The commentary Pri Tzaddik notes that our Sages taught the following. At first Moses did not inform Israel why they were headed back toward Egypt; it was only because there were people of little faith among them, people who tore out their hair, in fear that they were about to return to Egypt, that Moses revealed his plan and assured them that they were indeed free, free forever.
One can conclude that those who had faith, heard Moses's order to turn back toward Egypt and accepted the order without fear, even though they too thought that they were about to return to bondage. Why did G‑d ask them to retreat?
When Israel first left Egypt, she did not have enough merit of her own to make her worthy of redemption. The people were redeemed because of the Divine promise made to Abraham. However, G‑d wanted Israel to be worthy of redemption in her own merit. He therefore ordered the nation, after their faith had been strengthened during the three days they spent under the protective wings of the Shechinah and guarded by the clouds of glory, to return toward Egypt.
This act would show that they were willing to return to being subservient to the Egyptians because of their faith in G‑d. A people willing to return to slavery out of their faith in G‑d would be worthy in their own merit of being redeemed.
Those among the nation who had strong faith followed the example of their forefather Abraham, of whom the Torah testifies (Genesis 15:6): And he had faith in G‑d. They therefore merited that the promises made to Abraham were fulfilled. It is as if the Exodus from Egypt took place twice: once because of the promise made to Abraham and the second time because the people themselves merited redemption.
And G‑d brought a strong east wind to blow over the sea all that night (Exodus 14:21)? If G‑d wanted the sea to split, He could have ordered it to do so; with one declaration He could have transformed it into dry land. Why did He bring a strong east wind [a dry wind from the desert]?
G‑d sought to imbue Israel with the belief that all of the acts of Creation are dependent upon His word. The wilderness and the inhabited places, the sea and the wind, the clouds and the fire ? all are the work of His hands and subject to His direction. There is no aspect of nature independent of His control.
Once this belief became rooted in Israel's hearts, they merited the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, in which the laws of nature were transcended.
The Talmud (Ta'anit 25a) quotes R. Chanina ben Dosa as saying: "He Who told oil to burn will tell vinegar to burn." Why did R. Chanina find it necessary to mention the flammable quality of oil? He could have simply said that G‑d can order vinegar to burn!
This teaches us that man merits a miracle that transcends natural order only when he realizes that nature itself functions only because G‑d so declared.
Just as G‑d declared oil to be flammable and it is His declaration that gives oil that property, so too can His declaration give vinegar the capability of burning.
The Zohar quotes R. Shimon as teaching: When Israel stood by the banks of the sea and sang, G‑d and His Heavenly consorts appeared to her and she recognized that it was her King Who had performed all of these miracles.
Each and every one of the people understood and saw that which the world's prophets had never seen or understood.
Were you to think that Israel was unaware and lacked the Divine wisdom to comprehend, the very song itself is testimony, for how else could they all have said the same words at the same time. Even the unborn in their mothers' wombs sang this song together, seeing a manifestation of G‑d's Presence that even Yechezkel the Prophet never witnessed.
When they concluded their song, the people's souls were enraptured and longed to see even more. So overwhelmed were they that they refused to leave. At that time Moses said to G‑d: "Your children, in their great desire to see Your light, do not want to leave the sea."
What did G‑d do? He concealed His glory and He was both apparent and unapparent. Moses urged Israel to leave a number of times but they were still unwilling,for they were still enraptured by G‑d's indirect appearance.
It was only when they understood that His glory was in the wilderness, that Moses was able to lead them, as the verse (Exodus 15:22) states: And Moses led them from the Red Sea... and they went into the wilderness of Shur.
Why is it referred to as the wilderness of Shur? It was a wilderness where they sought to see the glory of their great King, for the Hebrew word Shur connotes seeing.