Behind them was an army bristling for war. Before them was an ocean, deep and impassable. They could neither advance nor retreat. They were ambushed. What could they do?
Moses tried an age-old tactic: he cried out to G‑d. But G‑d rebuked him: “Why do you cry to me? Tell the Children of Israel to journey forth.”
Journey forth, but how? There was an ocean before them! G‑d never addressed this question, and Moses never asked it. G‑d said to journey forth, and journey they did. That was the entire point. Don’t ask questions. Don’t raise doubts. If G‑d issues a command, He will provide the means to see it through.
Yet the Children of Israel hesitated. They were prepared to plow into the ocean, but they needed to be led. A leader appeared in the person of Nachshon, son of Aminadav, tribal prince of Judah. Leading his tribal column, Nachshon strode into the sea. Wading through the rising tide, the waters first reached his waist, then his chest and shoulders.
At the very last moment, as the waters reached his nostrils, the Red Sea parted and the Children of Israel followed him into the sea.
The Sea Fled
The Midrash cites many reasons for which our ancestors merited the splitting of the Red Sea. According to at least one of our sages, the waters parted because of the merit of our ancestors’ profound faith and unwavering confidence that G‑d would protect them.
All created beings are subject to change. Winds blow, waters flow, plants grow, even stones are subject to being worn down. Man, too, is subject to change. The only constant in our ever-evolving world is G‑d.
However, the Jew emulates G‑d’s unchanging character. Our implicit trust, unshakable certainty, unchanging belief and absolute faith in G‑d manifest a measure of G‑d’s immutable character. In other words, when we believe, we personify the divine.
When our ancestors approached the waters with implicit faith in G‑d, the waters saw in them a measure of the divine. Because the created being cannot controvert its creator, the water instinctively and spontaneously receded before the personification of the divine.
Thus King David wrote in Psalm 114: “The ocean saw and fled.” Asks the Midrash: What did it see, and from whom did it flee? It saw divinity reflected on Moses’ raised arm, and fled from its position as an obstacle in G‑d’s path.
The question is not why did the waters part, but why did the waters wait till Nachshon performed his act of brinkmanship?
The waters were waiting for the Jewish people to express their faith through action. It was not enough that the Jews believed. The sea demanded an external demonstration of their faith.
Faith is a quality of the soul. It exists within us at all times. Even when we deny our faith, our soul within continues to believe. But G‑d is not satisfied with concealed inner faith. G‑d challenges us to fan the flames of our smoldering but silent faith and bring it forth.
Silent faith is dormant. It cannot impact the physical world unless it is physically expressed. This is why the waters waited. They waited for our ancestors to give physical expression to their faith. When Nachshon sallied forth and expressed the faith that the nation carried within themselves, the waters quickly parted.
Split Your Sea
Every Jew is capable of reaching the pinnacle of devotion that Nachshon reached at that moment. When a Jew resolves to perform G‑d’s will with total disregard for the obstacles, G‑d provides a way to overcome the obstacles.
If we are absolutely determined to keep Shabbat, G‑d will find a way to make it possible. If we are absolutely committed to bind tefillin (phylacteries) each morning, G‑d will find a way to make it happen. If we are absolutely committed to walk in the path of Torah, G‑d will give us the strength to do so. Like the Red Sea, our obstacles will recede and allow us clear and unimpeded passage.