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The Seashore and the Seder

The Seashore and the Seder

A mystical understanding of the splitting of the sea.


The Jews left Egypt amidst a whirlwind of fantastic miracles that demonstrated the enormity of the exodus. Each miracle was necessary, and was replete with meaning.

However, there was one miracle whose significance seems to elude us. We know that the Sea of Reeds split, allowing the Jews to pass, and then crashed down on the Egyptians, drowning them. The Torah tells us of yet another miracle that follows. It says "Israel saw the Egyptians dead at the edge of the sea" (Exodus 14:30). If the Egyptians drowned in the depths of the sea, how did all of their corpses immediately end up on the beach? Our sages explain that the sea spit them out -- and it was a miracle.

What is the deeper significance of spewing dead bodies onto a beach?

The answer lies in the mystical meaning of the sea and the shore. There is a psalm that we dramatically recite in unison on the night of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and according to many customs on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as well. It begins: "The earth and that which fills it belong to God, the world and all its inhabitants, because he founded the world on seas, and established it on rivers" (Psalms 24:1). Why the "because"? What do seas and rivers have to do with the reason the world belongs to God?

To answer, we need to understand the essence of the world's great bodies of water from a Jewish perspective. On the third day of creation which began with a world covered with water, God commanded the waters to collect in one place so that the dry land could appear (see Genesis 1:9). The dynamic which existed until the beginning of that third day, the mystics explain, continues until present times; even though the world has continents and islands, the natural forces of the sea yearn to once again cover the planet with water. Unfettered, they would flood the world with unbridled fury. Bombarded with modern statistics threatening of global warming, we all know what could happen if the world's temperature rose by even a small amount. Only Noah, his family, and the animals aboard the ark survived the last time the world was covered with water.

God created a world which would self-destruct if not for His constant restraint of the sea.

What is it that holds the waters back? What keeps the world from flooding? The edge of the sea -- the beach. "You placed a border which the waters cannot cross, and not return to covering the land" (Psalms 104:9). The waters want to cover the land, but they are thwarted. The sages bring the seashore, a mere strand of sand, as an example of God's greatness and as an indication how at every moment God saves the world from self-destruction by containing the sea in its boundaries (see Talmud, Bava Batra, 73a). It is as if every wave, until it breaks, proclaims that it will be the one to flood the world.

Thus the sea bears testimony to God's constant involvement in the world and His daily renewal of creation. The world is His, because he founded it on seas and established it on rivers. He created a world which would self-destruct if not for His constant restraint of the sea. Every second God is actively involved in containing the waters in rivers and oceans, constantly holding them at bay.

There was once a great ancient nation that denied the very concept of Divine providence. It was a people that lived in a land of great abundance which fostered a confidence that the sea's borders are a natural thing, and that no metaphysical energy was necessary to prevent the return to a world of water. It was a nation whose monarch met the command to let the Jews go with the response "Who is God that I should listen? I don't know God and will also not release the Jews" (Exodus 5:2). This nation was called Egypt -- or Mitzrayim in Hebrew.

Hebrew is the world's deepest language and the mystics expound on how even the world itself was created with the letters of the Hebrew language. In Hebrew, the word metzar means a border. The word yam means sea. The Egyptians were called metzar-yam ---Mitzrayim which literally means "border to the sea." Indeed, Egypt's philosophy revolved around the idea that there is no Divine border necessary to contain the sea since there is a natural one. God is irrelevant, they claim.

Jewish thought asserts that a person has something akin to a spiritual umbilical cord which, if severed, would allow the forces of the world to crush human life. There is a constant connection to the transcendent spiritual world, even if one does not necessarily feel it. The Egyptians vigorously denied this and did all they could to erase this consciousness from the Jewish mindset. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, one of the greatest kabbalists, explains that Pharaoh was so obsessed with destroying this worldview that he subjected the Jews to ruthless slave labor just to distract them from this thought.

"Israel saw the Egyptians dead at the edge of the sea." The miracle of spewing the dead Egyptians onto the seashore sent a powerful message. The Egyptians, who insisted that the sea's border is naturally and permanently contained, were drowned and miraculously cast onto the very shore they claimed -- and which even their name broadcasted -- was not connected to anything Divine.

The Haggadah makes what seems to be a farfetched statement: "Had God not redeemed us, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." Come on. That was thousands of years ago! The great ancient Egypt is long gone, and a completely different nation that lives on that land today.

Think again. The words of Rabbi Luzzato should echo in our minds. The great strategy of Pharaoh was to remove our focus on the idea that nothing in this world can happen or continue to exist without God. The legacy of Pharaoh is alive and well. Today we are continuously told that nature is a given. We are distracted, and it is easy lose to focus on the reality that every second of existence is a miracle.

The Seder experience is an opportunity to refocus and get back on track. Every moment of life is a gift from Above. We just need the eyes to see it.


April 12, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 12

(11) Joey, April 23, 2014 7:53 AM

I'd Amend This a Bit

I think this view needs a little bit of tweaking, from what I know of ancient Egypt and its religion. Keep in mind that Egypt actually relied on the Nile flooding every year; agriculture would have been virtually impossible without it. The difference is that they saw this, and other natural phenomena, as within Pharaoh's power. In fact they seem to have had a certain paranoia that the natural order would be thrown out of whack—they had rituals to make sure the sun rose every day, etc.

I guess what I'm saying is that the ancient Egyptians were ultimately idolaters—they thought Pharaoh, idols, etc. could control nature, which ultimately meant that they could. This still fits into the overall point that you're making, however, that this miracle, and all the others, shook their worldview by demonstrating one God Who had power over absolutely everything and could override any other force.

God bless!

(10) Zalmen, April 17, 2014 11:03 PM

The parting of the waters

Have you ever heard of a Tzunami?.. Now the date is exactly the biggest explosion of a volano called Tera...when minoann culture dissaoeared! Coincidence?. Thats up to G-D

(9) Sam Schwartz, April 11, 2012 3:44 AM

inspiring article

I would like to see more articles that help explain mystical or Tanya concepts to improve my conection to HaShem. I try to keep this concept of HaShem in our lives to break the cynicism of modern man.

(8) Debra, April 9, 2012 11:39 AM

Indeed, G-d is the up-lifter of our lives.

(7) ruth housman, April 9, 2012 10:59 AM

The SEA within and the SEA without

This is a powerful explanation, but of course, God wrote not parts of this story but the Entire Story, so the Egyptian story, has to be part of our story, as the two do form a braid, or no Exodus story, and no Moses. We are largely salt, as salt flows within, and all boundaries are about salt, and how salt is contained and also in the saltatory movements across barriers as in neuronal conductivity. Salt is essential to life. Our lives. The word ocean when paired with an m, becomes, MOCEAN, as in movement, and that is also relevant to this discussion, as yes, it is the sacred alphabets of the world that do deeply contain mystic significance, and I am doing a walk across BABEL. Look to the light, in the very name, LUZZATO. I see it. And there is an important aural connect with SEA and that is, of course SEE, and we are SEEING more and more of a connected story, the more we peer into the depths. Language is key, and as reflection is to water, as how we see, so clearly in water that is pure and mirroring, deep into its depths what is above, so we say as above so down below. There is an inchoate beauty to this, and such explications never end and never fail to astound in their wonder. Is there anybody out there? I have been writing on line for a long time, and it seems, the seams of this, what comes together, is lost in the telling. I do it, for LOVE.

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