Pesach – Who Parted the Sea?
The seventh day of Passover coincides with the historic date of the splitting of the sea. The Torah reading for that day’s service reflects this, including the passage relating of the sea splitting as well as the subsequent Song of the Sea, sung by Moses and the Children of Israel. The first day of the festival corresponds to the day of the Exodus. The nation followed the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, and they did so for several days. The Egyptian scouts followed their moves, and when it became apparent that they had no intent of returning, Egypt’s army set off in pursuit, pinning them against the sea. At that juncture a curious event took place. The nation cried out to their leader Moses, who in turn cried out to God. “And God said to Moses, ‘What are you crying to me, speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.'” (Exodus 14:15)
It seems that the Lord was telling Moses that there is no point in praying during crises. Who doesn’t pray during a crisis? Why was Moses instructed to cease his prayers and move on?
The Meshech Chochmah explains that God was teaching Moses an important lesson. Until this time the people had been bystanders. They had watched the wonders of God in Egypt, they had taken note of the terrible plagues which had destroyed the country while sparing the Israelites. Everything until now had happened to them, but had not been of their doing. In the wilderness they had followed Moses, looking to him as their leader and the one who would solve their problems. Now, with the Egyptian army at their back and the sea before them, the people again looked to Moses to provide salvation. God told Moses, ‘It’s about time the people owned their problems and took action to be part of the solution.’ God told Moses that the people must move, they must take initiative. Speak to the Children of Israel and let them travel. Until now they have followed, now let them lead.
Rav Soloveitchik points out a difference in the terms used in Egypt and at the sea. God’s actions in Egypt are described as a yad hachazakah, a strong hand. At the sea His actions are described as yad hagedola, the large (or great) hand. The difference, Rav Soloveitchik explains, is that in Egypt Israel experienced the miracles passively. The miracles there were no less wondrous, but they did not move the people of Israel, they did not uplift them and inspire. The miracles at the sea, however, were such that the people were carried upwards, inspired greatly by God’s actions.
For this reason the people did not break into song when they left Egypt and were finally free. Although that event should have generated such song, the people were not spurred to sing since they were merely followers, with the miracles happening to them. In contrast, at the sea they had actively participated in the events. They were told to march, to move ahead into the waters, to take part of the miracle and own their struggle. When they came to the other side, when they saw the results of their initiative, they were inspired to sing. For this reason the description of God’s hand at the sea is different than His hand in Egypt. The miracles were of similar calibre, but the experiences of the two events were vastly different for the people.