Crossing the Frontier: Analyzing the timeless symbolism of the Splitting of the Sea

Written by Yitzchak Szyf on . Posted in Torah

Introduction: Reliving the Parsha

The Stropkover Rebbe, on a recent visit to Kemp Mill, Maryland, stressed the importance of reliving the events of the Torah portions that we read each week. In particular, he pointed out that the concepts in the Torah portions of Bo through Ki Tisa, a series which we begin this Shabbos, all echo the holidays in order. Bo discusses leaving Egypt and thereby evokes first days of Pesach; Beshalach has the Splitting of the Sea and represents the last days of Pesach; and so on through the weeks until Parshat Ki Tisa, whose shekalim reminds us of the coins collected in the month Adar and the pieces of silver Haman bid on our destruction in the story of Purim.

 

The only Shabbos in the group with a special name, however, is Beshalach, which is traditionally referred to as “Shabbos Shira” (the Shabbos of Song). Let us try to better understand what we are to experience on this special Shabbos next week.

Yam Suf: The Final Border of Egypt

The title of this article — “Crossing the Frontier” — was chosen based on two very distinct, but surprisingly similar, sources discussing Kriyas Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Sea.

The first is a somewhat shocking Chasam Sofer (Friedman ed. Vol. 2 pg. 544), which discusses the hidden background of Acharon Shel Pesach (the final day of Pesach, celebrated only outside of Israel). The Chasam Sofer explains that the day of “leaving Egypt” was actually the day after the Splitting of the Sea. The sea was basically the border of Egypt, and it was only when we moved to the desert on the following day that we actually left Egypt. It is thus fitting that the eighth day of Pesach is a yom tov, at least in the diaspora, since that is the “real” day of the exodus from Egypt. (We see a similar discussion by the second day of Shavuos, which according to most opinions is the actual day of the giving of the Torah.).

The second source is an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation, Exodus, pg. 115, essay titled “The Turning Point”), in which he explains that the passage through the sea symbolized a move from being “servants of Pharaoh” to being solely “servants of Hashem.”He adds that walking between the two parts of the sea was not just a practical way to get to the other side: it symbolized a new covenant of the Jewish people with Hashem, just like the Brit bein HaBetarim (the covenant between Avraham and Hashem in the Book of Bereishit). Covenants were often marked by the two parties walking through sliced parts, a process that symbolized their strengthening sense of unity with each other.

In other words, walking through the split sea and getting to the other side was a process of “leaving Egypt” (Chasam Sofer) and entering a new “domain” (Rabbi Sacks), both physically and religiously.

Grounded in Nature, but With a Supernatural Twist

Despite its overall supernatural tone, it is noteworthy that the Splitting of the Sea and the Shira (Song of the Sea), which accompanied it, are predominately observed within the “natural” cycle of our calendar and prayers:

It occurred and is celebrated on the seventh day of Pesach, a number generally associated with the natural.

The Shira itself forms an integral part of our Pesukei dezimra, a series of psalms that focuses on “natural” miracles that happen every day.

The language of the Shira focuses predominately on the drowning of the Egyptians when the water returned to its “natural” state; only a very small part of it discusses the “supernatural” miracle.

The strong connection between the natural world and the number seven is at first perplexing, but perhaps can be understood within the context of our earlier analysis. The Splitting of the Sea was our passage into a new physical and spiritual domain, which forms the basis of how we live within our natural world. To be relevant, the experience too had to be grounded, at least to some degree, in what we perceive as “nature.” It is noteworthy that even the split in the water itself was orchestrated by Hashem through the use of a “wind from the East,” a process that some understand to have worked within the laws of nature.

But the number eight and the supernatural still play a critical role “behind the scenes.” For example, the final Rashi on Parshat Shelach compares the Splitting of the Sea to tzitzit, which is also related to the supernatural realm; their main purpose is to serve as a visual cue for man resist acting according to his “natural” animal instinct. So too, the Midrash connects the Splitting of the Sea to the mitzvah of circumcision, which happens on the eighth day and has a similar mission.

Rabbi Yehudah Halevi beautifully weaves these three “supernatural” themes together (the Splitting of the Sea, tzitzit, and circumcision) in the liturgy of the seventh day of Pesach (see Artscroll Siddur pg. 712) and at a bris (pg. 214). Using terminology borrowed from Tamar in Parshat Vayeshev and her quest to hint at Yehudah’s role in what transpired (the “chotemet and the petilim”), we remind Hashem that we hold the “chotemet” (circumcision) and the “petilim(tzitzit) and—using a refrain which focuses on the Song of the Sea —beg for the future redemption. The story of the Splitting of the Sea and the accompanying song was thus not only our path across the frontier of Egypt into our new natural world (the number 7), but will be the backbone of our future redemption (the number 8) when we cross yet another frontier.

As we “experience” the Splitting of the Sea next Shabbos, we experience an opportunity to again undergo the final stage of the exodus from Egypt as we “reaccept” the covenant and enter into Hashem’s full domain–– and strengthen the seeds of our final redemption.

Yitzchak Szyf received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and lives with his family in Kemp Mill, Maryland. After serving as a rabbi in Transylvania, Romania and working with Jewish communities around the world, he has focused professionally on international development. His study of chazanus, piyut and midrash under some of the world's leading experts is reflected in his passion for integrating a vast variety of sources–– from midrash to prayer, customs, Chassidic thought, and modern Jewish thought–– in his shiurim and writings, creating a mosaic specific to the time of year.