Identity is a complex matter indeed. And origins are an even more complex issue. And since I have, like many other people, problems with both the latter and the former, the redemption of the people of Israel and their passage through the Red Sea is always quite pertinent to me, and to how I see my evolution. As the newly freed Israelites walk through the open waters of the Red Sea, and take step after step towards their new identity and their destiny (Promised Land, etc.), a new collective is born right at the intersection between sea and ground . The whole process is very similar to that of conversion, as the newly born Jew steps of the ritual bath and begins his life as a member of the people of Israel.
The rhetoric of this is quite appealing, and still gives me, at times, the shivers. But is it really that simple? Against the background of the many downfalls of the Israelites in the desert as they are described in the book of Numbers, it is obvious that the passage is not a definitive moment and that by no means the “people” that walk out of other side of the split waters are actually a new collective. It’s actually, alas, quite the opposite. So let us take a few steps back, and focus on the moment in which the waters are parted.
(Ex. 14:21-2) “Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split , and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
Rashi on the last words of verse 21 is surprising – “AND THE WATERS WERE DIVIDED — all the waters in the world (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 14:2:2).” Basing himself on the Midrash Halacha, Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael , Rashi emphasizes here the fact that not only the waters of the sea were parted in that moment of history, but all the waters . So the miraculous moment is, without doubt, an allegorical process, a mythological description of a rite of passage in which the waters of creation were split and were brought together with the dryness of the ground. The Mechilta , in the translation of R. Shraga Silverstein, reads as follows:
(Exodus 14:21) “and He made the sea into dry land and the waters were split.” All the waters in the world were thus rendered. And whence do you derive (the same for) waters in pits, and in cavities, and in caves and in pitchers and in cups and in casks and in glasses? From “and the waters were split.” Is it not already written “and He made the sea into dry land”? We are hereby apprised that all the waters in the world were split. And whence do you derive (the same for) the upper and the lower waters and the depths? From (Psalms 77:17) “The waters saw You, O Gd; the waters saw You and quaked. The depths quaked as well.” “The waters saw You” — These are the waters crossed by Israel, which dried up at the word of the Holy One Blessed be He, viz. (Ibid. 114:3) “The sea saw and fled.” “the waters saw You and quaked” — These are the upper waters. “The depths quaked as well” — These are the lower waters.
The Red Sea is not a geographical locus of a miracle – and apologizing for this aside, I do wish to emphasize that I personally cannot stand the religiosity that requires loci (ie. archaeological et al.) to provide the individual with a solid faith, with an objective basis. The Red Sea is not the issue here – the issue at stake is, rather, the combination of dry and wet, or water and land in the same place and at the same time, and not only in that specific geographical spot, but everywhere. According to the Mechilta “waters in pits, and in cavities, and in caves and in pitchers and in cups and in casks and in glasses” were parted. Something more is at stake here.
Amongst those who have addressed this issue, Rav Adin Steinsaltz is probably the one to provide, in my humble and quite ignorant opinion, the most poignant interpretation of the miraculous parting of all the world’s waters.
“The parting of the Red Sea was not the momentary and miraculous solution to a momentary problem, providing a dry place where the people could pass – what happened in that moment was an essential change, a change of the sea’s essence into the essence of dry ground. […] The concepts of water and ground represent the two basic conditions of existence. The sea is called in the Zohar ‘the hidden world’ while the ground is called ‘the revealed world.’ The ground is the reality as it appears to the eye, the life in which one lives every day. On the other hand, the sea is the reality that hides the events and the life which take place within it – the sea is the great mystery, where things do not happen above it but rather within it. Human beings are creatures of the ground, and their consciences are focused on all that is visible and revealed. The superior parts of the human consciousness, all those aspects which exceed his rational understanding, are represented by the sea. Those are the hidden worlds in human being. What we usually see in a person is just the tip of the iceberg of all that is hidden, those parts that make it to the ground where they are clearly visible to the eye of all – but we are not usually capable to perceiving whatever takes place within the seas of the individual. The essence of man is to be found, therefore, within the immense space of the hidden seas – and what is revealed is just a minimal part, a dry and solid crust upon which our daily lives take place. […] The problem with man’s everyday life is that he lives in the illusion that the major events characterizing human existence take place on an immense continent of dry ground, when in truth it is quite the opposite – man lives on a small punctiform area of dry solidity surrounded by the immense depths of the sea. […] The parting of the waters of the Red Sea represents the union of these two dimensions – the hidden and the revealed, and the projection of the individual into an amphibious state where he both lives on the dry ground and requires, at times, returning at times into the depths of the waters. […] The sea represents for man a dimension in which all things are brought together, where things are united in a state of continuity. Upon the ground, individuals and things are, on the other hand, distinguished and distinguishable into separate entities. […] Life in the sea is life within the element of existence – life on the ground is existence upon the elements. […] Human beings are by nature creatures that require a state of distinction, where they can state ‘I am’ – for this reason they live in places and states of being where things are distinct, revealed and simple. In a sense, man cannot live or exist in an integrative state, because in it he would not be allowed to be distinct and individual – for this reason human beings cherish distinctions, categories, simplified separations between up and down, high or low… In the sea, on the other hand, these distinctions are inapplicable – in the sea all the worlds are interconnected, continuous, and form a united existence. […] For the reasons listed here above, then, it is obvious that man is faced with an impossible task, and is forced to engage a state which has no true, simple and univocal solution: he lives on the ground, and cannot separate himself from it, and is forced to exist in a state of extreme partiality in the name of his cherished individuality. […] The process which takes place with the parting of the Red Sea, in which the water is turned into ground, is, in a way, the exact opposite of what happened with the Creation of the Universe. The creation is a process of mystification, where all that is secret is hidden and removed, while the visible and the tangible are the sole things to be revealed. Creation is the moment in which the ‘revealed world’ and the ‘hidden world’ are separated for eternity. Creations is, ultimately, the moment in which the ground is brought to surface from the depths of the seas and established as a separate dimension. With the parting of the Red Sea, the waters are split open and the ground is made visible within it. In that moment, the individual is empowered to enter the sea and to experience the dryness of the ground. The parting of the waters at the Red Sea is thus not a process of separation, but rather one of conjunction, in which the ground is revealed within the waters of the sea.”
Rav Steinsaltz sheds here light on the paradox of human life, on the almost impossible feat of a culture that takes upon itself not the simplification of paradoxes and complexities, but their containment within the instability of everyday life. For this reason, for example, the rabbis of the Talmud defined the formation of a stable couple as hard as the “parting of the Red Sea” (see for ex. Sanhedrin 22a and Sotah 2a) – bringing together two individuals within one framework is, in sum, literally impossible and is compared by the sages to the instable and miraculous coexistence of ground within the waters. When the people of Israel crossed the sea, stepping on ground, what happened was not a Hollywood-like scene with waves crashing on the two sides of a raptured group of fleeing ex-slaves – what took place was the establishment of a paradigm in which the hidden and the revealed are brought together within a specific framework. The objective of the individual is to transmute the impoverished conscience of the simplified ‘revealed existence’ into the unstable complexity of the parting of all waters, everywhere – in all cups, in all wells, in all caves, waters are to be parted, split into two, and to be brought to coexist, no matter how impossible it may seem and how many times one might fail. Redemption does not come from simplicity, but from the impossible emulsion of the hidden with the revealed, of the evident with the secret – redemption comes from our walking upon the ground within the seas.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.