Mordechai Silverstein

The Splitting of the Sea – Take 2

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). 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. Still, both versions deserve to be heard and the less well-known version of the story still might preserve 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 above story was told by Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Meir tells the story this way: “When the tribes stood at the sea, this one said: ‘I will descend first into the sea’ and the other said: [No,] I will descend first into the sea’. In the midst of their argument, the tribe of Benjamin jumped and descended into the sea first… Then the princes of Judah, [angered at Benjamin’s having taken the initiative], threw stones at 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). If we overlook Rabbi Meir’s disquieting depiction which likely made it unpopular and proceed to his interpretation of the event, we are left with a surprising positive message: “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: ‘But he told me to wake him at sunrise.’ While they were standing and arguing, their father woke up and said to them: ‘My sons, in any case, both of you only had my honor in mind and so, I will not withhold my reward from either of you.”

This parable is theologically provocative.  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. Yet, these obligations contradicted each other, eliciting a conflict between the two sons who were both loyal to their father, 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 are often in conflict! 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 in how we approach our service to God. These differences might even cause heated disagreements. Still, God measures the virtue of each of the positions, in part, on the sincerity of the one who holds them. Perhaps this vision should also guide us in how we treat those with whom we disagree.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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