The spiritual equivalent of the splitting of the sea, the final act in the exodus from Egypt, is that service which uncovers the G‑dliness in nature and which leads the world closer to Torah.

When the Jewish people left Egypt and slavery, they were pursued by their erstwhile taskmasters, the Egyptians, until they reached the Reed Sea. Trapped between the sea and the advancing Egyptians, they were saved by the miraculous parting of the sea and the subsequent drowning of their enemies. This happened on the seventh day after the exodus and is celebrated as the festival of Shevi’i Shel Pesach.1

“Go Forward!”

Our Sages relate2 that before the sea parted, the Jews, faced with the overwhelming might of the oncoming Egyptians and with nowhere to retreat, divided into four schools of thought. One school believed that the Jews should throw themselves into the sea rather than allow themselves to be captured and once more enslaved to Pharaoh. A second group of Jews was resigned to becoming slaves again. A third camp championed the idea of fighting it out with the Egyptians. The last group believed prayer to G‑d was the appropriate response.

None of these approaches, Moshe Rabbeinu informed them, was correct. He told them:3 “Do not fear, stand by and see the deliverance of the L‑rd which He will bring for you today; indeed, the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see them again. The L‑rd will do battle for you, and you shall keep silent.”

Moshe’s words contained a rejoinder to each of the four factions. To those who thought all was lost and suicide was the only alternative were addressed the words, “Stand by and see the deliverance of the L‑rd”; to the faction which was willing to return to Egypt the answer was, “the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see them again”; to the pro-war party his response was, “The L‑rd will do battle for you”; and to those who believed prayer was the appropriate response came the retort, “you shall keep quiet.”

What then should the Jews do? G‑d’s directive was clear: “Tell the children of Israel, ‘Go forward!’”4 — forward to Mount Sinai, there to receive the Torah, the purpose of the exodus.5 And, as we know, G‑d split for them the sea and dealt with those who would enslave His people once more.

The splitting of the sea, then, was the last act in the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Although they had succeeded in escaping from Egypt the Jews could not reckon themselves truly free from bondage until the threat of the pursuing Egyptians and return to Egypt had been eliminated once and for all.6 That happened at the splitting of the sea on Shevi’i Shel Pesach.7

Spiritual splitting of the Sea

The exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea have their spiritual equivalents in each generation and indeed, in a Jew’s service to G‑d each day.8 “Egypt” in Hebrew is Mitzrayim which is cognate to the word “meitzorim,” meaning limits. The liberation from Egypt symbolizes the battle by the Jew to be free of the limits and constraints imposed by nature, the struggle of his G‑dly soul against the smothering constraints of the animal soul and evil inclination.9 Although he lives in a world where evil may prosper10 and G‑dliness is shrouded, a Jew need realize that in reality he is a servant to no one other than G‑d.11 His master is G‑d, not Pharaoh.

Though the animal soul and evil inclination, Pharaoh and Egypt, may seek, and seek mightily, to curtail the G‑dly soul’s powers, a Jew must stand steadfast in his determination to accept upon himself the yoke of heaven, to serve G‑d and G‑d alone. Thereby a Jew enacts his own personal exodus from Egypt, breaking out from that which seeks to limit and constrain his service to G‑d.

But as in the actual exodus, its spiritual counterpart has, in addition to the actual departure from Egypt, a final act, a spiritual splitting of the sea, without which the exodus is incomplete. Though a Jew may succeed in the battle against the evil inclination by accepting upon himself the yoke of heaven, the war has not yet been won, for his adversaries remain intact, their powers undiminished, and their goal the same: to obstruct the light of the G‑dly soul. As long as a Jew serves G‑d only because he must, from duty, without zest or fervor, he will always be in danger of one day succumbing to his foes.12 To assure victory the exodus must be completed: a Jew must undergo a spiritual splitting of the sea.

At the splitting of the sea, G‑d “changed the sea to dry land.”13 “Sea” represents the concealment of the G‑dly power that invests all creation, just as the sea covers everything in it.14 The changing of the sea to dry land symbolizes the uncovering of that previously concealed G‑dliness. A Jew’s personal splitting of the sea, then, is that service to G‑d which enables him to lift the concealing veils of nature and to perceive the Divine force in all creation. The world is no longer a barrier to G‑dliness; he has achieved the final act in the exodus; he is finally and fully free of all constraints.

Confrontation with the world

In the spiritual exodus, as in the actual exodus, the four schools of thought into which the Jews divided when faced with the pursuing Egyptians may present themselves. Faced with a world seemingly hostile to G‑dliness, where evil triumphs, a G‑d-fearing Jew may be tempted to choose one of those four alternatives. And here, too, only one response is valid — “Go forward!” Should another approach be adopted, the sea will not be split and the exodus will remain incomplete.

The least valid of the four schools of thought is that which advocates that a Jew, placed in a world in which a Pharaoh exists and worse yet, may prevail, should throw himself into the sea, the sea here meaning the sea of Torah and prayer. Withdraw from the world, this school of thought counsels, and through personal study and prayer unite with G‑d to the exclusion of all else.

This approach is wrong because the Jew who adopts it has selfishly opted to care about only his spiritual wellbeing. He is not concerned with the fate of other Jews, with doing his share in ridding the earth of its Pharaohs, with revealing G‑dliness in the world. He attends only to himself.15

A less tainted attitude is that which advises return to Egypt. It is adopted by the Jew who has relinquished all hope of achieving anything in the world or, indeed, with himself. He is resigned to the inevitable, to succumbing to the limits and constraints imposed by nature, to returning to Mitzrayim. Such a Jew is observant of the mitzvos, meticulous in his adherence to Jewish law — but only because G‑d has so commanded. In a perpetual state of despair, Torah and mitzvos become a burden to him, a heavy yoke that never departs, to be performed mechanically, unwillingly, devoid of joy or life.16 Service to G‑d has been perverted into forced labor.17

War or prayer

A loftier response is the exhortation to battle. Unable to accept the concealment of G‑dliness in which nature shrouds the world, this type of Jew wars directly against nature. Resignation to the inevitability of defeat is not acceptable; he believes fervently that holiness can overcome impurity and campaigns accordingly, with zeal and passion.18

Yet this approach, too, is deficient, for it is mistimed, misplaced, and susceptible to ulterior motives. Mistimed, because when one’s task is to illumine positively the world with the light of Torah, it is improper to divert one’s energies into warring.19 Misplaced, because the ultimate goal in serving G‑d is not to destroy nature but to refine it so that in nature, too, G‑dliness is apparent. Susceptible to ulterior motives, for in deciding on combat, one cannot be sure that the decision stems from pure motives and not from personal aggressiveness.20

The last, and least invalid of the four schools of thought, is prayer, which is the cleaving to and union with G‑d.21 This approach has none of the drawbacks of the other three: It does not advocate disassociating oneself from the world (throwing oneself into the sea), for it recognizes that G‑d desires that the world be made holy; it does not condone despair (return to Egypt), for it has utmost faith that G‑d’s desire will be implemented; it does not promote battle against nature, with the employment of self-devised strategies (war against Egypt), for a Jew truly united with G‑d will not have independent desires. Instead, everything is left to G‑d, with the heartfelt prayer that G‑d will do all that is necessary to achieve the required goals.

Yet, lofty as an attitude surrendering oneself totally into G‑d’s hands may be, it, too, is inadequate, for it lacks the involvement of the Jew himself. To be self-effacing, to believe that everything comes from G‑d, is important to be sure; but one must also contribute, actively serve.

True path of service

A paradox? Yes, for ordinary people. But for the Jew, whose soul is a part of G‑d above, before Whom there are no paradoxes, self-effacement and positive service are not paradoxes, for both stem from the soul. They can be reconciled, indeed, complement one another.

This, then, is the true path of service, that which G‑d instructed through His servant Moshe: “Tell the children of Israel, ‘Go forward!’” — forward to Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Do not insulate yourself from the world; do not serve lifelessly; do not war against the world; and do not fold your hands and leave it all to G‑d. Instead, serve G‑d in the world, bringing it and oneself closer to Torah.

It is this service which leads to the splitting of the sea, when G‑d “turns sea into dry land” — when the G‑dliness in the world is revealed.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, pp. 876-887