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Shevi’i shel Pesach 5781

by Meir Sendor

The Splitting of the Sea, that enabled Israel’s escape from Egypt just as the Egyptian army was bearing down on them, is one of the great revelations of Jewish history. But what was revealed? The Torah says, literally:

 שמות פרק יד פסוק לא

וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְקֹוָק֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְקֹוָ֑ק וַֽיַּאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיקֹוָ֔ק וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ:


And Israel saw the great Hand that HaShem did in Egypt, and the people feared HaShem and had faith in HaShem and in Moshe His servant.

The syntax seems a bit awkward – “the great Hand that HaShem did.” Rashi interprets:

רש”י שמות פרשת בשלח פרק יד פסוק לא

(לא) את היד הגדלה – את הגבורה הגדולה שעשתה ידו של הקדוש ברוך הוא. והרבה לשונות נופלין על לשון יד, וכולן לשון יד ממש הן, והמפרשו יתקן הלשון אחר ענין הדבור:


“The great Hand” – the great power wielded by the Hand of the Holy One, blessed be He. Many meanings apply to the term “hand,” and they all mean actual hand, and the one who interprets it adjusts the meaning according to the theme of the statement.

Rashi reads “Hand” as a metonym for power – a reasonable solution followed by other commentators. But his comment that all Torah usages of “hand” mean a real hand requires some interpretation itself. He’s not being absurdly literal, as if an enormous hand reached down from Heaven, Monty Python style. His point is reflected in another phrase, describing Israel’s reaction to the miraculous splitting of the Sea, in the Song of the Sea:

שמות פרק טו פסוק ב

עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ:


“…This is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my father and I shall exalt Him.

On the phrase “this is my God,” the midrash Mekhilta, cited by Rashi, says:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח – מסכתא דשירה פרשה ג

זה אלי, ר’ אליעזר אומר מנין אתה אומר שראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו ישעיה ויחזקאל שנ’ וביד הנביאים אדמה (הושע יב יא) וכתיב נפתחו השמים ואראה מראות אלהים (יחזקאל א א). משל למלך בשר ודם שנכנס למדינה ועליו צפירה מקיפתו וגבורים מימינו ומשמאלו וחיילות מלפניו ומלאחריו והיו הכל שואלין אי זהו המלך מפני שהוא בשר ודם כמותם אבל כשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הים לא הוצרך אחד מהם לשאול אי זהו המלך אלא כיון שראוהו הכירוהו פתחו כולן פיהן ואמרו זה אלי ואנוהו וגו’.


“This is my God”: Rabbi Eliezer says: from where do you say that a serving maid at the Sea saw what Yeshayahu and Yechezkel did not see? As it says “in the hands of the prophets I shall be likened (Hos. 12:11),” and it is written “the Heavens opened and I saw visions of God (Ez. 1:1).” A parable of a king of flesh and blood who entered a city. Fanfares surrounded him, heroes to his right and left and soldiers before and behind him. Everyone asked “who is the king?” – since he is flesh and blood just like them. But when the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed at the sea, none of them needed to ask “who is the King?” Rather, when they saw Him they recognized Him and everyone opened their mouth and said “this is my God and I will glorify Him.”

Rabbi Eliezer’s point is that the revelation of God at the Splitting of the Sea was so direct and obvious that everyone recognized Him, no matter what their station in life at the time. He contrasts this with the prophetic revelations of some of the greatest prophets, who received extraordinary visions, but only in terms of likenesses and semblances  — not direct awareness of God.

The midrash Sekhel Tov, collected and annotated by Rabbi  Menachem ben Shlomo in the early twelfth century, expands on the midrash of Rabbi Eliezer:

שכל טוב (בובר) שמות פרשת בשלח פרק טו

ואיזה זה, זה אלי. ר’ אליעזר אומר ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו יחזקאל וישעי’, שנא’ וביד הנביאים אדמה (הושע יב יא), שלא היו רואין אלא מתוך מראות, שנאמר נפתחו השמים ואראה מראות אלהים (יחזקאל א א), ומתוך שראו שרפים וחיות הקודש מימין ומשמאל, לפיכך לא היו מכירין כבוד יוצרם, אבל כשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הים לא נגלה עמו לא מלאך ולא שרף ולא חיות הקודש, לפיכך רואין בראיית נשמה ובראיית הלב ומכירין כבוד יוצרם דומה להם כאילו רואים בעיניהם, ואפי’ עוללים ויונקי שדים היו רואין כבוד יוצרם, ומראין אותו באצבע, ואומרים זה אלי, וכן יהא לעתיד, שנא’ ואמר ביום ההוא הנה אלהינו זה וגו’ (ישעי’ כה ט):


Rabbi Eliezer says a serving maid at the sea saw what Yechezkel and Yeshayahu did not see… They only saw from visions, as it says “the Heavens opened and I saw visions of God (Ez. 1:1).” And since they saw Seraphim and Holy Living Angels on right and left, therefore they did not recognize the Glory of their Creator. But when the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed at the sea, no angel or Seraph or Holy Living Angels were revealed with Him. Therefore they saw with the seeing of the soul and the seeing of the heart and recognized the Glory of their Creator, and it seemed to them as if they saw with their eyes. Even infants and suckling babes saw the Glory of their Creator, and they pointed with their finger and said “This is my God.” And so it will be in the future, as it says “and they will say ‘behold, this is our God (Is. 25:9).’”

The Midrash Sekhel Tov spells out the application of the parable of the king’s retinue to the highest prophetic visions of Yeshayahu (chapter 6) and Yechezkel (chapter 1). These visions were vivid but busy, bustling with the heavenly retinue of angels, with a lot of information to process. By contrast, the experience of the Israelites at the sea was simple and direct and powerful. Though the Torah and the Mekhilta say that the Israelites “saw” the Hand of God, the Midrash Sekhel Tov explains perceptively that this seeing was not physical, it was a seeing of the soul and the heart. The phrase from the Song of the Sea, “This is my God,” as if the Israelites, every one of them, are pointing to God directly, is understood figuratively and compared to the purely spiritual vision of God granted to the righteous in the World to Come, as brought by the prophet Yeshayahu and expounded at the end of the Gemara Ta’anit. The experience of the Israelites at the sea was direct cognitive heart consciousness and awareness of God, beyond images, beyond words, a sense of the reality of HaShem’s personal care for them, saving them at just the right time, in the most extraordinary way. They couldn’t miss it.

This is what Rashi means when he says “many meanings apply to the term ‘hand,’ and they all mean actual hand.” In Hebrew we use “hand” as a metaphor in a variety of ways, but all indicating actual personal agency and real personal care of some kind, and it’s similar in English. At the Splitting of the Sea, the Israelites experienced directly and unmistakably the very personal care HaShem took of them, by Hand and not just in general.

An addendum to Derekh HaMelekh of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira describes the Rebbe’s instructions for his meditation practice of Hashkatah, Silencing. The description concludes: “after practicing Silencing for several weeks, when a person says ‘this is my God and I will glorify Him,’ it will be in the manner of pointing with the finger, as it says in the midrash (p. 407).” This experience is available to each one of us. If we quiet and open our minds and our hearts, we, too, can come to sense directly God’s personal care for us. He has created us to be the exquisitely sensitive beings we are. He takes care of each and every one of us by Hand, sustaining and guiding us throughout our lives. And He empowers us to glorify Him by treating each other with kindness, justice and compassion in His miraculous world.


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