Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Beshalach
To dedicate this lesson
By the Seaside

Parashat Beshalah

Four Levels of Belief Splitting the Sea


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Four Levels of Belief
2. Splitting the Sea

"And God chose not to lead them by the way of the Land of the Plishtim, since it was close..." Our classic Torah commentaries note that the situation should have been just the opposite: since the path through the land of the Plishtim was so short, Hashem should have led the Jews in that direction on their way out of Egypt! To answer this question, the sages explain that God wished to ensure the fulfillment of the oath sworn by Avraham Avinu to Avimelech, King of the Plishtim, in which Avraham pledged that he would not chase the Plishtim out of the land; at the time of the exodus, the Plishtim still had some merit to their credit, and in order for them to be forced to leave the land, they would have had to already have "used up their reserve supply" of merit.

In light of the above, it seems that the Children of Israel can only be fully redeemed and settle in the Land when their enemies "use up" their own merits.
However, elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that there is yet another means by which the Jews will inherit the land. "Not because of your righteousness...but because of the evil of those nations [did you inherit the land]..." we are told. From the negative, we learn the positive - namely, that there are two ways in which one can inherit the land: as a result of the rejection of the non-Jews living there, who lose their grasp on the Land as a result of their wicked behavior - or alternatively, as a result of our own righteousness, our own merits. Our merits may, so to speak, "force" God to return us to our land, and to find another way - other than permitting the non-Jewish nations to live in Israel - to "pay off" any debt He owes, so to speak, to those nations.

The plagues on Egypt were basically lessons on Divine Providence; the message was directed towards the Jews, the Egyptians, and ultimately, to the entire world. The splitting of the Red Sea was really the final class in a series of lessons on the truth of Divine Providence in the world.

On the banks of the Red Sea, the Children of Israel had to finally put into action the newly-deepened belief in God that they were able to cultivate during the plagues. The nation - men, women and children - were now being relentlessly pursued by Pharaoh's entire army. It seemed hopeless: how could a slave nation, and especially its women and children - manage to survive a clash with these soldiers and chariots? This was a dead-end, and the nation of Israel now faced its greatest test of faith to date: Should they give up, or perhaps strive to act out of a deeper understanding of what was happening. Many were likely thinking to themselves: "We could have run away, even tricked Pharaoh, had an escape plan that would have not allowed him to catch up with us...So why in the end, did we go ahead and let him know we wished to go, ask him for his permission to leave his land?" These questions soon made them realize that the entire exodus was Divinely-directed; God wished to have Pharaoh's army reach the banks of the sea, in order to show the world His great hand, a hand that saves Israel from its pursuers - and ultimately avenges those that wish to do the Children of Israel harm.

Our sages teach that at the sea, the Jews were divisible into to four groups. There were those that wished to commit suicide - to jump into the sea; they thought that drowning would be preferable to a harsher, more violent death at the hands of the Egyptians. Regarding this group God says to Moshe: "Stand and see the redemption of Hashem."

There were also those Jews who wished to capitulate to the Egyptians, to retreat to the previous slavery arrangement, hoping that the Egyptians would have mercy on them, It is in regard to this group that God says, "After seeing Egypt today, you won't see them any more, forever."

Yet a third group wished to go to war with Egypt. These people thought that despite the fact that there was no hope of victory, "if we put in our effort, perhaps, with God's help, maybe - just maybe - we can overcome them. Regarding this sector, Moshe says, "God will fight your battle." A fourth element understood the military superiority of Egypt, and preferred to simply pray for God's help. Regarding this group, God said: "...and you will be silent."

Of the four divisions mentioned, the first two cases are basically Jews with religious problems; these are people oriented to resignation, giving up, who feel overwhelmed by difficulties that befall them. The last two groups, in contrast, exhibited two different levels of a more sophisticated belief. The third group believes in Divine aid taking hold once man has exerted his human efforts, in a war, for example. The fourth group represents the highest level of trust in God, in which the power of prayer alone guides the Jew and his service to God.

But the declaration: "Hashem will fight your battle, and you be silent," indicates that the last two groups as well, did not reach a level of belief appropriate to a generation that saw all of the divine signs and wonders that God showed Pharaoh in Egypt. Given what they had witnessed until now, complete faith in God should have been the order of the day - a trust that would have prompted all the Jews to anticipate a certain, God-directed redemption.

Our sages debated the question as to what merit the Jewish people possessed to make the sea split. Rabbi Bannai says that the sea split in the merit of Avraham, regarding whom it is said, "And he split the trees for the burnt offering.’ And here, in this week's portion, the Torah says, "The water split.’"

Others are of the view that the sea split in the merit of Yosef’s bones, which the Children of Israel were carrying with them at the time for burial in Eretz Yisrael. Regarding Yosef, it says: "And he fled [from the wife of Potiphar] and ran outside." In his merit, the Jewish people had the sea split, as it says: "The sea saw and it split."
Aside from the similarity of the words - i.e. the splitting of the trees and the splitting of the sea; the fleeing of Yosef and that of the sea, something deeper is at work here.

There is a lot to learn of Avraham Avinu’s splitting of his wood prior to the Akedah. Avraham could have said to himself: "I will surely find trees on the mountain, why if so, is there a need to hurry? And if I don’t find those trees, I won't be held responsible, but rather someone who was prevented from doing a mitzvah by circumstances beyond his control; in the end, then, I won't be held responsible for failing to sacrifice Yitzchak." Why, then, did Avraham already weigh himself down with the wood at this point in time?

Answer: The splitting of the wood by Avraham Avinu indicates that he had transcended his own nature, that of a father whose conscience cries out against, resists the sacrificing of a beloved son. Avraham Avinu sanctifies himself, to the point that he is able to overcome his most basic human, physical qualities. By doing this, he reveals a characteristic of the Children of Israel, a people which has in it the power to overcome the physical limitations of this world. When this level of kedusha or holiness exists, physical reality cannot stand up against it and prevent if from manifesting itself. Thus, in the merit of "the split the wood" for the binding of Yitzchak, the sea - defying nature - split.

Yosef Hatzaddik stood up daily against the ongoing temptations of the wife of Potiphar. As each day passed, the struggle became more and more intense. The situation was especially acute as Yosef continued to realize that his failure to respond positively to the advances of Potiphar’s wife may very well endanger him, as it eventually did! Perhaps Yosef could have argued to himself that responding would be permissible in order to avert such danger. Despite all this, he withstood the temptations, and in overcoming his natural human inclinations in this respect, he ran away from Potiphar’s wife. Doing this showed that he could transcend his physical human limitations, and allow the unique Jewish quality of holiness to shine through. The sea, too, like Yosef, therefore split, ran away, retreated.

This unique quality of the Jew is not visible to the naked eye. A Divine eye is required. Hashem, who sees into man’s heart, can see it. Even the ministering angels do not merit recognizing this quality. This is why the angels complain to the Creator when they see the fate meted out to the Egyptians: These [the Egyptians[ are idolaters and these [the Jews] are too; if so why do these people deserve to be saved more than these? But God is the one splitting the sea, ushering the Jews through the dry land, and drowning horse and soldier - all in order to illustrate to the entire world, the Jewish quality of enabling the spirit to overcome the physical, the holy, transcend the profane.
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