The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Shemot 14:14)
Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove the sea back 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. (Shemot 14:21-22)
We flee to the shore, hearts drumming wildly,
our foes in relentless pursuit.
Fearful eyes stare at implacable waves:
we are caught in a merciless trap.
Moses lifts his arm: the waves split asunder,
awe-struck we tread on dry land.
God cracks the ocean: He opens a channel,
we forge our way through it to serve.
On the phrase, “Hashem yilachem lachem ve’atem tacharishun – the Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” Rabbi Meir of Premishlan* makes a play on the words yilachem and tacharishun. He says, “Although God is the One Who gives bread to all living (yilachem from the word for lechem) never-the-less you have to work and to plough (tacharishun shares the root letters of lacharosh).
In a commentary on parashat Beshalach entitled Nothing is Unchangeable, Rabbi Elliot Kukla notes that the splitting of the sea was a critical moment in Jewish history. He points out that we tell and retell this narrative in prayer more frequently than that of the creation or the giving of the Torah. He asks why we need to hear this story so often. Rabbi Kukla suggests it is because it reminds us that nothing is immutable. If we saw that seas can split, then it opens up possibilities that barriers can be overcome and new and unimagined horizons can appear. He envisages the eradication of disease and poverty which currently seem unattainable goals.
He adds that the Israelites responded to the splitting of the sea with songs of praise. We find in the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:4) that this was the first time people collectively praised God and God then says this is what He has been waiting for. Rabbi Kukla wonders what God was waiting for – He doesn’t need our praise. Rabbi Kukla suggests that “God was waiting for humanity to recognize that the borders of our world are never fixed. And God was waiting for us to respond to this knowledge with awe and with action.” He adds, “The miracle … is not just that the ocean parted. After all, an omnipotent God could split the Sea at any time. The miracle is that the Israelites saw the ocean divide and, despite everything they had been taught about the way the world works, they charged forward into the narrow dry path which appeared like a sliver of hope between the waves.”
*Rabbi Meir the Second of Premishlan (1783–1850) was the most famous rabbi of the dynasty which was founded by his grandfather Rabbi Meir Hagadol of Premishlan (1703–1773) who was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. R’ Meir the Second was widely known as a miracle worker. He lived in abject poverty, yet exerted himself tirelessly for the needy and the suffering. He wrote no works, but some of his teachings were collected and published by his Chassidim after his death.