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Splitting of the Red Sea

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This week’s Torah reading is “Beshalach” (Exodus 13:17–17:16), and it we read about the most spectacular miracle in the entire Bible: the splitting of the Red Sea.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

The splitting of the sea took place seven days after the Jewish people left Egypt, which corresponds to the seventh day of Passover. Although Pharaoh decided to allow the Jews to leave Egypt while the 10th and final plague was taking place, the death of the firstborn, it seems that he quickly changed his mind. He scrambled his army of chariots together and went after the Jews.

When the Jews saw the Egyptians quickly approaching, they panicked and cried out to Moses. Moses turned to God in prayer, and God instructed him to raise his staff. We are told that God sent a “strong eastern wind,” which caused the waters of the Red Sea to part. The Jews walked through the now-parted sea to the other side. Then God sent a cloud to prevent Pharaoh’s army from pursuing the Jews people.

Only after the people were safely across on the other side did the cloud that was blocking the Egyptians depart, allowing them to enter the sea bed and chase after the Jews. When the entirety of Pharaoh’s army had entered the sea bed, the waters came crushing down on the Egyptians, and the rest is history.

A lesser-known teaching is that when the Jews saw the approaching Egyptian army, they were divided into four different schools of thought. There were those who said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” A second group said, “Let us return to Egypt.” A third group suggested, “Let us wage war against the Egyptians,” and a fourth group advocated praying for a solution.

While all the debate was taking place, one man, Nachshon, the prince of the tribe of Judah, jumped into the sea in full faith that God would save His people. He reckoned that God would not have taken the Jewish people this far just to be killed by Pharaoh’s army, and since the only conceivable way to safety was forward, he did just that. It was at this time that the sea split, and the entire nation followed suit.

The Mishna (rabbinic literature) tells us that there were 10 miracles that occurred at the crossing of the Red Sea in addition to the actual splitting. For example, the sea didn’t merely split, but it split into 12 different lanes in order for each tribe to cross in its own lane. The waters of the sea formed a canopy over the heads of the Jewish people. The sea bed ground that they walked on was dry and warm, a stream of sweet drinking water was available for the people to drink while walking across the sea, and different types of fruit such as apples, oranges, and plums miraculously became available on the walls of the water for the people to take.

We are told that the entire world was able to see the miracle of the crossing of the sea as the events were reflected in the clouds. Prophecy and Godliness was everywhere. “What a maidservant saw on the sea, the prophet Ezekiel did not see in his Divine visions.”

After the waters returned to the sea and drowned the Egyptians, the Jewish people sang what is known as “Shirat Hayam” – Song of the Sea – a song of praise and gratitude to God for their rescue. This song was incorporated into the daily prayer service and continues to be recited every day of the year in the course of the morning service.

The Sabbath of Song

This week, the Shabbat on which this song is included as part of the Torah reading, is known as “Shabbat Shira” – the Shabbat of Song. It is also read as part of the Torah reading service on the seventh day of Passover, the day on which the crossing actually occurred. It is sung in a festive tune, and the congregation rises for the reading.

The question is frequently asked: Did Pharaoh accompany his army when they went after the Jewish people? Did he drown along with them? Was he killed?

According to one approach, Pharaoh died along with his army. However, most other sources favor the interpretation that Pharaoh was not physically harmed in the ordeal and was kept alive specifically in order to witness the power of God.

Furthermore, we are told that he eventually made his way to Nineveh, becoming the king of Nineveh. When Jonah was sent by God to deliver a message to the King of Nineveh that the people must repent or face Divine wrath, it was the king, our Pharaoah, who led the repentance movement. It seems he learned his lesson!

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