Faith That Can Split the Sea

The portion of the Torah read this Shabbat is Parshat Beshalach. In this famous parsha, the Jewish people witness the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Jewish people have just left Egypt. They are newly freed slaves who have hurriedly fled from the land of their former captors following Moshe (Moses) and Aharon into the desert wilderness. Suddenly they encounter an obstacle in the form of a body of water that prevents them from moving forward. The fear of their former masters still fresh, the Israelites fly into a panic when they notice that approaching them from behind is the army of Egypt with Pharaoh at its head. The Torah tells us that at this terrifying moment “the Children of Israel cried out to Hashem” (Shemot/Exodus 14:10).

What follows is quite a strange. While the Jewish people prayed, Moshe urged them not to fear. The Torah then says: “G-d said to Moshe, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth!’” (Shemot 14:15). The great Medieval Torah commentator, Rashi (1040-1105 BCE) explains that Moshe too was in fact praying. Here, G-d was telling Moshe that “Now, when Israel is in distress, is no time for lengthy prayer.”[1]

The response from G-d to the people’s prayer is strange. Isn’t prayer the proper thing to do when faced with a crisis? The Or HaChaim deals with this problem by explaining that G-d only exercises His attribute of mercy when the victims have at least some degree of merit. However, at the sea, the Attribute of Justice argued that the Jews worshiped idols in Egypt and were thus no better than the Egyptians. Therefore, it was unjust of G-d to save the Jewish people and then punish the Egyptians. Because the Jews were in fact guilty of the sin of idolatry, they lacked the merit needed for their prayer to be effective. This is why G-d commanded that they stop praying and instead demonstrate their readiness to put their lives in danger in obedience to G-d by plunging into the water. This display of faith earned them the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. [2]

The Midrash teaches us that the Jewish people hesitated to move forward. Suddenly, a man named Nachshon, son of Aminadav from the tribe of Yehuda bravely walked into the sea. He waded into the water until the water reached his nostrils.[3] Only then did the Sea of Reeds part and the rest of the Israelites followed after him. There are many explanations as to why the sea split for the Jewish people. However, an interesting question is not why the waters parted, but why the waters waited until Nachshon nearly drowned for the miracle to occur?

The answer, says Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, is because the waters were waiting for the Jewish people to express their faith through action.[4] The Jews cried out to G-d which is surely an expression of faith. However, believing is not enough. What was needed for the miracle to occur was not faith alone, but an external demonstration of that faith.

Chassidic teachings relay that faith is a natural quality of the soul. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) wrote that every single Jew has an inherent faith in G-d. It simply needs to be revealed. However, G-d is not satisfied with concealed inner faith and He sends us challenges in order that we might bring it forth. One’s faith in G-d cannot impact the world until it is physically expressed in action.[5] The waters waited for our ancestors to express their faith in concrete action before it would split for them.

Many of us want to increase our observance of Judaism and deepen our connection with G-d. However, often we encounter obstacles that seem daunting and we become too paralyzed with fear to move foward. We might want to observe Shabbat, but we worry about how it will affect our careers or social lives. We wish to start wrapping tefillin, but we fear we won’t have the time to commit to it. We want to keep kosher, but we worry that we won’t find places to eat.

Many of us want to progress in our Jewish learning and living, but there is an inner voice telling us we won’t be able to do it. We may believe in G-d and His Torah, but we’re held back by fear of what our friends and family will think and concerns that we will be ‘missing out’ on something if we take on another mitzvah. The only way to get past those fears is to move forward and take on the mitzvah the way Nachshon strode into the sea. We must trust that if we want to do the mitzvah, G-d will enable us to do it. If we take the plunge, G-d will not let us drown. On the contrary, He will split the sea and allow us to walk on dry land all the way to the Promised Land.

[1] The Stone Edition Chumash, 81

[2] Ibid.

[3] Split Your Sea by Laze Gurkow

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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