Crossing the Red Sea: Lessons, Symbolism & Meaning
How to Read Midrash
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Rabbi Fohrman introduces us to a very strange Midrash about the crossing of the Red Sea, which tells us that as the nation of Israel walked through to freedom, there were fruit trees surrounding them. Are we meant to understand this literally? Clearly this idea is meant to deepen our understanding of the meaning of Moses splitting the sea but how?
In this video, Rabbi Fohrman explains that a parallel story, early in Genesis, is a clue to understanding this Midrash. Through this analysis, he uncovers a deeper spiritual meaning behind the crossing of the Red Sea.
What Does The Red Sea Crossing Represent
The Rabbis of the ancient Midrash tell us a very strange thing about the splitting of the sea.
What Can We Learn From Crossing the Red Sea?
They say that when the Jews were walking through the sea on dry land, they actually had wonderful fruit trees, with apples and pomegranates. You read this and you say, ok, like what, the story wasn't miraculous enough as it is? You had to add fruit trees? Why not say there were Hershey almond bars, too, and soda fountains? Why are they saying such a thing?
So I think the rabbis here are maybe picking up on something very fascinating going on just beneath the surface of this text. Let's actually read the story of the splitting of the sea together and try to see if we can discern the kind of elements that the pabbis might have seen here.
As we begin to read, we are going to play one of our favorite games: where else in the Torah have we heard this kind of thing before? What do the words remind you of, what do the ideas remind you of?
Parallels to the Story of Crossing the Red Sea in the Bible
Let's start with this, the moment just before the sea split, what did it look like? Vayolech Hashem et-hayam beruach kadim azah kol-halailah vayasem et-hayam lecharavah vayibak'u hamayim, 'God caused a great wind to blow over the waters, all night long.' When else was it dark and there was nothing but water and there was a wind of God blowing over the waters?
That happened at the very beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. Choshech al-penei tehom, 'Darkness was on the face of the deep,' veruach Elokim,' and the spirit or the wind of God,' – spirit and wind are both the same word – merachefet al-penei hamayim, 'was hovering over the waters.'
You know, we don't often think about this image of the world before creation as the Torah portrays it to us. The only thing that was really there was water. There was water, water everywhere and it was dark; and now, just before the sea splits, it is the same setup.
What is the first thing that happens in creation? God makes light and then he separates between the darkness and the light. Anything happen like that here at the Sea of Reeds?
Well, there is this pillar of cloud by which God leads the people of Israel and the pillar of cloud moved itself from the front of the people to the back of the people. Vayavo bein machaneh Mitzrayim uvein machaneh Yisrael, 'and it separated between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel.' Such that vayehi he'anan vehachoshech vaya'er et-halaylah, 'the pillar of cloud shone on the Israelites' camp and lit up the night with light' but for the Egyptians, vayehi he'anan hachoshech, 'and the clouds created darkness.' One more time: separation between light and darkness.
And now, what's the next thing that happens in creation? This mysterious moment when God says, yehi rakia betoch hamayim vihi mavdil bein mayim lamayim, 'and sky will divide between waters and waters.'
There were upper waters and there were lower waters, whatever that means, and there was sky in between. Does that remind you of anything at the splitting of the sea? Was there another time when there were two bodies of water that were separated?
There surely was but this time, it wasn't vertical separation but horizontal separation. Vehamayim lahem chomah miyeminam umismolam, 'and the water was for them a wall from their right and from their left.' And what was between? Sky. One more time.
So there was separation between light and darkness, there was separation between waters and waters, and then there was one more great separation between waters and dry land.
Vayomer Elokim yikavu hamayim mitachat hashamayim el-makom echad vetera'eh hayabashah, 'let the waters gather into one place and the dry land be seen at the sea.' At the sea it happens again, the sea splits and the waters gather themselves, allowing the dry land to appear.
The Israelites vs. the Egyptians Crossing the Red Sea
It's all happening again. In creation, what did dry land allow for? It allowed for life on land – vegetation, animal life, human life.
What did the dry land in the midst of the sea allow for? It allowed for life. Israel faced the possibility of extinction but not when the sea is split and a path of dry land open up between the waves. Then life was possible. Yavo venei-Yisrael betoch hayam bayabashah, 'the Israelites went through the sea on dry land'.
They went and, of course, who do they leave with? We know from the exodus story, they left with their animals; animal life, human life, possible because of the division between water and land, because of the existence of dry land.
But there's just one element missing and that seems to be where the sages come in. The missing element from creation is plant life. It is the trees.
The Meaning of the Midrash on Crossing the Red Sea
The sages with their comment seem to be dropping us a little hint, nudging us in the direction of seeing creation one more time at the sea. Yes, of course, there were trees. As it says in creation, etz pri oseh peri lemino, 'fruit trees bearing fruits,' it was all there too.
The sages weren't just randomly making up fairytales about the splitting of the sea. They were helping you to discern a pattern that held for the Israelites: the division between light and darkness, the division between bodies of water, and the division between land and the sea.
For Egypt, all of those divisions collapsed. As dawn broke over the camp of the Egyptians, vayashkef Hashem el-machaneh Mitzrayim be'amud esh ve'anan, 'God looked out towards the camp of the Egyptians with a pillar of fire and cloud; no divisions between them.' Light and darkness, all mixed up this time.
And then what happened? Vayahom et machaneh Mitzrayim, 'God mixed up sought chaos among the camp of Egypt. The two walls of water collapsed, the separation between them gone. The separation between land and sea, gone.
One more time, utter chaos. Waves crashing in a world ruled by water. It evokes non-creation. Veha'aretz hayetah tohu vavohu, 'the world was in utter chaos, darkness on the face of the deep' and one more time, nothing but the wind of God, blowing over the waters.
The Spiritual Meaning Behind Crossing the Red Sea
In the series that we did for Passover, I made the argument that in the plagues, God distinguished himself, not just as a powerful force but as the Creator Himself.
The exodus was intended as a kind of revelation of God as Creator. Egypt didn't believe in a creator. They believed in many gods, each god controlled their own particular domain.
But Judaism taught a different truth. There was one God in charge of it all. One force controlled the Nile and could turn it into blood; controlled the amphibian world and could bring frogs on Egypt; controlled insects and could bring lice; controlled precipitation and could bring hail; controlled human life and could bring death to the firstborn.
Over and over Pharaoh resisted that message until finally, the ultimate act, creation itself would be on display. Those who acknowledged the existence of the Creator would have the benefits of creation and those who denied the Creator would live in an uncreated world. If you deny the force that creates all this order in the world then live in a world of disorder and see what you can make of that.
So now let's stand back and add it all up. The fate that the Egyptian army meets at the sea is a reflection of the great sin of Egypt against humankind: their refusal to see other humans as brothers, their willingness to cast baby boys into the water and drawn them mercilessly.
Now, the perpetrators would meet the same fate that they inflicted upon the victim. They too would be drowned in the water. And at another level, their fate corresponds to another denial because when you deny the brotherhood of men, you are also denying the father that makes men brothers.
If there is no creator then there is no brotherhood of mankind. There's nothing that makes us one family. You just happen to be here and I happen to be here.
The sin of throwing babies in the Nile was only possible if you deny the Father in heaven that made us part of one big family. If you deny that Father, the Creator, then try to live in that world. You will fail.
At the sea, Egypt reaps the dark fruits of its own poisonous theology.