[First published as JTS Torah Commentary]
From the air, Eretz Mitzrayim, “the narrow land” of Egypt, reveals itself as a vast expanse of sand and stone broken only by the twisting dark line of the Nile. I saw this first hand as a student in 1985, but you can look as well through satellite photos. On either side of the great river, a thin strip of green extends for a few kilometers to the east and west. The Nile looks like a mighty green cobra whose tail points at the first cataract near Sudan, and whose broad triangular head is the delta fanning out to strike the Mediterranean Sea.
The splitting of the sea, bekiat Yam Suf, is a mirror image of Mitzrayim. Instead of a vast expanse of desert with a river running through it, a vast expanse of water with a pathway of land magically leads from one side to the other, me‘avdut l’heirut, from slavery to freedom. The split sea is an instant inversion of Israel’s captivity in Egypt; the passage is a reversal of fortune and a moment of national rebirth.
The splitting of the seais certainly dramatic and worthy of its famous song. But the thrill quickly passes, yielding to the terrifying solitude of the desert. In the growing swell of murmurs, the essential questions bubble up. They come out as complaints—what will we eat or drink? Are we going to die here? Why did we ever leave Egypt? Behind these complaints lies the greatest question of the Torah—what follows freedom? How do we survive? Now that we are free, what purpose will we find in life beyond mere survival? Thousands of years later, these remain the core questions of Jewish identity. Continue reading