Who Really Split the Sea CY Sourcesheet (pdf)
Who Really Split the Sea E-Shiur (pdf)

When the children of Israel reached the sea, they were trapped. Behind them was Pharaoh’s marauding army and in front of them the sea. With nowhere to go they were terrified, sensing that death was imminent. Outwardly, Moshe tried to calm his people, but at the same time he cried out to God for help. The leaders of the tribes feared jumping into the sea. At the height of desperation, a chieftain from the tribe of Judah, Nahshon ben Aminadav, took a leap of faith into the raging sea. The sea was calmed and split, allowing the children of Israel to pass through. This midrashic story, which does not appear in the Torah, has entered the collective memory of the Jewish people, marking Nahshon as one of the great folk heroes of the Jewish people.

This story, however, is only one of two versions of what happened at the sea, as found in the tannaitic midrash on Shemot known as the Mechilta de Rabbi Yishmael (Beshalah Parasha 5, Horowitz Rabin ed. pp. 104-5). While this midrash has been adopted into the national consciousness and taught to generations of children, the other version of the story has been left forgotten for reasons which I will now explore.  Both versions deserve to be heard and the less well-known version of the story still preserves an important religious message.

The two stories are preserved as midrashim on Exodus 14:22:

“And the children of Israel went into the sea on dry ground the waters forming a wall for them on the right and on the left.”

If we read this verse “super-literally” we get the impression that the children of Israel “went into the sea” and then once they were already in the sea it became “dry ground.” This strange understanding prompted the question – how could the children of Israel be convinced to walk into the sea? It is this question which prompted these two stories.

The less well known of the stories (Source #1) is related in the name of Rabbi Meir and is based on a midrashic reading of a verse from the book of Psalms (68:28):

“There is young Benjamin who rules them, the princes of Judah who command them, the princes of Zebulun and Naphtali.”

Rabbi Meir’s midrash is based on his creative interpretation of the words: “rodem” and “regamtum” and his application of them to the tribes at the sea. Rabbi Meir interprets the word “rodem” as “reid yam – went down to the sea”. (This kind of midrash is called a “notarikon” – a midrash based on splitting one word into a number of words.) The word “regamtum” is understood for the sake of our story to mean “stoned them” (the root reish gimel mem commonly means “to stone” in the Bible).

The midrash begins: “When the tribes stood at the sea, this one said: ‘I will descend first into the sea’ and the other said: ‘I will descend first into the sea’. In the midst of their argument, the tribe of Benjamin jumped and descended into the sea first, as it is written: ‘There is young Benjamin who went into the sea (rodem), the princes of Judah who stoned them, the princes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Your God has ordained strength for you, the strength, O God, which you displayed for us on high.’ (Psalms 68:28-9) Do not read “rodem – ruling them” but “rad yam – descended into the sea” Then the princes of Judah threw stones at them, as it says: ‘The princes of Judah stoned them’.”

Rabbi Meir relates the episode at the sea to the long lasting rivalry between the two tribes which strived to rule Israel (Benjamin – the house of Saul, and Judah – the house of David). The midrash continues with a parable:

“A parable. To what can this be compared? To a king who had two sons, one older and one younger. The king said to the younger one: ‘Wake me up at sunrise’ and he told his older son: ‘Wake me up at the third hour of the day‘. When the younger son went to wake his father at sunrise, the older brother did not let him, saying: ‘Father told me to wake him at the third hour.’ The younger brother responded: ‘He said to me at sunrise.’ While they were standing and arguing, their father woke up and he said to them: ‘My sons, in any case, both of you only had my honor in mind. So, too, I will not withhold my reward from you.”

This parable has a theologically provocative and sophisticated message.  Each of the sons was given a different command by the king (God). Each thought the command given by the king was authentic and needed to be carried out properly, and each of them acted to carry out the command as they saw it with maximum enthusiasm. Yet these obligations contradict each other, causing conflicts between the two sons who are both loyal to the king. This parable thoroughly reflects many of the conflicts in the Jewish community today, where different elements of the Jewish community sense they are responding to Divine imperatives even though they point in different directions! The bottom line of this parable is also telling. The king rewards both sons because each of them had the king’s interests in mind.

One might infer from this midrash that there will always be different nuances of how to approach service to God. These differences might even cause heated disagreement. Each of the parties involved may see its position as absolute. Still, God measures the virtue of each of the positions on the sincerity of the one who holds it.

In Rabbi Meir’s version (above) of what prompted the sea to split, all of the tribes wanted to enter the sea first. They all equally exuded their trust and faith in God. In Rabbi Judah’s more familiar version (Source #2) the opposite is true; faith and leadership were at a nadir.

“When the Israelites stood at the sea, one said: ‘I will not be the first one to descend into the sea’, while the other also said: ‘I will not be the first one to enter into the sea’. While they stood there deliberating, Nahshon ben Amminadav jumped up and descended into the sea and fell into the waves. Regarding him (Nahshon) it is written: ‘Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the slimy deep and find no foothold…’ (Psalms 69:2-3)”

What makes Nahshon a hero in this story? He was willing to get himself involved in some risky business, as the quotation from Psalms indicates. It seems to me that he had three good reasons: 1. Faith in God; 2. He wanted to do what is right for his people; 3. There was no other choice.  These qualities were considered ideal leadership qualities.  This midrash was brought, in part, to explain why the tribe of Judah became the tribe of kings.

The midrash records one last vignette where it describes what Moshe was doing at the desperate moment:

“At this moment Moshe stood lost in prayer before the Holy One Blessed Be He. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘Moshe, my friend is sinking in the water and you are lost in prayer before Me?’ Moshe said to Him: ‘Master of the Universe, what can I do? He said to him: ‘And lift up your staff’ (Ex. 14:16)”

Nahshon intuitively knew what was required of the leader at this moment. Moshe needed to be guided by God. At that moment, Nahshon’s personality overshadowed that of Moshe thereby teaching this important lesson. Redemption is an active process. Prayer alone was insufficient. Action was necessary – action fueled by faith and trust in God. This is what Nahshon provided and for this the monarchy became his tribe’s prize:

“What did Israel say at the sea? ‘The Lord will reign forever and ever.’ (Ex. 15:18) The Holy One Blessed Be He said: ‘He who was the cause of My being proclaimed king at the sea, shall be made king over Israel.”

Pesah, the festival of the redemption, urges us to take up the cudgels to act as forces for redemption as individuals and as a community, each with our utmost sincerity for the sake of creating God’s world. This is a message shared by both the tribes of Benjamin and Judah.