Not Merely History

The Seventh Day of Pesach commemorates the Splitting of the Red Sea, the climax of the Exodus from Egypt. Until “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore,”1 they re­mained in dread of Egypt’s military might; some were even prepared to submit to slavery again rather than risk death.2 After the Splitting of the Sea, however, all fear of danger ended and they experienced true freedom.

Our Sages consider these two events, the Exodus from Egypt and the Splitting of the Red Sea, to be of such funda­mental importance that they require us to recall them every day.3 This obligation indicates that they are not simply inci­dents in history. Instead, the Exodus from Egypt and the Splitting of the Red Sea reflect two continually relevant stages in our service of G‑d.

Leaving Egypt means transcending our limitations and ceasing to be slaves by identifying ourselves as servants of G‑d.4 The Exodus from Egypt was not complete, however, until the Splitting of the Red Sea. By the same token, on a personal level, each individual’s experience of leaving Egypt is incomplete without the spiritual parallel to the Splitting of the Red Sea.

The commitment to leave Egypt, to transcend the limits of our individual selves, often poses a problem, for even those who are firmly committed to Torah practice experience the material world as their frame of reference. Mitzrayim, symbol of the limitations of our worldly existence, determines their world-view.

Many may find themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, they are committed to Torah observance. At the same time, however, their world-view inhibits the expression of this commitment, by making the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos appear to be an obligation which reaches beyond the framework of everyday existence.

Living in the World, but Without Worldliness

This conflict between world-view and practice runs counter to the fundamental tenets of Judaism. Although it is far easier to live spiritually by rejecting the material world, Judaism firmly condemns asceticism and warns against aban­doning the realities of life.5 Judaism requires a person to rise above his material concerns within the context of his daily existence — to engage in all of his deeds “for the sake of heaven”6 while remaining soberly in touch with the world around him.

The difficulty of rejecting worldliness while living within a material framework parallels the spiritual hurdle faced by the Jews after leaving Egypt, but before the Splitting of the Red Sea. Although they had physically departed Egypt, Egypt was still a part of them. This is the crux of the challenge. Often, it is a person’s internalization of his environment — and not its objective reality — which presents him with the most formidable challenges in his service of G‑d.

Uncovering Hidden Truth

As stated above, it was only after the Splitting of the Red Sea that our people were able to break free from the invisible shackles that bound them to Egypt. Similarly, understanding the spiritual parallel to this miracle enables us to resolve the dichotomy between our environment and our spiritual goals and gives us the potential to rise to the challenge of living spiritually in the material world.

We find the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea described7 as follows: “He turned the sea into dry land.” In chassidic thought, the sea serves as a metaphor for the material world which hides the G‑dliness within it. Like the waters of the sea which cover over whatever is within them, our material existence conceals the G‑dly life-force which maintains its exis­tence. The transformation of the sea into dry land symbolizes the revelation of this hidden truth, demonstrating that the world is not separate from G‑d, but rather unified with Him entirely.

Perceiving G‑d’s integrated involvement in our physical world enables us to overcome the challenge posed by our material environment. As long as our faith in G‑d is abstract, removed from experience, it is disconnected from our day-to-day existence. However, when we recognize G‑d’s constant presence and influence in our lives, we are able to see His Torah as a means of establishing a connection with Him as we continue our day-to-day lives.

In this manner, our spiritual service reflects the cycle of historical events experienced by our people. The miracle at the Red Sea completed the process begun by the Exodus from Egypt and prepared the Jews for the Giving of the Torah. By the same token, each person’s individual “exodus from Egypt” is reinforced by his recognition of G‑d’s constant presence, a recognition of the kind represented by the Split­ting of the Sea. This sense of G‑d’s presence brings about a renewed commitment to the Torah and its mitzvos.

Why the Sea Split

The narrative of the Splitting of the Red Sea teaches an­other important lesson about the extent of our commit­ment to the service of G‑d. The miracle at the Red Sea was a direct response to the actions of the Jewish people. The Torah relates8 that when the Jews found themselves trapped between the pursuing Egyptian army and the Red Sea, they “became greatly frightened” and “cried out to G‑d.” G‑d responded by telling Moshe: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Children of Israel to go forward!”

Our Sages explain9 that after Moshe relayed this message, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the Nasi (leader) of the Tribe of Yehudah, plunged into the Red Sea, followed by his tribe and then by the entire Jewish people. They pressed onward until the water reached their nostrils. Only then did the sea split.

Nachshon’s action exemplified mesirus nefesh (self-sacri­fice). He knew that the goal of the Exodus was the Giving of the Torah, for G‑d had promised Moshe,10 “When you bring the people out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d on this mountain.” Accordingly, Nachshon’s only desire was to reach Mt. Sinai. No matter what the obstacles, his resolve would not be shaken. Not even the sea would stand between himself and receiving the Torah.

A Single-Minded Commitment

The outstanding quality of Nachshon’s divine service can be further understood by a comparison between Rabbi Akiva and our patriarch, Avraham. Both lived lives of mesirus nefesh, serving G‑d and teaching His Torah with complete self-sacrifice. They differed, however, in the nature of their commitments.

In defiance of Roman decrees, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach his students. When the Romans captured him, they tortured him to death with combs of iron. During his ordeal, Rabbi Akiva uttered the words of Shema. His students were astounded by his devoutness.

He explained:11

All my life I have been troubled by the command to “[love G‑d...] with all your soul”12 — [which I under­stood to mean, to love G‑d] “even if He takes your soul.” And I used to say, “When shall I have the op­portunity of fulfilling this?”

Rabbi Akiva, then, sought mesirus nefesh all his life, re­garding it as the ultimate height to which man could aspire.

Unlike Rabbi Akiva, Avraham did not regard mesirus nefesh as an end in itself. His life was totally dedicated to the mission of spreading the awareness of G‑d. If the task called for mesirus nefesh, he was prepared to sacrifice his life (as when he was challenged by Nimrod who cast him into a fur­nace of fire13). He did not, however, strive to attain mesirus nefesh. His efforts were dedicated solely to making the world a dwelling place for G‑d.

Why the difference between these two approaches? Rabbi Akiva desired mesirus nefesh because he saw it as the greatest possible form of self-fulfillment. Instead of seeking self-ful­fillment in material things or even in a limited spiritual serv­ice, he sought complete union with G‑d. He understood that since G‑d is infinite, the only way a finite human being could experience total union with Him would be through mesirus nefesh. Avraham, by contrast, was not concerned with self-fulfillment at all. He had only one goal, the mission with which G‑d had charged him.

A similar quality characterized Nachshon. When he plunged into the sea, he did not think of himself or his self-fulfillment, whether material or spiritual; he was conscious of only one thing — G‑d’s commandment to proceed to the Giving of the Torah.

Proceeding to Mashiach

In our own lives, recalling the Splitting of the Red Sea teaches us to strive for selfless determination. The exile in Egypt prepared our people for the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai; the present exile is also a preparation, readying us for the revelation of new dimensions within the Torah by Mashiach. 14 We, like Nachshon and Avraham, have been given a mission — to prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach by disseminating the knowledge of the Torah and its mitzvos.

Nachshon’s steadfast commitment brought about a mi­raculous salvation for the Jewish people. Emulating his commitment will likewise prepare us for the miracles of the Era of the Redemption, which will include a parallel to the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. As the Haftorah recited on the Eighth Day of Pesach relates,15 “G‑d... will raise His hand over the river (Euphrates) with His mighty wind and smite it into seven streams.” May this prophecy be fulfilled speedily, in our days.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, pp. 135-137; Vol. III, Parshas Beshallach, pp. 876-880