One would do well to wonder why it took the dividing of the sea for the Children of Israel to enter a state of wonderment. Surely the successive plagues visited upon Egypt — especially the plague of Darkness with its psychological implications — should have produced a similar reaction. How did the dividing of the sea, along with the concomitant journey of the Children of Israel on dry land between walls of water, differ from previous nature-defying phenomena?
Had modern-day road signs existed at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, it would have been reasonable to expect the Children of Israel to have been greeted with a billboard displaying the following message: “You are now leaving Egypt.” No better reassurance could have appeared before them, as they once again set foot on terra firma, after successfully traversing Yam Suf or the Sea of Reeds. As astounding as any and all of the plagues visited upon Egypt might have been, not one of the plagues delivered the expected results. It was only after the harrowing experience at the Yam Suf that the Children of Israel saw that G-d was good as His word. Humans do not like to be deceived, especially when their everyday existence is at stake. No doubt, the Children of Israel were astonished to witness the waters of Yam Suf defy nature. Much more important, however, the Children of Israel were relieved to learn that there was reason to believe in the G-d of Israel. It is one thing to ask for the trust of others; it is quite another thing to earn the trust of others. It was at Yam Suf where G-d earned the trust of the Children of Israel.
Many years ago, I attended a High Holy Day sermon seminar of a renowned rabbi, author of several bestsellers. He posited a concept that I summarily rejected. He maintained that the goal in life is to be happy. In the world as we know it, the goal in life for most of us is not just to be happy, but to see that justice prevails. And because of the need for right to triumph over wrong and for good to triumph over evil, there are those of us who are prepared to put ourselves through misery demanding that justice prevail. It was after crossing Yam Suf, seeing the corpses of Egyptians washed up on the shore, that our ancestors saw that justice had prevailed. And when the emotions of our ancestors got the better of them and they began to rejoice, they were quickly chastised by G-d. Reflecting on this divine reaction, I believe that G-d was intimating that the fact that justice was meted out to the Egyptian enslavers ought to have been enough. Extrapolating from our sages of the midrash, it was as though G-d was saying: “My children, if you must feel anything, feel vindicated. Under no circumstances, should you feel joyful.”
For some time, I have been expounding that the Exodus from Egypt should be seen as “creation redux.” This is why our rabbinic sages Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer take contradictory views regarding when the world was created. One sage maintained that the world was created in the month of Tishrei; the other sage maintained that the world was created in the month of Nissan. Both sages were correct. One sage was referring to the creation of the world; the other sage was referring to the creation of the Jewish nation. Moreover, parallels exist where the creation of the Jewish nation parallels or mirrors the creation of the world. First and foremost is the dividing of the waters. Just as G-d divided the upper waters from the lower waters — just as G-d effected a “vertical” separation during the creation of the world — so too did G-d create a “horizontal” separation during the creation of a nation. There was no one, however, to witness the primordial separation of waters. In contradistinction, there were 600,000 emancipated slaves able to witness a smaller-scale horizontal reenactment of separation of waters. Even emancipated slaves were able to recognize how very blessed they were to witness such an event. Even emancipated slaves were able to appreciate their unique role. This, above all else, provided a newly created nation ample reason to believe in G-d.
This Shabbat, the seventh day of the festival of Pesach — mirroring the seven days of creation — is one where we commemorate G-d making good on His word to liberate our ancestors from Egyptian bondage. This Shabbat, the seventh day of the festival of Pesach, is a day when justice was meted out to those who dared to dehumanize another people. This Shabbat, the seventh day of the festival of Pesach, enabled our ancestors to witness a remake of what took place during the creation of the world. As such, they had every reason to believe in G-d and Moshe His servant.
Rabbi Shawn Zell serves Tiferet Israel. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.