How Miraculous was the Splitting of the Sea?

I was just reading a lecture about the Exodus. It described how Nachshon son of Aminadav was the first to jump into the sea. When he descended to the point that the water reached his nostrils, it miraculously split into two. This however seems to contradict what the Torah itself says – that God brought a powerful east wind which drove back the sea the entire night, turning it into dry land (Exodus 14:21). This hardly sounds like an immediate event, of deep water suddenly splitting apart!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s an excellent question, one which has bothered a number of the classic commentators. To begin, it is clear from the Torah itself that the sea’s splitting was far more than an unusual meteorological event. The Torah states clearly that the water stood vertically (as a “wall”) on the two sides of Israel (14:22 and elsewhere), and that it “split apart” (v. 21). It was clearly one of the most spectacular miracles performed in history – so much so that the Midrash states God made a special condition with the water when He created it that it would part before Israel at the Exodus. God does not lightly tamper so seriously with His laws of nature.

If so, why the strong wind? Several answers are put forth.

(1) It was a subterfuge. God wanted to trick the Egyptians into thinking there were natural causes for the sea to split, and it was not a special salvation God had wrought for Israel. As a result, the Egyptians would be fooled into thinking they could go through the sea as well – and then be drowned. (Although the waters were miraculously standing vertically, the Egyptians paid less attention to that – thanks to their burning zeal to decimate the Jews.) (Ramban)

(2) When Moses held up his staff, it split the water immediately. The purpose of the wind was to further dry up the seafloor and turn it into hard land, or alternatively to harden the split water so it would not return to its place. (It’s possible that this does not follow the Midrash you quoted that the water split at the very last moment – although some explain that the wind came first (and miraculously dried the seabed while the water was still on top of it), and that Moses afterwards split the water with his staff.) (R. Bechaye, Sforno, Malbim, see Kli Yakar s.v. “va’yasem” 1st explanation)

(3) When God split the sea, two processes occurred at once. The wind came to dry the lower waters of the sea, turning them into solid land. Afterwards, Moses’s staff split the upper waters into walls. The reason God performed this double miracle was for Israel’s convenience. Rather than having to descend all the way to bottom of the seafloor, the lower waters became solid so their walk was relatively level! (Ohr HaChaim)

(4) The wind lessened the sea water but did not dry it up entirely. At the last moment, Moses lifted his staff to split the sea. The reason God performed the miracle in two stages was to perform it in the way most suited for each Jew. The more devoted Jews, who immediately heeded God’s call to travel, descended into the water before it split, and so witnessed God’s miracle in all its magnificence. By contrast, the less trusting ones held back until they saw a dry seabed. To them it appeared simply as an unusual meteorological event. Thus – as always – God dealt with each of His subjects according to his individual spiritual level. (Ha’amek Davar to vv. 16 & 21, see also Kli Yakar s.v. “vayavo’u”, Kol Eliyahu 57)

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