Let My People Know

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: "A very poetic midrash says that the mothers of Israel crossed the Red Sea while nursing their infants"


The splitting of the Red Sea is part of an unfolding revelation that takes place gradually in three stages in the fifty days that separate Passover from Shavuot.

The first stage takes place in Egypt. 

There,during the tenth plague,on the eve of the Exodus,it is said that the "King of Kings of Kings revealed Himself to them." 

Then the miracle of the Red Sea took place. 

This was the second stage. 

The third stage takes place on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments are handed down.

During each of these three stages, a forceful revelation takes place, like a tidal wave. 

Each stage has its own particular features. 

Let us take the case of the Red Sea. 

Religious feeling is classically defined as an "oceanic feeling." 

Crossing the sea on dry land is a very singular form of revelation. 

It is not a typical revelation; it is not a revelation of the Other.

Although the splitting of the Red Sea is in some ways a revelation of transcendence, this is not the most important feature. 

Its essence is less to reveal God than to reveal my own infinity to myself. 

This revelation brings the individual to the depths of his own self. 

It is a preparation and a tool for the third stage, the revelation of the Other.

It is a preparatory stage that goes further than the Socratic instruction "Know thyself." 

It is the sea, not the heavens, that opened. 

I descend to that ultimate point where my reality is entirely laid open to me. 

From this point, I will be able to receive other forms of knowledge. 

In other words, I need to know what I am capable of doing before, for example, receiving the Torah. 

The goal of the parting of the Red Sea is to reveal my own existence to myself. 

Everything opens, the curtain is torn open, and I see. 

Everything takes place through vision. 

"Israel saw . . . a mere maidservant saw."

 It is written that "the people had faith in the Lord and in Moses His servant"-not because they had witnessed an amazing miracle, for they had already seen amazing miracles, but because they saw what reality was like.

At each of the major stages of the revelation–the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and Sinai–the concept of faith comes to the fore. 

What is Moses doing in Egypt? 

He publicly reveals the miraculous powers that God gave to him at the burning bush. 

And how do the people react? 

"And the people believed when they heard that the Lord had visited the Children of Israel and that He had looked upon their affliction."

During the parting of the Red Sea, it is said a second time, that "the people believed." 

Finally, at Sinai, God says to Moses: "I will come to you in a thick cloud. in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so believe you ever after."

This again involves bringing Israel to faith.

But the approaches are different. 

When Moses performs the miracles in Egypt, they elicit trust, the most elementary form
of faith.

In other words, I do not really know what or who it is, but I feel that something exists.

The second form of faith is reflected in the Hebrew etymology of the root AMN, from which come the words emunah (faith) and emet (truth).

During the parting of the Red Sea, faith is an apprehending of truth that receives verification.

When it is said that Israel "saw the powerful hand . . . and believed in the Lord and in Moses," it means that they knew it was true. 

In other words, now I have experienced all the things that I only believed in before. 

I knew, but only through hearsay; I heard about it for generations. 

Now I really see it and have a personal vision of it.

Moses best summarizes the nature of the event at the start of the song of the Red Sea:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord.

They said:

       I will sing to the Lord for He has           triumphed gloriously,

       Horse and driver he has hurled into         the sea.

       The Lord is my strength and might,

       He has become my deliverance.

       This is my God and I will enshrine           Him,

       The God of my father, and I will             exalt Him.

The key word here is the word zeh, which means "this." 

If the Bible had said "that" God would have remained distant.

But the word zeh always designates something that you can point to. 

A very poetic midrash says that the mothers of Israel crossed the Red Sea while nursing their infants. 

Suddenly the babies stopped nursing and cried out, pointing: "This is my God” 

The infant, like the adult, suddenly sees the Other, that God, coming closer, like someone we do not think we know, until we realize, "It is him. I recognize him!" 

This is a new step forward in faith; in one unique moment, I see.

What remained is memory. 

The parting of the Red Sea is destined to be inscribed in our memory. 

All the Jewish holidays etch a historical event in our memories and are more than archetypes: 

They create a genetic mutation in the Jewish people. 

We cannot perceive the parting of the Red Sea.

It occurred once and for all,and will not repeat itself. 

The memory of this event,however,is engraved in the holiday and hence in our collective experience.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz