among all nations and tongues],’ one should recall the giving of the Torah.

[6] Moreover, had the Jewish people not experienced complete inner freedom of their minds and hearts, they would have been susceptible to returning to the slavery that was still so much a part of them. Cf. Mechilta, Shemot 14:13, which states that as Israel stood at the sea, one of the four opinions as to what should be done was “to return to Egypt.”

[7] Shirat HaYam—the Song at the Sea, Exodus 15:1-19.

[8] Talmud, Pesachim 116b; Passover Haggadah. The words in parentheses are added by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe, 1745-1812) in his magnum opus, Tanya, beginning of chapter 47.

[9] Talmud, Taanis 2a.

[10] Just as we explained previously regarding the historical Exodus, similarly with the perpetual exodus: if one does not experience complete freedom, it is not just that he lacks this particularly lofty level, but more so, he risks falling back into the depths of his original “enslavement.”

[11] Torah Or, beginning of Maamar Ashira; Likkutei Torah, end of Parshat Tzav (Maamar veHeinif); Cf. Talmud, Pesachim 118a.

Taking the story of keriyat Yam Suf on its most literal level presents several difficulties:

A) If the sole purpose was to destroy the Egyptians, why did this punishment have to come through such unusual means—the sea parting, the sea collapsing, etc.—surely G-d could have just unleashed a lethal plague upon them?

B) We cannot say that the purpose of the sea splitting was to enable the Jewish people to traverse the Red Sea, for they exited on the same side of the sea as they entered!

C) What is the significance of the Torah telling us (twice!) that the water stood as a “wall,” “on their right and on their left”?

We are forced to conclude that there was a deeper force behind the entire episode, as is explained in the essay.

[12] As King Solomon says, “Also the world He placed in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). See Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar, Maamar veHaya Mispar Bnei Yisrael.

[13]. Known as the “Tzemach Tzedek” (1789-1866), from the title of his extensive halachic works.

[14] Isaiah 40:5.

[15] Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 966-973.

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