Parashat BeShalah- A New Understanding of the Splitting of the Sea
Parashat Beshalah describes what is likely the most famous miracle told in the Torah – the miracle of Keri’at Yam Suf, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Pharaoh’s army had trapped Beneh Yisrael against the sea, and G-d miraculously split the sea to allow Beneh Yisrael to cross. The Egyptians continued chasing Beneh Yisrael into the sea, whereupon G-d sent the waters on them, drowning the entire army.
The Ha’ketab Ve’ha’kabbala (Rav Yaakob Mecklenberg, 1785-1865) offers a unique insight into how the miracle of Keri’at Yam Suf unfolded, understanding this event much differently than the way it is commonly understood.
He begins by noting that the Torah speaks of Beneh Yisrael going into the sea with the words, "Va’aybo’u Beneh Yisrael Be’toch Ha’yam" – "Beneh Yisrael came into the middle of the sea" (14:22). Ha’ketab Ve’ha’kabbala observes that generally, the act of going into the sea is referred to not with the verb "B.A." – "come," but rather with the verb "Y.R.D." – "descend." For example, a verse in Tehillim (107:23) speaks of "Yoredeh Ha’yam Ba’oniyot" – "Those who go down into the sea in boats." Why does the Torah use the verb "Va’yabo’u" – "came" – in reference to Beneh Yisrael’s going into the sea after the waters split?
To answer this question, Ha’ketab Ve’ha’kabbala explains that the splitting of the waters was not the primary miracle that occurred at this event. Rather, G-d lifted the ocean floor, such that it was flush with the seashore. The water, which would normally be displaced and thrown onto the shores around the ocean, instead split into two "walls" that floated on top of the elevated ocean floor, on either side. Additionally, G-d dried the ocean floor so that it was smooth and paved, allowing Beneh Yisrael to easily travel across to the other side.
This explains why the Torah uses the word "Va’yabo’u" to describe Beneh Yisrael’s advancing into the sea. Normally, the verb "Y.R.D." is used, because the ocean is, of course, much lower than the shore, such that going into the sea entails a descent of sorts. But at Keri’at Yam Suf, the ocean floor was lifted, such that Beneh Yisrael did not have to descend. This was, in fact, a crucial part of the miracle. If G-d had merely split the waters, Beneh Yisrael would have needed to walk along a steep depression down into the ocean floor. This would have been exceedingly difficult. And so instead, G-d raised the ocean floor, splitting the water in the process, so Beneh Yisrael had a flat, smooth surface along which the travel.
Ha’ketab Ve’ha’kabbala explains on this basis Beneh Yisrael’s description of the miracle in the Shirat Ha’yam – the song of praise which they sang after the miracle: "Kaf’u Tehomot Be’leb Yam" (commonly translated as, "The depths froze in the heart of the sea" – 15:8). Based on several verses throughout Tanach, Ha’ketab Ve’ha’kabbala posits that the word "Kaf’u" means "float." And, he cites the verse in the Book of Mishleh (30:19), "Derech Oniya Be’leb Yam" – that ships sail "in the heart of the sea," showing that the phrase "Be’leb Yam" refers to the surface of the ocean. Hence, the verse "Kaf’u Tehomot Be’leb Yam" means that the ocean waters "floated" on top of the sea’s surface, which was elevated to the height of the shore.
The real miracle of Keri’at Yam Suf, then, was not just the splitting of the water – but the elevation of the ocean floor, which created a flat, smooth surface for Beneh Yisrael to travel on so they could easily escape from the Egyptian army.