The Parting of the Sea

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by R. Yisrael Isser Herczeg

1) Shemos Rabbah 23:1 comments on the first verse of Shiras HaYam, “The Song of the Sea”:

“Then (אז) Moshe sang” (Shemos 15:1).[1]The entire phrase reads, אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל. This is the idea referred to in the verse, “Your throne has been affirmed since then (מאז); [You are eternal]” (Tehillim 93:2).[2]The entire verse reads, נכון כסאך מאז מעולם אתה. Rav Berechiah said in the name of Rabbi Avahu: [The verse implies,] although You are eternal, Your throne did not become established, nor were You known in Your world, until Your children said song. This is why it says, “Your throne has been affirmed since ‘then’.”

This is can be compared to a king who waged war and triumphed, and was made emperor. They told him, “Before you waged the war, you were king. Now we have made you emperor. What difference is there in the honor shown a king and the honor shown an emperor? A king stands on a platform [when he faces his people], while an emperor sits on a platform.”

Thus said Israel: The truth is, You exist after You created the world just as You existed before You created the world, but You were – so to speak – standing, as it says, “He stood and measured out the earth” (Habakkuk 3:6). But once You stood at the sea and we said song before You with the word “then” (אז), Your sovereignty is established and Your throne is affirmed. Hence, “Your throne is affirmed since then” means, through “then Moshe sang.”

This midrash requires explanation. How are we to understand the imagery of God sitting and standing? And why was it specifically with the word “then” of the Song at the Sea that God’s throne was affirmed?

2) “Moshe stretched his hand forth over the sea, and Hashem churned the sea with a strong east wind all night, and He made the sea into dry land, and the waters split” (Shemos 14:21).

The end of this verse seems unnecessarily wordy. Why does it say, “He made the sea into dry land, and the waters split”? It would have been just as clear had the verse said, “He made the sea into dry land, and it split.” “The waters” seems superfluous.

Rashi, based on the Mechilta, deals with this question. He explains that the apparently superfluous “the waters” teaches us that at the time of the Parting of the Sea, all the water in the world split. What the Mechilta and Rashi do not tell us is why this happened. What need was there for all of the water in the world to split?

3) “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so” (Bereishis 1:9). The Baalei HaTosafos ask,[3]Tosafos HaShalem, vol. 1, pp. 40-41. what need was there for the God to say, “Let the dry land appear”? Once the waters collected into one place, the dry land would have appeared automatically even if God had not said anything more. The Baalei HaTosafos answer that with the words “let the dry land appear,” God alluded to the Parting of the Red Sea. The verse means, let the waters collect permanently into one place, but on the condition that they will part and let the dry land appear when Israel enters the sea.

This is an idea whose source is in Bereishis Rabbah 5:5: “The Holy One, Blessed Is He, made a condition with the sea [at the time it was created] that it should part before Israel.” God performed many miracles since He created the world. Why was it this one in particular that required a condition in Creation? To answer these questions, let us examine some of the qualities of the medium of the miracle of the Parting of the Sea – water.

 

The Nature of Water

The Hebrew Language, the Holy Tongue, is the language of Creation. The world was created through God’s ten statements in that language. The words of other languages relate to the objects they describe arbitrarily. They are composed of random sounds chosen by their original speakers to denote particular concepts. The words of the Holy Tongue reflect reality.[4]Indeed, according to Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzato, Leshon Limudim, introduction to section 2, and Rav Tzadok HaKohen, Or Zarua LaTzadik, in the chapter entitled Mahus Lashon HaKodesh (“The Essence of … Continue reading) They bespeak the essence of what they stand for. With this in mind, let us consider the Hebrew word for water, מים.

One unique quality of the Hebrew word for water is that it always appears in the plural.[5]See the Vilna Gaon’s comments in Aderes Eliyahu to Bereishis 1:9 for another explanation of why water is always expressed by a plural noun. While this is not true of the English word water, something of this quality is present there, too, in that we do not speak of “a water.” Rav Elie Munk writes[6]The Seven Days of the Beginning, Feldheim, 1974. that the word מים is the plural of the word מה, “what.” He notes that a similar relationship exists in English between the words “water” and “what,” in German between the words wasser and was, and in Latin between the words aqua and qua.[7]This observation is the key to understanding Rashi’s comment to Bereishis 36:39. The verse speaks of Hadar, king of Edom, and says that that the name of his wife was Mehetavel daughter of Matred, … Continue reading

Rav Munk writes that these two qualities of the word reflect fundamental qualities of water itself. The plural nature of the word indicates a multiplicity associated with water. Its relationship to the word for “what” indicates its formlessness, because “what” is the most fundamental word that connotes lack of identity. The formlessness and multiplicity associated with water both point to the fact that it is the basic element of Creation in the earthly realm. All things on earth either came out of water or came out of the earth, which itself emerged from the water. The multiplicity of water reflects its attribute of being the source of countless different things and its formlessness and absence of color reflect its being the raw element out of which other entities took shape. Water is associated with purity for it is a step closer to its Divine source than are the things that have emerged from it.

Rosh Milin[8]On the letter mem. notes that these ideas can be seen in the letter of the Hebrew alphabet that represents water, the letter mem, which can be spelled מים, the same as the word for water. When the letter mem is used as a prefix, it means “from.” It denotes something that is a source for something else, just as water is the source of the other earthly elements of Creation. It is also part of the plural suffix ים-. The sound of the letter mem suggests the formlessness of water in that it is the only letter whose sound is pronounced with the mouth completely closed. In this sense it is less formed than other letters.

 

Conditional Creation

We cited the Midrash above that says, “The Holy One, Blessed Is He, made a condition with the sea [at the time it was created] that it should part before Israel.” As we have noted, the Baalei HaTosafos find an allusion to this Midrash in the words of Scripture itself. To understand the need for a condition in Creation for this particular miracle, let us examine the halachic concept of performing an act conditionally.

The conventional wisdom, and indeed, the opinion of most rishonim (medieval commentators), is that failure to fulfill a condition renders an act invalid because of a lack of consent on the part of the parties doing the act. Take, for example, a transaction such as purchasing an object. In order for such a transaction to take effect, both the buyer and the seller must consent to it. If the buyer says to the seller, “I buy this object only on condition that you do such-and-such tomorrow,” if the seller does not fulfill the condition, the purchase does not take effect because the buyer does not consent to it. Fulfillment of the condition is thus the culmination of the transaction.[9]According to Rav Chaim Soloveichik of Brisk, (Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi, Hilchos Gerushin 8:13). the Rambam understands the dynamics of transactions made conditionally differently. (Why the … Continue reading

With this in mind we can begin to understand why God made a condition with the sea to part before Israel. For it was only when this took place and Israel sang out to God that Creation was completed. It was at this point that the formation of the Jewish soul was completed. From then on, the world was whole, with all of its components. Its evolution would progress through their perfection, not through the introduction of new types of entities.

And the Jewish soul was completed at “then Moses and the Children of Israel sang.” The Midrash, cited in Rashi, notes that the literal meaning of the Hebrew words אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל is, “Then Moses and the Children of Israel will sing.” The Midrash says that the verse is worded this way as an allusion to the Resurrection of the Dead.

The Resurrection of the Dead is the final stage of the world’s evolution. At that time the world will revert to the pristine state of purity that existed before the sin of Adam. There will be no tension between the spiritual and the material. Flesh will be as pure as spirit.[11]See Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Derech Hashem, Section I 3:9 and 4:2. Through the experience of the Parting of the Sea, the Jews rose to the level where they had the potential to achieve this state. The Midrash tells us that the revelations that even a slave woman saw at the Sea were more intense than those of the prophet Yechezkel. The Jewish people saw then their direct link to God. They saw that they are immortal.

So the Children of Israel were not merely coming out of the Sea of Reeds. They were the final component of the universe emerging from the primeval waters of Creation. And all of the water on earth split when they came forth.[12]Rashi to the verse תכתב זאת לדור אחרון ועם נברא יהלל יה, “Let this be recorded for a later generation, and a created people will praise God” (Tehillim 102:19) … Continue reading

Up to that point, the King stood on his platform. He was still engaged in the work of Creation. But then His subjects recognized the full extent of His dominion and crowned Him Emperor. At that point He sat down. His work was completed.

Rashi states the idea that the Parting of the Sea was the culmination of Creation in two places. II Shmuel 22:16 reads: “And the currents of the sea became visible; the foundations of the universe were laid bare.” Rashi comments, “The foundations of the universe were laid bare, for the depths parted when the Sea of Reeds parted, and all of the waters of the world parted.”[10]The identical verse appears in Tehillim 18:16. Rashi there makes a similar comment. Hence, according to Rashi, the Parting of the Sea and the accompanying parting of all of the water in the world was a revelation of the foundations of the universe. Similarly, Tehillim 114:3, describing the Parting of the Sea, says: “The Sea saw and it fled; the Jordan turned to the rear.” Rashi comments, “The Jordan turned to the rear, for all the waters of Bereishis (i.e., of Creation) parted.”

 

Endnotes

1The entire phrase reads, אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל.
2The entire verse reads, נכון כסאך מאז מעולם אתה.
3Tosafos HaShalem, vol. 1, pp. 40-41.
4Indeed, according to Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzato, Leshon Limudim, introduction to section 2, and Rav Tzadok HaKohen, Or Zarua LaTzadik, in the chapter entitled Mahus Lashon HaKodesh (“The Essence of the Holy Language”), this is why Hebrew is called the Holy Tongue. (See also Rav Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, Shiurei Daas, vol. 2, pp. 140-141, Feldheim, 5736.
5See the Vilna Gaon’s comments in Aderes Eliyahu to Bereishis 1:9 for another explanation of why water is always expressed by a plural noun.
6The Seven Days of the Beginning, Feldheim, 1974.
7This observation is the key to understanding Rashi’s comment to Bereishis 36:39. The verse speaks of Hadar, king of Edom, and says that that the name of his wife was Mehetavel daughter of Matred, daughter of Mei Zahav (מי זהב). The literal meaning of mei zahav is “waters of gold.” Rashi, based on Bereishis Rabbah 83:4, explains that the name is to be taken as מהו זהב, “What is gold?”, and implies that he was so wealthy that he did not attach significance to gold.

A superficial reading of this comment could leave the impression that it is some sort of play on words based on the similarity in sound between the words מי and מהו. But in light of Rav Munk’s observation, the connection is deeper than that, for even the word מי, “waters of,” is a form of the word for “what.”

8On the letter mem.
9According to Rav Chaim Soloveichik of Brisk, (Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi, Hilchos Gerushin 8:13). the Rambam understands the dynamics of transactions made conditionally differently. (Why the Rambam rejects the conventional view need not be dealt with here.) The vehicle by which any transaction is concluded is the “act of transaction” (maaseh kinyan). Consent and verbal agreement alone cannot bring about a transfer of ownership. The Torah institutes specific acts in different situations to formalize and effect such change. Without them, nothing has been done.

When the Torah gave people the power to make conditions, it gave them the ability to add components to the basic Torah-defined acts of transaction. For example, one of the acts by which a person acquires ownership of moveable property (to the exclusion of slaves and real estate) is hagbahah, lifting the object up. If the seller tells the buyer, “I sell you this object on the condition that you do such-and-such,” whatever “such-and-such” is becomes incorporated into the act of transaction. If the buyer then lifts up the object he wishes to buy, he has not yet acquired it because he has not yet consummated the act of transaction. That does not happen until he does “such-and-such” in addition to hagbahah.

Rav Chaim Soloveichik does not state this formulation explicitly, but it is implicit in his words. The Rambam rules that if someone divorces his wife on condition that she marry a certain man, and after she receives her bill of divorce she marries someone else, the divorce is invalid and any child born from her union with the second man is a mamzer. The Raavad in his glosses disagrees with this ruling, for it is possible that the woman’s marriage to her second husband will terminate through divorce or his death, and she may yet fulfill the condition of her divorce then by marrying the man specified in the stipulation. Rav Soloveichik defends the Rambam’s position by explaining that according to the Rambam, “Since she did something that put her in a position in which she is incapable of fulfilling the condition, this itself is considered a nullification of the condition and of the divorce.”

Rav Soloveichik’s words need further clarification. Although it is true that the woman is incapable of marrying the specified man while she is married to another, why is this an absolute nullification of the condition? Surely the Raavad is correct in saying that the possibility of fulfillment still exists.

Rav Soloveichik’s answer is understood if we say that from the time she receives the bill of divorce to the time she fulfills the condition, the woman is actively involved in the process of accepting her divorce. Any break in the process nullifies it permanently, because it can never come to culmination; its beginning – the woman’s receiving the bill of divorce – is severed from its end — the fulfillment of the condition. When a woman marries another man and actively puts herself in a position in which it is absolutely impossible for her to fulfill the condition even for a limited time, she cannot be said to be actively involved in the process of receiving her divorce. The process is thus severed irreparably and the divorce is invalid.

Rav Chaim’s conception of the dynamics of conditionality is also compatible with the explanation of the Midrash set forth here.

10The identical verse appears in Tehillim 18:16. Rashi there makes a similar comment.
11See Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Derech Hashem, Section I 3:9 and 4:2.
12Rashi to the verse תכתב זאת לדור אחרון ועם נברא יהלל יה, “Let this be recorded for a later generation, and a created people will praise God” (Tehillim 102:19) writes:

ועם נברא. שנעשה בריה חדשה לצאת מעבדות לחרות מאופל לאור גדול, “AND A CREATED PEOPLE. [A people] who became a new creation by emerging from slavery to freedom, from pitch-darkness to great light.”

About Yisrael Herczeg

Rabbi Yisrael Herczeg teaches at Sha'alvim for women. He is the translator of the ArtScroll Rashi, and the author and translator of several other books.

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