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Land and Sea

Adapted from Torah Ohr and Sefer Hamaamarim 5700 p. 58. by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]

The parting of the sea is arguably the most fantastic miracle of all time.  We witnessed a display of G-d’s presence and His rule over the dictates of nature in a most dramatic way. Obviously it was not just a miracle that had to be performed to save the Israelites from the Egyptians. G-d could have saved them in other ways. It also did not provide a path for the Israelites in their trek towards the Promised Land, since, as the Midrash comments, they exited the sea on the same side that they entered it. Nor could it have been merely to drown the Egyptians, since there were less spectacular methods of destroying them, such as by a plague, Heaven forfend. Obviously, then, the parting of the sea had some deeper purpose. It served as a spiritual experience for the Jewish people, which prepared their souls for the giving of the Torah.

Thus in the Tosefta it is written that in addition to the obligation to remember the Exodus all the days of our lives, we are enjoined to remember the parting of the sea as well. This essay, based on discourses of the Alter Rebbe and the Rebbe Rayatz, explores the eternal significance of the parting of the sea.

Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song…

At Sinai, the level of revelation and perception varied among the people. Each person perceived according to his or her spiritual capacities. Thus Moshe saw more than Aharon, Aharon more than the elders, and so on (Rashi Ex. 19:24). Not so at the parting of the sea.

The word the Torah uses for the singing of Moshe and Israel is yashir, not the plural form, yashiru. For in their singing they were one—on the same level of perception. The most spiritually inept Israelite was able to declare, “Zeh KeiliThis is my G-d!”

At other times, even the great prophets of Israel were only able to say, “Koh amar HashemLike this said G-d…” Their perception was approximate. But the Israelite at the sea was on the level of Moshe, who communed with G-d “face to face” and prophesied on the level of zeh (Sifri Numbers 30:2).

In fact, from the Midrash it seems that the Israelites merited a revelation that even Moshe did not merit on his own:

How great are those who descended into the sea! For Moshe, master of all the prophets, asked G-d to “show me Your glory,” but in the end G-d said “you shall see My back; my face you shall not see.” But each of those who descended into the sea pointed a finger and said: “This is my G-d!” 

What was it about the parting of the sea that brought about such revelation?

Land and Sea

Land and sea are two identical worlds sitting side by side. “All that exists on land exists in the sea” (see Chulin 127a). The difference between them is that in the sea all is covered and concealed, while on land all is revealed and open. Furthermore, the creatures of the sea derive their life and existence from the sea. They cannot live even for a moment outside it. Land creatures, by contrast, receive their nourishment from the produce of the ground. But they live beyond the ground, not within it. Hence, their dependency upon the ground is not as apparent as that of fish on water.

For the sea is the embodiment of the hidden world (alma di’iskasya). The consciousness of the hidden world is such that one’s source is apparent; there is no sense of separateness. Land, by contrast, is the embodiment of the revealed world (alma di’isgalya). The creatures of the revealed world experience a sense of false independence and individuality. [Fish therefore maintain a higher spiritual energy than land animals. For example, they do not need to be refined through ritual slaughter for human consumption, as is the case with animals (Reshimos).]

Malchus and Kesser

Land and sea correspond also to the outer and inner dimensions of Malchus.

To explain: Malchus acts as a bridge (mimutza) between Atzilus and Beriah. Its inner dimension contains within it the lights of Atzilus in a concealed fashion. The outer dimension of Malchus draws from the inner dimension and acts as the source for the lower worlds.

Atzilus itself—a world of infinity—cannot produce a finite world. A bridge must stand between them—one that will take the light of Atzilus and process it in a way that it can create lower, finite worlds. So the inner dimension contains the light of Atzilus, while the outer dimension becomes the source for the lower worlds.

On a higher level, this occurs in Kesser as well, which also contains two dimensions. Atik is the inner dimension of Kesser, while Arich is the outer dimension. Kesser serves as the bridge between the Infinite and Atzilus, since the Infinite has no relation even to Atzilus. Therefore, the inner dimension of Kesser contains within it in a concealed fashion the light of the Infinite, while the outer dimension acts as the source for the world of Atzilus.

[The sea, therefore, corresponds to the inner dimension of Malchus and Kesser, in which the Infinite light is hidden, alma di’iskaya. Land, corresponds to the outer dimension, in which there is revelation of a lower reality, alma di’isgalya.]

The parting of the physical waters of the sea was a reflection of the parting of the walls of concealment that obscure alma di’iskasya and the inner dimensions of the lights of Malchus and Kesser. 

For a short period of time, the order of nature—where that which is hidden cannot be revealed—was shattered, and the hidden worlds were apparent to every soul.

Israel and the Sea

So the Israelites’ interaction with the sea enhanced their spiritual perception. This would seem to indicate that the sea transcends Israel and can educate her, so to speak. Thus the Midrash (SR 21:6) records the sea’s comment to Moshe, “I will not part before you, for I am greater than you. I was created on the third day of creation, while you were born on the sixth.”

Other midrashic sources, however, seem to indicate that Israel transcends the sea. For example, the Midrash says that G-d created the sea with the stipulation that it part for the Israelites when the time would come (SR 21:6). In addition, we say in the Ma’ariv prayer, “He splits the sea before Moshe,” as if the presence of Moshe and Israel humbled the sea and caused it to part.

We find conflicting sources regarding the hierarchy of Israel and Torah as well. The Zohar (3:73a) seems to indicate that the Torah transcends Israel, since it is through Torah that Israel connects to the Holy One. On the other hand, there is a Midrashic teaching that lists seven things that existed before the creation of the world, one of which is the Torah. The Midrash concludes with “and the thought of Israel preceded everything.”

The answer is that there are two parts of the soul: its essence and its expression. Only the expression of the soul is clothed in the body; the essence remains above.

The essence of the soul transcends Torah. The lower aspect of the soul, however, connects to G-d through the Torah. [Apparently the same answer would apply to the question regarding Israel and the sea.]

[The following is a parenthetical discussion in the maamar regarding the essence of the soul and the extent of its connection to the body.]

Soul Distinctions

(All creatures aside from man were created body and soul. Man, however, was created in body alone. G-d then blew into his nostrils the breath of life: the soul. So the human body by itself is the least spiritual body of all of creation. To connect a G-dly soul to such a body requires the power of the Infinite. Nevertheless, it is only the lower levels of the soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah) that reside in the body. The essence of the soul remains beyond the body, albeit connected to it in some way—tied to the body but not clothed in the body.

Thus the soul as it is manifest in the body can only be in one place at one time. The Zohar (3:144b) relates that Elijah the prophet once did not come to the idra. [Idra is Aramaic for the Hebrew word goren, or threshing floor, this being where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students gathered and discussed the mysteries of reality. This is why the most mysterious parts of the Zohar are called the Greater and Lesser Idras, Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta.] When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him about his absence, he said that he had to save Rav Hamnuna Sava and his colleagues, and in honor of the latter he had to be clothed in a body. To come to the idra, in the esteemed presence of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, he would also have to be clothed in a body. And a soul cannot be in two bodies at once.

(For unlike the sun, whose rays can be in many places simultaneously, the soul’s rays can be in one place alone. For they contain a measure of the soul’s essence. The sun, by contrast, is not present in or affected by its rays.) 

However, when the soul is outside the body, its rays can be in many places at once. As Arizal comments regarding Elijah’s presence at every circumcision: this is true even when two circumcisions take place at the same time in different locations. For then Elijah appears without bodily form, in which case the essence of his soul is not framed and limited by the sparks or rays.)

[Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Torah Ohr and Sefer Hamaamarim 5700 p. 58.]


[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."

Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is also the editor of the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the translators at Kehot Publication Society.


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