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Passover II 5765-2005

“On the Seventh Day the Walls of Water Split”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The Passover holiday is divided chronologically into two parts, the first days and the last days. It was on the night of the 15th of Nissan, which we now celebrate as the first night of Passover, that the enslavement came to an end with the tenth plague and Pharaoh’s demand that the Jews leave Egypt. However, once the Children of Israel left, Pharaoh had a change of heart and chased after the Israelites to bring them back to Egypt and return them to slavery.

Pursued by the Egyptians from behind, and facing the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) in front, the desperate Israelites cried out to G-d. G-d says to Moses (Exodus 14:15) “Mah titz’ak ay’lai? Dah’bayr el b’nay Yisrael v’yee’sah’oo!” Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth!

According to tradition, it was on the seventh day of Passover that the sea split. In chapter 14 of Exodus, the Torah provides the details. Moses stretches forth his hand over the sea, G-d moves the sea with a strong east wind all night, causing the waters to split, providing a dry passageway for the people. The Torah in Exodus 14:22 tells us that the children of Israel enter the sea on the dry land, “V’ha’mayim la’hem cho’mah, mee’mee’nahm oo’mee’smo’lahm,” and the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.

The Egyptians follow the children of Israel into the sea. Moses, once again, stretches his hand out over the sea, and toward morning the waters return drowning Pharaoh and his entire army. Not one of them remained alive. In Exodus 14:29 the Torah tells us, once again, that the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, “V’ha’mayim la’hem cho’mah mee’mee’nahm oo’mees’mo’lahm,” and the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.

Scripture records that on the day that G-d saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, the people revered G-d, had faith in Him and in Moses His servant.

As we know, the Torah is never long-winded. In fact, it almost always economizes on words. And yet, we see that the Torah repeats the exact same description of the waters in both Exodus 14:22 and in Exodus 14:29: “V’ha’mayim la’hem cho’mah mee’mee’nahm oo’mees’mo’lahm,” the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.

Our rabbis are fond of saying that such a repetition “begs elucidation.” They note, however, that there is indeed one minor difference between the two phrases–that the word “cho’mah”–wall, is spelled differently in verse 29, where it is written without the Hebrew letter “vov.” Although the missing letter doesn’t change the pronunciation, every tiny change in the Torah conveys a message. The rabbis in the Midrash Mechiltah D’Rabbi Ishmael, B’shalach, Chapt. 6, declare: Don’t read this as “cho’mah,” meaning “wall,” but rather “chay’mah” which means “anger.”

It has been suggested that perhaps the first depiction of the walls of water is a literal description of what the children of Israel actually experienced at the time of the exodus. The repetition of this phrase in verse 29, on the other hand, is meant to serve as a message for the Jews for future generations. After all, the Torah doesn’t say “lee’mee’nahm v’lis’mo’lahm,” to their right and to their left, but rather, “mee’mee’nahm oo’mees’mo’lahm,” from their right and from their left.

A number of contemporary interpreters have taken the liberty of saying that this textual change should be seen as a warning for future Jewish generations, that the “waters”–-the flood of anti-Semitism, can come from both the right and the left–from the conservatives or from the liberals, from the fascists or from the communists, and that Jews need always be vigilant.

Perhaps there is another meaning to the “right” and the “left” that applies to contemporary Jewish life and the Jewish community’s religiosity, or lack of it. Jews today are frequently faced with a challenge of religious commitment. Maimonides (the Rambam, great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) advocates seeking the “golden mean,” the middle path of not being too extreme or too casual.

Jews who are looking for a proper philosophical religious orientation are frequently perplexed, wary of being accused of being overly zealous or of lacking commitment. Perhaps the message of the seventh day of Passover and of the splitting of the Reed [or Red] Sea is that Jews ought seek religious balance. After all, that is exactly what G-d said to Moses and to the ancient Israelites (Exodus 14:15), “Dah’bayr el b’nay Yisrael, v’yee’sah’oo,” speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth! Stop worrying about who’s on the right, or who’s on the left. Stop worrying about the critics, about the naysayers, forge ahead, grow in your Judaism, try not to be overly zealous nor overly casual, just keep moving ahead!

The rabbis in the Mechilta D’Rabbi Ishmael ask, “And what caused them [the Israelites] to be saved from the right and from the left? They answer that it was the merit of Torah and prayer that saved them. From the right–was Torah; from the left–was prayer.

When Jews cling to the Torah through consistent study, when they pour out their hearts with impassioned prayer to G-d, they indeed move ahead. Let us pray that as we, once again, experience the exodus from Egypt on this Passover, that we resolve to forge ahead, to recommit ourselves to religious growth through Torah, and to connect ourselves securely to G-d through fervent prayer.

May you be blessed.