Why did the Jewish people cross the Yam Suf? You might think that they also crossed the sea to get to the other side, away from the charging Egyptian army. Chizkuni (on Shemot 14:22) didn't think so. In fact, he says that they didn't go to the other side at all.
Rabbi Aryeh Carmel, in a really interesting article that appears on the Da'at website, explains that this position in Rishonim emanates from a detailed Tosfot (ערכין ט"ו עמוד א' ד"ה כשם) that makes the same claim:לא שעברו בני ישראל את הים על דרך רוחבן, כי ידוע שאין הים מפסיק בין ארץ מצרים ובין ארץ כנען.It is not that the Children of Israel crossed the sea at its length, for it is known that this sea does not divide between Egypt and Canaan.
Rav Carmel suggests that Tosfot's view emanates from a misunderstanding of the geography of the terrain. (If you actually look up the Tosfot you'll see a really wild map of the Middle East – far stranger even than some of the maps you see from the U.N.) Using modern maps Rabbi Carmel suggests that the Jews did actually cross the sea lengthwise after having doubled back. See the dotted route on the map.ואומר ר' בשם אביו רבי שמואל שישראל לא עברו הים לרחבו מצד זה לזה שא"כ היו ממהרים ללכת אל א"י אלא רצועה אחת עברו בים לאורך הים עד שפנו למדבר לצד אחדAnd Rebbe said in the name of his father Rabbi Shmuel that the [Children of] Israel did not cross the sea lengthwise from one side to the other, for if so they would have hurried towards the Land of Israel. Rather, they passed through a single strip in the sea at its length, until they returned to the desert on the same side.
I'd like to ask a simple question: Even based on Rav Carmel's calculation of the route out of Egypt, the Jewish people really didn't have to cross through the Yam Suf. They could have easily continued through the Sinai Desert without crossing any body of water at all. Although amazing miracle and historical, what prompts Hashem to generate such a fantastic, yet unnecessary spectacle? Chizkuni answers:
Why did we have to enter into the Yam Suf? The greatest miracle in the history of the Jewish people was a simple gimmick to lure the Egyptians to their watery deaths. The miraculous crossing was actually a massive military victory geared to inspire fear and awe across the globe.אלא לא היה צורך שיכנסו בו, רק כדי שיכנס פרעה אחריהם ויטבע. ונכנסו בו חצי עגול, שהרי ממדבר איתם נכנסו לים וממדבר איתם חזרו מן הים.Rather, there was no need for them to enter [the sea], except so that Par'oh would follow them and drown. And they entered in a half-circle – for they entered from the Eitam Desert, and returned to the Eitam Desert from the sea.
But what about the Jews? Couldn't Hashem have spared them the agony and anguish of being chased through the desert? Why did Hashem put the Jewish Nation through such a difficult and challenging experience if the entire purpose was to decimate the Egyptians? To my mind, the crossing of the Yam Suf was not only about the Egyptians: rather, it served as a lesson for the Jewish nation – and for us as well.
The other day my family went on tiyyul to עיר דוד and took an amazing tour of many centuries of Jewish history through the newly discovered walls of ancient Yerushalayim. As we descended from the main level to the lower level, we ended up standing on a raised, grated metal platform. My mother, visiting from the United States, who's not a fan of heights, sat on the side. She just didn't like walking on a grate where she could see the depths. It made her uncomfortable and nervous. She got over it.
Imagine walking not on a solid metal grate, but on water. Yes, water. Commenting on the fact that ויבקעו המים – "the water split," Chizkuni states,
Imagine that you're a Jew living through יציאת מצרים. One minute you're walking along on dry land, and then the next minute someone tells you to literally walk on water - between two solid walls of water rising high into the air. And don't worry, it will hold you. And stay up. And not fall crashing down on you resulting in your horrible drowning."ויבקעו המים" משמע עד קרקעיתו של הים וכתוב אחד אומר: קפאו תהומות בלב ים (ט"ו:ח) דמשמע שלא נבקעו לגמרי. אלא ים זה גדוש הוא, ואילו לא נבקעו המים כלל, הוצרכו ישראל לטרוח ולעלות למעלה, ואם נבקעו לגמרי הוצרכו לירד עד תהום. לפיכך נבקע הגודש דתילתא הוי ונעשה לישראל חומה מזה ומזה."And the waters split" implies [that they split] down to the floor of the sea. And another verse says "the depths froze in the heart of the sea," (15:8) which implies that they did not split completely. Rather, the waters were packed together [beneath the people]. Had they not split at all, the Jews would have had to expend energy to climb above [the waters], and had they split completely they would need to descend to the depths. Therefore the waters packed "until a third" and also gathered as walls for Israel on either side.
We'd like to imagine that we'd have no problem taking that first step between those tall walls of water. But would we casually stroll out through the Yam Suf? Or would we think twice before inching out nervously, fearfully, carefully.
For this reason, the Torah twice repeats the phrase, ומים להם חומה מימינם ומשמאלם – "and the water was for them a wall – to their left and to their right." As much as the splitting of the sea served as a sign for the rest of the world of Hashem's might and power, the event also represented both a test and a rite of passage for the Jewish people. In order to be saved, they had to believe. They had to literally put their lives in the hand of Hashem, and have total faith that He would save them. And putting your life on the line – while simple and obvious in hindsight – could not have been easy at the time.
Life is full of similar rites of passage. No, the challenges of faith are not nearly so daunting and the stakes never so high – but still. Each of us faces decisions in life where we must make a choice: to follow the path lying before us, despite the dangers – despite the tall walls of water held in place by some unseen force; or to remain firmly rooted in place, paralyzed by our fears and doubts and unwillingness to take action based on the faith we so loudly profess.
As you listen to the Torah reading this week, as yourself this question: if I didn't have the Egyptian army at my back, would I have taken the leap of faith to walk into the Yam Suf? What about the Yam Suf of my life? Have I take that fateful step despite the dangers? Will I?
Why did the "chicken" cross the road? To get to the other side.