“The Wand and the Wind” Parashat Beshalach 5776

The greatest miracle in the history of the universe is unquestionably the splitting of the Red Sea. The Midrash is effusive with descriptions of the miracles that occurred along with and alongside the actual splitting of the sea. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, writes that “A handmaiden saw [miracles at the sea] that were not even witnessed by Ezekiel the Prophet [in the revelation described in the first chapter of Ezekiel]”. This year we’re going to take a closer look at the actual mechanics of the miracle.

Hashem gives Moshe clear instructions how to split the sea [Shemot 14:16]: “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it; and the children of Israel shall enter the sea on dry land”. Use the wand! Moshe does indeed use the staff, but it appears that the sea was split by something else [Shemot 14:21]: “Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea, and Hashem churned the sea with the strong east wind all night, and He made the sea into dry land and the waters split”. So what was it – the wand or the wind? This question is addressed by many commentators. I want to zoom in to three of them in particular. Rav Yaakov the son of the R”osh[1] asserts that the it was the staff that split the sea. The wind was required only to dry out the muddy riverbed so that Am Yisrael could pass through unhindered. The Abarbanel gives a similar yet opposite explanation.  According to the Abarbanel it was the wind that split the sea while the wand caused the water on either side of the gash to solidify after the wind had subsided. The Netziv of Volozhn explains that the entire process of the splitting of the sea – splitting the water, drying the riverbed, and solidifying the walls – could have been performed with either the wind or the wand. Had Hashem performed the miracle with the wind, the miracle would have been considered a natural miracle (b’derech ha’teva). But had the miracle been performed with the wand it would have been considered an unnatural miracle (lo b’derech ha’teva), a miracle on a higher level than a natural miracle. In order for Hashem to perform the unnatural miracle Am Yisrael had to demonstrate their trust by entering the sea before it parted. The wind was standing by just in case they remained passive. Along came Nachshon the son of Aminadav, who (according to the Midrash) jumped into the sea, enabling the performance of the unnatural miracle exclusively via the magic wand.

The common denominator of these explanations is that they portray the wind as a sort of second-class miracle. This seems to fly in the face of the Torah’s glorification of the wind. In the Shirat HaYam, Moshe and Am Yisrael praise Hashem with words like [Shemot 15:8] “With the wind of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up; the running water stood erect like a wall; the depths congealed in the heart of the sea” and [Shemot 15:10] “You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the powerful waters”. The word “wand” is not mentioned even once. Why does the Torah emphasize the secondary cause and marginalize the primary cause?

Let’s take a step back and ask a hypothetical question: Could the sea have been split completely naturally with wind and if so, how? Prima facie this would seem impossible. Let’s assume[2] that a strong easterly wind came up, like the Torah states. Let’s further assume that this wind had the necessary force to part the sea in a way that would let Am Yisrael pass through. The wind would have to blow continuously in order to keep the walls of water from falling. One of the rocket scientist’s tricks of the trade is knowing that a missile’s cost is relative to its weight. In order to calculate the weight of a missile we calculate its volume and assume that it is made of water. This usually gives a pretty good estimate of its weight.

This formula works even better when is used to estimate the weight of humans because we are about 60% water. Here’s the problem: a wind that is strong enough to push aside the volume of water the size of a human being is also strong enough to push aside a human being. Am Yisrael would have been blown in the wind like paper – unless the wind was not a horizontal wind, but, rather, a vertical wind. This is the definition of “wind shear”, a phenomenon caused by winds in close proximity blowing at different speeds. The result can be a “microburst” of downward wind with great force. If such a downward wind had been blowing over the Red Sea, it could theoretically have parted the sea without imparting fatal force upon the people who were crossing the sea[3]. One more step. A careful look at the Torah shows that when Hashem “unsplit” the sea and drowned the Egyptians, wind is not mentioned. The Torah does not say that “the wind stopped and the waters crashed down”. This can also be explained with the laws of physics. The reaction of water to wind is a highly complex function of wind speed, direction, and the depth of the water. Sometimes the wind creates waves that make surfers delirious with joy and sometimes it just makes turbulent froth. The difference between a wind that makes waves and a wind that makes froth can be negligible. It could postulated that after Am Yisrael exited the Red Sea the wind shifted ever so slightly and the sea began to churn in a turbulent mess, crashing down over the Egyptians. Indeed, this explanation can help us to understand the description in the Torah [Shemot 14:27]: “Hashem stirred the Egyptians into the sea.” The same wind that split the sea shifted and it stirred the Egyptian Army into the sea. We must conclude that it was physically possible for a wind to split the Red Sea, enabling Am Yisrael to walk through on dry land, and then to crash the sea back on the Egyptians. This conclusion is important because of Occam’s razor, a scientific rule that states that of all possibilities, the simplest one is the preferred one. In this case, the simplest answer would be to attribute the splitting of the sea to a well-timed microburst as opposed to an all-knowing being whose commandments I must follow lest I burn in hell.

This kind of thinking can be refuted with the holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates two miracles: the military defeat of the Greco-Syrians by the Maccabees, and the jug of oil that should have only burnt for one day but lasted for eight days. Which of the miracles is the primary miracle and which is the secondary miracle? The answer is clearly written in the “Al HaNisim” prayer that we add to the Amida during Chanukah, in which we thank Hashem for performing miracles: “You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” It is clear that the military victory was the primary miracle. The Maccabees were outnumbered and outgunned and yet they defeated the best-equipped army in the world. The problem with this miracle is that it can be physically explained away. I have heard it explained that given the topography of the Judean hills and given the way in which the Greek Army typically fought its battles, the Maccabees were actually favoured to win. The MaHaRaL of Prague, writing in “Ner Mitzvah”, insists that the military battle was indeed a miracle and the primary reason we celebrate Chanukah. However, in order to show that the victory was not a result of military prowess, arms, or strategy, the miracle of the oil – a miracle that could not be explained in a natural way – occurred. This retroactively proved that the military victory was just as miraculous.

So what was it: the wand or the wind? The answer is that Moshe’s staff was necessary to demonstrate that the ordinary wind that seemed to be obeying the laws of nature by sawing the sea in half was, in fact, an extraordinary miracle, courtesy of the Almighty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yoav ben Chaya.

[1] Rav Yaakov’s best known commentary on the Torah is the Ba’al Ha’turim, which consists primarily of gematriya and plays-on-words. His other commentary on the Torah is much more pithy.

[2] This analysis is similar to the analysis that used in our shiur of Vayetze 5775 to disprove the urban legend of the wind that blew a Fajr-5 rocket into the sea four seconds before it hit the Azrieli Centre.

[3] The required downward force of the wind is a function of the desired height of the walls of water, which, in turn, is a function of the depth of the sea. I leave the mathematics for the interested reader.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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