The sea and the challenge it presents us have always captured man’s imagination. From the earliest eras of civilization, man has built ships and other sea-craft to venture out upon the waters. These journeys have been very fruitful, allowing man to reach places that would otherwise have been inaccessible. It seems, however, that over and above whatever benefits that could be accrued through such journeys, there is something fundamental in the sea which beckons to man. Perhaps it’s the feelings of peace that are naturally awakened by the soft ripples of a calm sea, the sense of infinity that is aroused by gazing into the never-ending horizon, or the challenge of guiding a vessel through a storm. For each person, the particular association is different, but we all are attracted by the sea and feel a connection with it.

The Zohar (II, 199a) teaches that the sea can be used as a metaphor for the world at large and a ship serves as a metaphor for the soul as it descends into this world. The challenge the sea presents man thus represents the challenge which confronts the soul within this material world. Commenting on the verse (Song of Songs 8:7), “Many waters cannot quench the love,” our Rabbis have explained that the “many waters” reflect the multitude of difficulties and confusing factors that make up the realities of our existence within this world. King Solomon promises that, despite these challenges, the soul’s essential love for G‑d will remain intact.

Psalms (107:23) speaks of “those who descend to the sea,” i.e., for the soul, the necessity of such a confrontation is surely a descent. Ultimately, however, a successful sea voyage opens up new horizons and brings people to places that they could never have reached otherwise. Similarly, this descent into the body and our material world awakens new potentials within the soul and allows it to ascend to higher peaks than before.

The sea is constantly in a state of flux. Similarly, our history has been marked by a variety of different periods. There have been eras, e.g., the era of the Beis HaMikdash, which can be compared to calm and peaceful seas. Even under these circumstances, the soul had to face the challenge of the “many waters” of material existence. The challenge, however, was a pleasant one.

Other eras, for example, the time of exile, can be compared to stormy seas. The challenges are severe — “Darkness covers the world” (Yeshayahu 60:2) — and there is the danger, ח"ו, that the ship (the soul) will sink. What is the source for this danger? The failure to fulfill Torah and mitzvos. Torah and mitzvos are protective influences that guard the soul. Slackening their observance exposes the soul to undesirable possibilities.

In this context, we can understand the metaphoric significance of the law stated by the Rambam at the conclusion of Hilchos Chovail U’Mazik:

When there is a threat that a ship will sink because of the weighty cargo it is carrying and a person jettisons part of the cargo to alleviate the load, he is not held liable. The cargo can be compared to a person pursuing the passengers with the intent of killing them. Thus, by jettisoning it to save them, one performs a great mitzvah.

The cargo carried by the ship — the soul — is the Torah and mitzvos. Because the exile was brought about by the Jews’ failure to perform Torah and mitzvos in a complete way and because it is more difficult for them to fulfill mitzvos while in exile, G‑d lightened the burden of the ship, reducing the amount of mitzvos that the Jews are obligated to fulfill. During the era of the Beis HaMikdash, there were many mitzvos which involved the sacrifices, the laws of ritual purity, and the like which cannot be fulfilled in the time of exile. G‑d “cast them into the sea”1 to preserve the ship, i.e., to allow the Jewish people to continue.2

This reveals how the source of the Jewish soul transcends the Torah. The Torah was given for the sake of the Jews. If the Jewish people would not continue, of what value would be the Torah? Indeed, even Torah law recognizes this concept, stating that פיקוח נפש, a threat to a Jew’s life, takes precedence over all the mitzvos of the Torah.

On the surface, this reduction of responsibility represents a descent, for the Torah and mitzvos are the means of connection between the Jews and G‑d. From the innermost perspective, however, it reflects the essential bond between the Jews and G‑d, a connection which needs no external supports.

This concept is also reflected in the sequence of sin and teshuvah undergone on an individual level. The essential bond tying a Jew to G‑d transcends the Torah. Hence, the violation of Torah law does not damage it. Ultimately, however, the full expression of this bond comes through the service of teshuvah when a Jew expresses this essential oneness by reestablishing the connection of Torah and mitzvos.

To develop this concept within the context of the metaphoric imagery of the law mentioned above: The cargo that is jettisoned need not be abandoned forever. Today, there are salvage companies who have special instruments that allow them to recover lost cargo. Furthermore, in the process of salvaging this cargo, it is also possible to elevate pearls and other valuables from the ocean bed.

What does this symbolism imply? Though in the time of exile, we have less mitzvos, the spiritual commitment reflected in fulfilling these mitzvos is greater. When G‑d sees that we have reached such a commitment, He will bring the Messianic Age when we will recover all the mitzvos which we have lost. The Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt, sacrifices will be offered, and we will be able to fulfill the Torah and mitzvos in their entirety. Also, there will be greater revelations than ever experienced before,3 “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover up the sea” (Yeshayahu 11:9, See also the Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:5).

(Based on Sichah of Shabbos Parshas Shoftim, 2 Elul, 5749)