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Sea Splitting Version 2.0

Picture courtesy of Seed UK 2023

On the 21st of Nissan, the Seventh Day of Pesach, we read the story which took place seven days after the Children of Israel left Egypt.  Moshe stretches out his hand over the Sea and Gd split the waters of the Yam Suf.  The Torah tells us

שמות י״ד:כ״ב Exodus 14:22

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם בַּיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חֹומָ֔ה מִֽימִינָ֖ם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָֽם

The Children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, the waters forming a wall חֹומָ֔ה for them on their right and on their left.

The Israelites walk on dry land and are miraculously saved.

The Egyptian army chase after and pursue the Israelites; the Egyptian camp is confounded.  Gd told Moshe once again to stretch out his hand over the Sea, the walls collapse and the water returns to its original position;  The water covered Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen are hurled into the midst of the sea.

At first glance Exodus 14:29 seems very similar to Exodus 14:22 it seems to be unnecessarily repetitive.  Since every word and letter in the Torah is meaningful; upon a closer reading of the text; some slight, but significant differences can be noticed.   Closely focusing on the difference of one letter we can observe

שמות י״ד:כ״ט Exodus 14:29
וּבְנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָלְכ֥וּ בַיַּבָּשָׁ֖ה בְּת֣וֹךְ הַיָּ֑ם וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חֹמָ֔ה מִֽימִינָ֖ם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָֽם

The Children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, the waters forming a wall חֹמָ֔ה for them on their right and on their left.

In verse 22 the word חֹומָ֔ה “wall,” includes a letter “vav.” Whereas, in verse 29 it is written חֹמָ֔ה omitting the letter “vav”

 ילקוט שמעוני על התורה רלח Yalkut Shimoni 238 explains
since the vav is missing in the word chomah חֹמָ֔ה, wall, it can be vowelized as chema חֵמָה, rage; so it is possible to re-read the verse as “the water had anger on their right and on their left”, indicating that the sea was enraged…  

Why would the Sea be angry?

Rabbi Pinchas Friedman (in the name of his uncle Rabbi Avraham Aharon Freidman in his book Beis Avraham Beis Aharon on the Hagadda) gives us an insight.

According to the Midrash, the Sea split once for the Israelite Nation and a second time for Datan and Aviram!

Datan and Aviram had remained in Egypt; they were not with the Israelite nation when the Sea initially split. Afterwards, however, when they heard that the Egyptians had miraculously drowned, they regretted their decision not to leave Egypt and they opted to rejoin the Israelite Nation. When they arrived at the Yam Suf, long after the rest of the Israelites, the Sea miraculously split a second time.

Support for this notion can be found in Parshas Beshalach.

After Pharaoh eventually sends the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, at the start of Chapter 14 Gd hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he appears to change his mind.  He takes six hundred elite chariots and chases after the Israelites.

שמות י״ד:ג׳ Exodus 14:3
…וְאָמַ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל נְבֻכִ֥ים הֵ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ
Pharaoh said to the Children of Israel, ‘They are astray in the land…

If the Israelites had already left Egypt in Exodus Chapter 13 – how did Pharaoh speak to Israelites in Chapter 14?

תרגום יונתן על שמות י״ד:ג׳ Targum Jonathan Exodus 14:3  in his Aramaic translation interprets the verse

וְיֵמַר פַּרְעה לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי יִשְרָאֵל דְּמִשְׁתַּיְירוּן בְּמִצְרַיִם
Pharaoh said to Datan and Aviram, sons of Israel, who had remained in Egypt

According to Yonatan ben Uzziel,  Datan and Aviram had remained in Egypt after the Children of Israel had left, perhaps this explains the apparent redundancy (with a few minor changes) in Exodus 14:22 and  Exodus 14:29.

The sea split the first time for the Children of Israel Exodus 14:22

וַיָּבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם בַּיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה

The Children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land

and verse 29 refers to the time that the sea split a second time specifically for Datan and Aviram  Exodus 14:29

וּבְנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָלְכ֥וּ בַיַּבָּשָׁ֖ה בְּת֣וֹךְ הַיָּ֑ם

The Children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea

באר מים חיים, שמות י״ד:כ״ט Be’er Mayim Chaim Exodus 14:29 explains

מִעוּט רַבִּים שְׁנַיִם, לוֹמַר כִּי עַל שְׁנַיִם מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל לְבַד נִקְרַע הַיָּם וְהֵם דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם שֶׁאָמְרוּ חֲזַ”ל שֶׁנִּשְׁאֲרוּ וְנִקְרַע הַיָּם עֲלֵיהֶם לְבַד

…The lowest possible plural is two, indicating because of only two people, the sea split 

they were Datan and Aviram, about whom our Rabbis say they remained in Egypt and the sea split for them alone.

It is most surprising that Datan and Aviram merited this private miracle as the commentators and Midrashim identify Datan and Aviram as a consistent thorn in Moshe’s side;

ילקוט שמעוני על התורה קס״ז Yalkut Shimoni 167 states
כָּל מָה שֶׁאַתָּה יָכוֹל לִתְלוֹת בָּרְשָׁעִים תָּלָה
Whatever you can blame on these wicked people – blame on them!

According to the Midrash שמות רבה א:כט Exodus Rabba 1:29
הֵם הָיוּ שֶׁהוֹתִירוּ מִן הַמָּן
הֵם הָיוּ שֶׁאָמְרוּ: נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה (במדבר יד:ד)
הֵם שֶׁהִמְרוּ עַל יַם סוּף
they left over the Manna
They said  ‘Let us appoint a leader, and let us return to Egypt.’ (Numbers 14:4)
They rebelled at the Sea of Reeds

If they caused so many problems for Moshe and the Children of Israel, why were Datan and Aviram entitled to have a private splitting of the Yam Suf?  The water itself was reluctant to part for them.

וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חֹמָ֔ה (without a vav) Exodus 14:29
The water was enraged
because it had to split a second time BEGRUDGINGLY for their sake.

מהרי’ל דיסקין פרשת בשלח עט Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin in his commentary on Parshas Beshalach 79 explains why Datan and Aviram deserved that the Sea should have split specifically for them.

דָּתָן וַאֲבִירָם הָיוּ בֵּין הַשּׁוֹטְרִים שֶׁמָּסְרוּ עַצְמָן עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְסָבְלוּ מַכּוֹת כְּדֵי לְהָקֵל הָעֲבוֹדָה

מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל …בְּכָל זֹאת הַזְּכוּת הָזוּ עַל מָה שֶׁהָיוּ מוֹסְרִים נַפְשָׁם וְסִבְלוֹ יִסּוּרִי הַגּוּף

…כְּדֵי לְהָקֵל הָעֲבוֹדָה מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה תּוֹלֶה לָהֶם

Datan and Aviram were amongst the officers that sacrificed themselves for Israel and took a beating in order to lighten the work from the Israelites…. Although Datan and Aviram did not merit the level of prophecy, because they insulted and belittled when they stood against Gd and Moshe,  because they sacrificed themselves and bore physical pain in order to lighten the burden of the Israelites a special merit is attributed to them

Datan and Aviram suffered pain in order to prevent physical harm to the Israelites

שמות ה׳: י״ד Exodus 5:14
וַיֻּכּ֗וּ שֹֽׁטְרֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣מוּ עֲלֵהֶ֔ם נֹגְשֵׂ֥י פַרְעֹ֖ה
The foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten….

Datan and Aviram were exceptionally wicked men, however they had one saving grace.  They had the incredible merit of taking beatings on behalf of the Children of Israel in their capacity as being the foreman.  They put themselves out to assist their fellow Jews.  For this very reason, despite their awful behaviour,  Datan and Aviram merited that the sea would split only for them alone.

ילקוט שמעוני על התורה קס״ג Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 163 develops this idea further;

הָיוּ מוֹסְרִים אוֹתָם בַּיָּד הַנֹּגְשִׂים וְהָיוּ אוֹמְרִים: מוּטָב לָנוּ לְלַקוֹת וְאַל יִכָּשְׁלוּ שְׁאָר
הָעָם….. מִכָּאן אַתָּה לָמַד שֶׁכֹּל מִי שֶׁמּוֹסֵר עַצְמוֹ עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל זוֹכֶה לַכָּבוֹד וְלַגְּדֻלָּה

…They sacrificed themselves at the hands of the taskmasters and said; it is better for us to get beaten rather than the rest of the people. …

…From here you can learn that anyone who dedicates himself for the sake of Israel merits honour and glory…

When the Sea split the reverberations were felt around the world.

The Yam Suf parted a second time just for Datan and Aviram, (the trouble makers who caused so many problems for Moshe and the Children of Israel) because they had the special merit that they had put themselves out on behalf of others.

Since the tragic events on October 7th, we have heard accounts of many brave people who like Aner Shapiro  הי’ד  (who unarmed fended off seven grenades) or Oz Davidian (who rescued 120 people from the Nova festival) exerted themselves to save others.  The merit that Aner, Oz and the other countless individuals deserve for putting themselves out to save others is immeasurable.

Who knows the ripple effects that our actions can have – when we put ourselves out for other people?

About the Author
Chava is a Community Educator in London and has served as the Scholar in Residence at Hampstead and Finchley United Synagogues. She is a regular speaker at various shuls and private homes. Chava completed an MA in Jewish Education (LSJS and Birkbeck), an MA in Property Valuation and Law (City University Business School) and a BSc (London School of Economics) in Accounting and Finance. She is a Matan Bellows Eshkolot Fellow, an alumnus of Michlala, and a graduate of the LSJS Bradfield Women's Educators, the Montefiore Scholar Diploma and the Herzog Tanach Teachers Programmes