After describing how the Red Sea split to allow the Children of Israel to pass through its divided waters, the Torah relates:

Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea; and the sea returned to its strength at the turning of the morning...

Noting that the Hebrew word l'eitano ("to its strength") is comprised of the same letters as the word litna'o ("to its stipulation"), the Midrash says:

On the third day of creation, when G‑d made the dry land emerge from the waters and caused the waters to be gathered together into one place, forming from them the sea, He stipulated with the sea that it should split to allow the Israelites to pass through it on dry land and then overwhelm the Egyptians. Hence, the verse can be interpreted to read: "And the sea returned to its stipulation."

There is one difficulty, however, with this interpretation: the above verse refers not to the sea's fulfillment of the imperative to divide, but to its returning to its former state. Yet wasn't the most important part of the "stipulation" that the sea should, contrary to its nature, divide its waters? "Returning to its strength" seem to be little more than a resumption of its natural state.

One of the commentaries on the Midrash suggests an explanation based on the Talmudic account of a similar miracle. In the Talmud (Chullin 7a), Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair tells the River Ginai to divide its waters. When it refuses, he says to it: "If you do not do so, I will decree that no water shall flow in you forever." If the same were true of the Red Sea, then its returning to its former strength would be evidence of its having fulfilled its agreement with G‑d.

A Conditional World

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov extended this principle to the entirety of creation: at the time of the creation of the world, all the objects of nature were created on the condition that they obeyed the will of the righteous, even if it ran counter to their normal physical laws. Furthermore, says the Baal Shem Tov, if they did not do so, not only would they cease to exist — it would be as if they had never been created. In other words, had the Red Sea not divided, it would not only never have water again, its entire previous existence would be obliterated.

Hence the verse tells us that "the sea returned to its strength." In fulfilling of its agreement with G‑d, it assured its future continuity and at the same time ratified its past existence.

This point may be difficult for us to understand. For though we can imagine what it is for something to be obliterated, surely its past existence is an objective fact, which cannot be retroactively removed?

The mental block we have in comprehending this possibility is due to a twofold secular conception to which our minds tenaciously cling: first, that objects have a real and independent existence; second, that our time scheme (in which we cannot reach back and change the past) is the only possible one. Both conceptions are false in Judaism. In the first instance, objects only exist because G‑d continually creates them; in the second instance, time is a human conception, one by which G‑d is not bound (indeed, one which G‑d created and so, obviously, can stand aside from).

It therefore follows that if G‑d decides to "uncreate" something, it is retroactively divested of its entire (i.e., past as well as future) being.

Hence, the term which the Midrash reads into the verse is "stipulation." The closest analogy in human terms to the sea's state of existence (and that of the entire created reality) is that of a conditional legal agreement. If the condition is not fulfilled, it is not that the agreement suddenly terminates, but rather that this establishes that the agreement never came into being in the first place.

The Strengthening of the Sea

But why did G‑d need to make an agreement with the sea, and why particularly at the moment when it was created? His power over His creations is unlimited; certainly, He could have divided the sea when He wanted, with or without its "consent"!

The answer to that is to be found in the verse's use of the term "strength" (l'eitano) to allude to the sea's "stipulation" (litna'o). One might think that the fact that the sea's creation was "conditional" would mean that its existence is less real. In truth, however, the very opposite is the case: this is the source of its true "strength" and viability.

In his commentary on the first verse of Genesis, Rashi's interprets the phrase bereishit ("in the beginning") to imply that the world was created "for the sake of Israel and the Torah." This can be understood on two levels. In the more simplistic sense, this means that the entirety of creation exists to allow and enable the people of Israel to perform G‑d's will on earth. A deeper understanding is that through Israel's fulfillment of the divine purpose in creation, the world itself is sanctified into becoming a "dwelling place" for G‑d, and thus is brought to its own fulfillment.

If the world would have been created as a something which must subsequently be "forced" to accommodate Israel's mission, its own "natural" existence would be finite and temporal, nothing more than a "background" or "setting" for — even, at times, an obstacle to — the unfolding of the divine purpose. But by stipulating at the outset that physical objects should change their nature when it was necessary for the sake of Israel's implementation of the Torah, G‑d wrote this miraculous possibility into their very constitution. This means that when miracles occurred, this would not be an interruption of their natural existence, but its continuation and fulfillment.

This makes their existence of an entirely different order. They become not things which exist for a while and then pass away, but rather things whose destiny is (by the very nature of their creation) linked with the miraculous and eternal existence of Israel, and their miraculous and eternal realization of the divine purpose.