The greatness of man – his dignity and his creativity – is expressed in his freedom of will and in his ability to choose. – Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
Following the tenth plague in Egypt the Jewish people went free; yet it was not until they crossed the sea that they achieved true freedom. A hint to this idea is found in the name of the site of the sea crossing, “Pi-hahiroth”, which Rashi explains should be read “Pi-haheirut” – the mouth of freedom – “for it is there that they became free.” Given that the people had attained physical freedom immediately upon leaving Egypt, it is my contention that the crossing of the sea provided them the means to achieve something ethereal: spiritual freedom.
This twofold freedom is what informs Maimonides description of the recounting of the Exodus on Passover: “whoever expands upon the things that happened (she-ir’u) and that took place (she-hayu) is to be praised” (Hil. Hametz 7:1). On this, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “She-ir’u always denotes passivity: something happened to me; I am the object; I was overpowered. She-hayu can also denote active participation, a free decision, purposive action” (Festival of Freedom, p. 52). When the Jews left Egypt they were literally forced out: “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste” (Ex. 12:33). In contrast, when the Jews arrived at Pi-hahiroth, as will be explained, they actively took part in the unfolding events.
Freedom, explains Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, is that condition wherein one is presented with a choice and given the possibility to choose, it consists of being placed in an environment wherein both good and evil exist, and one has the capacity to effect choice. Pi-hahiroth was precisely such an environment:
And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn back and encamp before (lifnei) Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon, over against it shall ye encamp on (al) the sea. (Ex. 14:2).
Pi-hahiroth was characterized by three landmarks: Baal-zephon, Migdol, the sea. These are not merely technical loci but the requisite elements to allow the people full freedom. Baal-zephon was, according to classical interpretation, an Egyptian deity and, as Rashi notes, the only idol to escape the destruction, left in order to legitimize its ascribed power. Migdol is a common noun meaning “tower,” but is also an appellative for God as savior, as in “[God is a] tower of salvation” (II Sam. 22:51). As such, with the power of Egypt on one side and the power of Israel on the other, the sea, I suggest, was the medium through which the children of Israel were given the possibility to realize their free choice.
This idea is hinted at in the second, seemingly redundant, mention of the sea in the very same verse 14:2. That is, while the first mention – before the sea – refers to the physical encampment, the second mention – on the sea – lends itself to a more figurative encampment – “encamp in thought” (i.e., contemplate). The verse ends, then, with the command to “contemplate the sea,” emphasizing the notion that the primary focus of their encamping is on the actualization of their free choice.
But this “encamping”, this contemplation, is limited in time, for the human condition does not countenance inaction. That is, the children of Israel must now actualize their choice to move forward, or in stagnation, literally go backward. This dynamic is strikingly depicted by the Egyptian pursuit to bring them back:
And Egypt pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping on (al) the sea, on (al) Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon (14:9).
Note that the verse does not state that “the Egyptians” were to overtake them, but rather “Egypt” itself, and all that it represents, was to take hold of them.
Noteworthy here is how the text, through subtle yet dramatic changes in the description of the position of the people, describes the penultimate moment of truth. Whereas verse 14:2 stated that they were before Pi-hahiroth (the mouth of freedom), in verse 14:9 they are on Pi-hahiroth (the mouth of freedom). Upon arriving at the sea, their task was to meditate on the power that was to rule them as well as how to effect a decision; this point is described as “before the mouth of freedom.” Following this stage of contemplation comes the stage of actualization, wherein the choice is made and, consequently, freedom is achieved; the people’s position at this point is appropriately described as “on the mouth of freedom.”
There is another revealing change in the description of the encampment at the sea. Whereas originally (14:2) Migdol (representative of God as “tower of salvation”) is a primary landmark, at the more advanced stage of the event (14:9) Migdol is no longer visible. For man to actualize his potential he needs freedom and this includes apparent freedom from God’s supervision. By this stage, the people had ample time to internalize the power represented by Migdol and must of their own free will press forward with their decision.
The people, however, had not yet been initiated into the “she-hayu” freedom of “active participation, free decision, and purposive action.” They cried out to God for help (14:10) and they assailed Moses for their predicament (14:11-12), but they never considered taking positive action. Moses too, it seems, was not aware of the dynamic of active participation, as he admonishes the people “to be still”, “to be silent” and to simply “watch God’s salvation” (14:13-14).
Tellingly, God rebuffs Moses saying: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to travel on” (14:15). “No spiritual progress is possible, or will be decreed and precipitated by God, unless man is ready to participate and freely commit himself to a certain idea” (Soloveitchik, p.53). With the command of God, “to travel on”, the test of freedom is really a test of faith. They must throw themselves into the sea, moved only by the faith that God is with them. And so the Jews, with a faith as deep as the sea into which they marched, actively effected not only the sea’s splitting but their spiritual freedom.
The Talmud (Sotah 36b) gives varying accounts of the ultimate moment of truth:
- Rabbi Meir said: At the time that Israel was standing at the edge of the sea, the tribes strove with one another. One said, “I will enter the sea first” and the other said, “I will enter the sea first.” The tribe of Benjamin then jumped and descended into the sea first [and the waters divided] …
- Rabbi Judah said to him: Not so did the event occur, but rather: one said, “I will not enter the sea first” and the other said, “I will not enter the sea first.” Then Nachshon ben-Aminadav jumped and descended into the sea [and the waters divided].
The differences of opinion expressed here are not over the necessity of initiative but the circumstances surrounding that initiative. Rabbi Meir explains that at times, when people’s initiative is stalled due to protocol or some such disagreement, it is the young – represented by Benjamin, the youngest of the tribes – who, with the impetuosity of youth, don’t stand on protocol and do what must be done. Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, notes that there are times, like when people’s initiative is stalled due to fear, that the self-sacrificing initiative of a mature leader is required to do what must be done.
It could be said, then, that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda emphatically agree that the sea split in the merit of human initiative, but that unique circumstances call for unique initiatives. It is this very point, I believe, that is at the heart of a seemingly outrageous Midrash which posits that the sea split into twelve channels, one for each tribe. A split per tribe emphasizes the need for all to participate in the event, each achieving freedom in his own unique way. Indeed, if freedom is to be achieved through active participation, then every individual would not only want but need to have this transformation performed by himself.
The message of Pi-hahiroth is that true freedom is gained not passively through divine miracles but actively through human initiative. At Pi-hahiroth, freedom was achieved by the people in their great “leap of faith” into the sea. The greatness of the splitting of the sea, then, was not in its miraculous nature, but in its ability to provide man with the means to choose, to participate in the dynamic of freedom, and thus express his own greatness.
 The Talmud notes that whoever jumped first attained a leadership role. If it was a Benjaminite, then it is emphasized that the land of Benjamin was to house the Beit HaMikdash – from whence went forth the spiritual leadership. If it was a Judahite, then it is pointed out that the governmental leadership was to emanate from this tribe. Perhaps the message is that spiritual progress, demanding action on philosophy, depends on youthful, impetuous, passion; whereas political leadership, fraught with fearful life and death decisions, requires mature, measured, leadership.