Secret of Splitting the Sea

Free translation and adaptation from a discourse of
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
Parshat Beshalach, 5567 (1807)

by Rabbi David Rothschild



A Chassidic discourse is the most developed form of the inner Torah. Every word is sculpted by Divine Inspiration. Delivered to coincide with a weekly Torah reading or Jewish festival, these discourses make a spiritual connection with auspicious times.

Concepts from Kabbala and Zohar are developed to perfection. Their relevance to the Five Books of Moses and Tanach (Old Testament) as well as passages from the Talmud is expounded upon. This reveals their "inner meaning."

These discourses presuppose a familiarity with Torah. Perhaps for these reasons, only a handful has been translated into English and published as books by the Kehot Publication Society.

Over the course of two hundred years, the Lubavitcher Rebbes delivered thousands of discourses. Now for the first time they are being made public on the Internet.

In the texts that follow an attempt was made to abridge and elucidate their content. To provide background information for difficult terms and concepts, additional material from other Chassidic discourseshas been added. The remaining content is a free translation.


Part 1 (of 2)


I. Sea Screen


What is the secret of the Splitting of the Sea? Certainly there must be a reason why the Israelites had to cross the dry seabed.

A column of fire led the Israelites out of Egypt. This "angel fire" brought them before the Sea of Reeds (Yam Suf). Now, the direct route from Egypt to Israel was along the Mediterranean coast. This course cuts through ancient Philistine. Yet, "G-d did not bring them by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near" (Exodus 13:17).
Commentators suggest that had the Israelites attempted to traverse militant Philistine territory, the locals would have attacked. Then the Jews would have retreated to Egypt. That would have nullified the exodus from Egypt.

This interpretation, however, fails to explain why G-d led them specifically to the Sea of Reeds, when He could have chosen a different escape route.

The explanation can't be because G-d wanted to drown the Egyptians, for G-d is omnipotent and has many ways to eliminate the Egyptians. For example, G-d could have stricken them with a fatal plague.

From the above it is obvious that the drowning of the Egyptians was a secondary effect. The true reason for the crossing of the Sea was to benefit the Israelites. Crossing the Sea prepared them to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Sea Secret

How was the Splitting of the Sea a preparation for the Giving of the Torah? We must first comprehend the secret of the sea. The Zohar reveals that "Just as there is a physical sea, there is a higher, spiritual sea. Ships traverse that spiritual sea, rising and descending".

The nature of the spiritual sea can be understood from the physical sea. The Sages said, "Everything that exists in the sea also exists on land." However, sea creatures can't survive on land even for a short time. Similarly, land creatures can't be submerged in the sea for even a short period. The seawater would suffocate them, just as sea creatures would asphyxiate from the air on land.

At first glance this makes little sense. Since land and sea creatures are of a common species, as the Talmud said, why do their natures contradict one another? For a milieu which provides life to one category of creatures, results in the certain death of the other.

Sea Change

Kabbala explains that the sea constrains and covers the creatures that are absorbed within it. It is impossible for them to receive the Earth's air. Sea creatures can only receive their life force from the water in the sea.

The sea also serves as a limiting force regarding land creatures. It prevents them from receiving their life force from the sea. G-d established the sea as a boundary which limits and conceals sea creatures from land creatures. Sea creatures can't ascend to the land and land creatures are unable to descend into the sea.

Suppose G-d had created the world differently? In this hypothetical scenario, it would have been possible for sea creatures to survive by breathing the Earth's air, and land creatures could have entered the oceans and lived from seawater.

But what did happen? G-d caused the waters of the sea to rise. This concealed the sea creatures and prevented them from being visible from the land. At the beginning of Creation, G-d decided to separate land creatures from sea creatures. And this division was enacted to the utmost extreme.

High Seas

An understanding of the spiritual sea is now possible. The "Higher Sea" refers to the World of Emanation (Atzilus). This World is also called the Yam Suf. The word "Suf" also translates as the Hebrew term for end or limit (Sof). The Higher Sea, then, represents the lowest or final level of the World of Emanation. Hence it serves as a screen which separates the World of Emanation from the next World, the World of Creation.

Emanation connotes the revelation of Divine Light directly from G-d. Its lights and vessels are, so to speak, nothing new. For they previously existed in a template-hidden form. Then G-d emanated them from this concealed state into a revealed one. These revealed lights and vessels are the ten attributes or sefirot of the World of Emanation.

Atzilus is based on the Hebrew word for closeness. Emanation is near to G-d. Its characteristics are similar to
G-d's. Just as G-d is Infinite, so too are Emanation's lights and vessels. However, Emanation's infinity is limited to its world. That means its infinite lights don't shine outside of the World of Emanation.

The system of cause and effect begins only in the World of Creation. Its lights and vessels are first brought into existence from a slight radiation of Emanation vessels. Once the process has started, Creation's light and vessels bond to give birth to the spiritual creatures contained in its world.

Below the World of Creation stand the spiritual Worlds of Formation and Action. They too are brought into existence by an external aspect of Emanation's vessels. And their light and vessels likewise produce the splendor of their World's creations.

The lower three worlds of Creation, Formation and Action are considered finite creations. On the other hand, the World of Emanation is infinite in nature. Naturally there must be a barrier to separate infinity from finitude. Kabbala describes a series of veils that serve this purpose by separating the World of Emanation from the World of Creation.

Sea Speech

This sea-screen prevents the light of the World of Emanation from descending into the World of Creation. It also does not allow spiritual entities from the world of Creation to ascend to the World of Emanation. This parallels the above-mentioned allegory: sea creatures cannot survive on land and land creatures can't live in water.

What, then, is this spiritual sea-screen?

There are ten attributes in every stage of Divinity. The final attribute is called Kingship. Kingship in the World of Emanation serves as the faculty of Divine Speech.

King David said in Psalms, "By the word of G-d the heavens were made" (Psalms 33:6)."The word of G-d"" refers to the Ten Utterances of Creation. For example, "G-d said: Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3), "G-d said: Let there be a firmament" (Genesis 1:6). Each of the Ten Utterances was in fact a specific emanation originating from a corresponding sefirah of the World of Emanation.

For instance, the verse "Let there be light" caused light from the attribute of Kindness of the World of Emanation to shine down into the physical world. Thus all of the Divine lights of the World of Emanation were enclothed within Supernal Speech. As is known, letters of speech cover and conceal that which is contained within them. That's why Supernal Speech is called the sea, similar to the sea's waters that cover all that is inside them.

Word Veils

Human speech illustrates this concept. Hidden within mans' words are his will, intelligence and emotions. For when a person communicates words of love and kindness, wisdom, delight and will, the spirituality of these attributes are not felt by the recipient. He doesn't sense the essence of these faculties, as they are in and of themselves. Rather, he only hears the inanimate letters of speech. These letters resemble the physical breath of the mouth.

The recipient can only discern the speaker's will, intelligence or emotions from the tangible letters of speech. These spiritual expressions reach the receiver in a concealed fashion. What's more, their essential nature has been completely changed. For now physical letters conceal within themselves the essence of the speaker's will, intelligence and emotions.

Just as a physical sea conceals that which is hidden within it, so too the Divine Lights of Will, Wisdom and Emotions of the World of Emanation are concealed within the letters of Supernal Speech.

Supernal Speech's letters conceal Emanation's lights to the extent that the very creatures that they bring into existence - through the Ten Utterances - lack any comprehension of the essential nature of these lights. This, despite the fact those lights are present, albeit in a hidden fashion, within the letters which actually create these creatures!

Great Sea

How is this possible? Created entities are continuously brought into existence by the 'physical' breath of the letters of Divine Speech. And those letters conceal the supernal light inside them. King Solomon hints to this in Ecclesiastes, "All the rivers flow into the sea" (Ecclesiastes 1:7). Solomon is alluding to the supernal attributes of the World of Emanation. Their light is revealed within the supernal sea, which is Kingship of the World of Emanation. That's why Kingship is also referred to as the Great Sea, since Emanation's lights are infinite in nature.

Kingship, which is the final attribute, prevents the revelation of Emanation's lights into the lower worlds and also receives within itself the sum of their illumination. Thus Solomon made use of the parable of rivers flowing into a sea.

This, then, is the reason why the souls and angels of the World of Emanation are unable to descend into the Three Lower Worlds of Creation, Formation and Action. The Lower Worlds correspond to dry land, labeled by the Zohar as the Revealed World.

In the Revealed World, spiritual and physical creatures obtain their life force and actual existence from the letters of Supernal Speech. But those letters serve the dual function of creating finite beings and at the same time concealing from them what is above.

Fish that are absorbed in the sea can't enter the realm of land; they cannot live from the Earth's air. Likewise, the souls and angels of the World of Emanation can't descend and acquire vitality from the life force contained in Speech.

The opposite also applies. Souls and angels from the Three Lower Worlds can't ascend to the World of Emanation. If they tried, they would be utterly nullified by Emanation's Infinite Light. This resembles the inability of land creatures to survive in the sea.

The cause for this spiritual scenario is the Sea of Reeds. Supernal Speech -- Yam Suf / Sof - the final level of the World of Emanation, acts as a veil. It conceals and separates the World of Emanation from the World of Creation. This spiritual curtain prevents Emanation's infinite light from shining down into the Three Lower Worlds. It also stops created entities from ascending to the World of Emanation.

The Zohar's reference to a Lower and Higher Sea is now understood. For both the physical and spiritual seas possess similar properties of concealment and separation.

[on to Part 2]


[Rabbi David Rothschild, a resident of Tsfat, is the founder and editor of Nefesh Magazine.]


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