Why did the sea split? The tall tale of the Midrash

Rabbi Eliezer Barany

The Written Torah outlines the exodus from Egypt in Parshat Beshalach, but the midrashim surrounding such an already astonishing event add grandeur to this momentous moment.  Shemot Rabbah (21:6) tells of one of said tall tales:

Hashem instructs Moshe to lift his staff over the sea and split it.  Moshe responded, “You commanded me to split the sea, but doesn’t it say in Yirmiyahu (5:22) that you set the sand as a boundary to the sea?  And behold, you have sworn to never split it!”  (Rebbe Eliezer HaKapar stated this is what Moshe said, “Didn’t you say that the sea would never be dry?  As it says, “You commanded me to split the sea, but doesn’t it say in Yirmiyahu (5:22)” and it says “Who closed the sea behind doors. (Iyov 38:8).)  Hashem responds, “You didn’t read from the beginning of the Torah (Bereshit 1:9) where it says that I gathered the water below the sky.  I am the one who prescribed such a collection, so too I made a deal with the sea from the beginning that I would split it, as it says (Shemot 14:27) “At daybreak the sea returned to its strength/normal prescription, to the normal prescription that I prescribed from the beginning.”  Immediately Moshe understood and went to split the sea, and since he went to split the sea, he did not merit being split himself.  The sea responds to Moshe, “For you (Moshe) I am going to split?  I am greater than you because I was created on the third day and you were created on the sixth day.”  When Moshe heard this, he left and told Hashem that the sea does not want to be split.  What did Hashem do?  He took his right side and put it on the right side of Moshe, as it says (Yeshayahu 63:12) “Who made his glorious arm march at the right hand of Moshe, who divided the waters before them to make Himself a name for all time.”  Immediately the sea saw Hashem and fled, as it says (Tehilim 114:3) “The sea saw and fled.”  What did the sea witness?  The sea observed that Hashem put his right hand on Moshe and was unable to prevent the sea being split and fled immediately.  Moshe then asked the sea, “For what reason did you flee?”  The sea said, “Due to the God of Yaakov, because of the awe of the holy one, the source of blessing.”  Immediately since Moshe lifted his staff on the sea, it split, as it says (Shemot 14:21) “The waters were split.”

Facing the face value of the Midrash

The Midrash Rabbah details a fantastic narrative between Moshe, Hashem, and the Yam Suf.  A casual glance reveals that this passage cannot be taken literally.  People do not speak to the waters, or certainly, the seas do not respond.  Seas do not have emotions, nor do they calculate comebacks.  However, if that were not enough to force the reader to understand such a passage in a non-literal sense, certainly its internal contradictions will require the reader to see that the author intended for a lesson to be learned from such a fable.  

To name a few of the contradictions (in order of appearance), Moshe quotes from the book of Yirmiyahu, who had not been alive at the time.  Additionally, the gemara explains (TB Baba Basra 15a) that Yirmiyahu wrote the book himself.  Perhaps one could claim that Moshe knew all of Tanach, even before Mount Sinai, however this very Midrash points to the fact that he did not.   Hashem quoted from the very beginning of Bereshit, something Moshe himself transcribed later in time.  The next contradiction appears when Hashem sends Moshe to split the sea.  The sea does not listen!  Did Hashem not know that this would be the sea’s response?  Certainly the reader wouldn’t claim the author of this Midrash denoted a lack of knowledge to Hashem.  Additionally, despite the fact that Hashem made a deal with the sea, apparently the sea didn’t remember.  So from all avenues it is clear that such an account cannot be taken in a literal manner.  So what can we learn from such a tall tale?

Examining the case

Let us begin by examining some of the peculiarities involved.  Moshe debates Hashem because he doubts the power of the almighty.  He does not believe that it is within the power of Hashem to split the sea.  Hashem could have responded that He set the sea, so He can unset it.  However, that is not the case.  Rather, He responds that He initially set the sea to be split at this time.  This response somehow allows Moshe to accept the mission.  Was he not already aware that Hashem created the world?  

Moshe then goes to split the sea.  In conversing with the sea, Moshe is informed that sea will not split for him, as the sea was formed on the third day of creation and Moshe was created on the sixth day of creation.  Moshe turns to Hashem and relays this impossibility.  What was Hashem’s response?  Hashem could have done a number of things.  He could have told the sea to split for Moshe, or He could have said that the sea was wrong, etc.  However, as the Midrash itself inquires, “What was Hashem’s response?” as clarifying the exact response in the narrative is crucial to understanding the story.  Hashem chose instead to accompany Moshe, as it were, to the splitting of the sea by metaphorically strengthening the right arm of Moshe.  As a result, the sea split for Hashem, not for Moshe.  As we pointed out earlier, this interaction cannot be taken literally.  

Putting the pieces together

Let us begin to piece together this piecemeal.  First, we can see that Hashem did not respond that the sea was incorrect.  This response teaches us a fundamental lesson in regards to Moshe, and to how man relates to the world.  As evidenced from the beginning of the Midrash, Moshe’s lack of knowledge stemmed from not being around during the time of creation (he was created after the sea was created).  As a result, a miracle in the eyes of Moshe seemed to imply that Hashem would be changing his mind as to how the world should be run.  

Hashem’s response was that it was always the plan to split the sea at this moment.  As such, the sea only had the physical property of conforming to its natural habitat, so the sea was merely unable to split.  And it retorts, how can man even think it can have the power to create a miracle and exert dominance over the nature of the sea when man wasn’t even around during the forming of the sea?  Hashem does not respond that the sea is wrong; rather the Midrash points out that the causative force which controls nature must be Hashem, the creator of the very laws.   Hashem was certainly aware that Moshe would be unable to split the sea himself, rather, Moshe must confront such a predicament himself.  Man must face the reality that we do not control the world, rather, it is Hashem who has the power.

Lesson to Learn

We can learn a powerful lesson from this as man approaches life.  Many attribute supernatural powers to items and people; this Midrash directly opposes such a notion.  It is only due to the fact that, “He took his right side and put it on the right side of Moshe,” as it were, that Moshe was able to choreograph the splitting of the sea.  It is only Hashem that is able to alter the laws of nature, that without intervention, such a magnanimous event could not occur.

Why now?

This message was crucial at this moment in time as opposed to during the ten plagues, which had just preceded this incident, as the splitting of the sea was witnessed by the entirety of the Jewish people and the Egyptian army.  They saw Moshe lift his staff and the sea immediately split, as both the Torah and the Midrash point out.  One message could erroneously be understood that Moshe was seen to have power.  However, this Midrash is teaching us that Hashem caused the rift, not Moshe.  This can also explain the “threat” found in the Midrash where had Moshe not split the sea, he would have been split.  Meaning this action solidified the leadership of Moshe in the eyes of the people at that moment in time, and had he not done this action, the leadership of Moshe would have been split; it would have crumbled.  

Further, one could err and imagine a picture of the people with their backs to the wall, or the sea, as the Egyptians chased them.  As such, the splitting of the sea could be seen as a last minute act, hastily carried out.  However, as the Midrash notes (and as can be seen in the pesukim that such an event was foretold), it was always the plan.  

Thus we see that in a short story, Chazal were able to impart three fundamental messages to the people that one would be able to absorb even without understanding the details of the Midrash.  

First of all, Hashem doesn’t change his mind.  This is such a fundamental concept, as aside from the fact that if he were to change his mind that would mean he lacks complete oneness, so too if he changes his mind that would mean that he was lacking knowledge, and once he has received new knowledge, he has made a different decision.  This cannot be the case, as he is omniscient, as the Midrash points out.  

The second is that Hashem has complete control over the laws of nature.  He created the laws, so He is the one to be able to modify or alter them.  We may build a damn to hold back water, but we are working within the realm of the laws of nature.  Only God is able to split the water with no barrier.  

Finally, man and objects do not contain power; only Hashem has the true power.  Even Moshe, the greatest prophet of Israel was unable to suspend the laws of nature.