Sung daily in our prayers, referenced numerous times throughout Tehilim and remembered as one of the greatest manifestations of God’s power on this earth, one has to nonetheless question why the glorious miracle at Yam Suf was necessary. From a purely practical point of view, if it served as a punishment to the Egyptians, God had definitely already covered that in Egypt; if it was to completely free Bnei Yisrael from their oppressors, He could have just destroyed them in Egypt during a final annihilating plague instead. And from a Torah perspective, when God told Avraham what the future would hold for his descendants during the Brit Ben HaBtarim, He said, “and you shall surely know that they will be strangers in a land not their own; and they will be enslaved and they will oppress them for four hundred years. And then I will judge that nation and afterwards they will go out with much wealth” (15; 13-14) – there is no mention whatsoever of an ultimate destruction of that subjugating nation! And logically the phrase, ‘I will judge them and afterwards they will go out with much wealth’ is referring to the plagues and the subsequent exodus with gold, silver, animals and clothing – so how, and why, does Yam Suf fit in?
There is one other great destruction of people caused by water – the flood in Noach’s time. Aside from the obvious ‘water’ similarity, there are many textual similarities which demand our comparing the two events.
Both watery annihilations exaggeratedly enumerate the ones who are destroyed and specifically mention the ones that God specifically saves:
By Noach it says: “And all that was standing was eradicated from upon the face of the earth; man, animals, creepy crawlers and birds – the entire land was eradicated; only Noach remained along with those in his tevah.” (Breishit 7; 23)
And by Yam Suf it says: “And the waters returned and covered the chariots and infantry of the military of Pharaoh…not one of them was left. And Bnei Yisrael went on dry land…” (Shemot 14; 28-29)
Both episodes also include the ‘entering’ into and the ‘exiting’ from the destruction by the survivors:
“And Noach, his sons, his wife and his sons’ wives entered the tevah…” (7; 7) and “And Noach, his sons, his wife and his sons’ wives exited” (8; 18)
“And Bnei Yisrael entered into the sea on dry land…” (14; 22) and
“And Moshe led Bnei Yisrael from Yam Suf and exited to the Shur Desert.” (15; 22)
Both Noach and Bnei Yisrael were specifically commanded by God to enter into their ‘modes’ of safety that would take them through the watery assault:
“And God said to Noach: go, you and your entire house into the tevah…” (7; 1)
“And God said to Moshe:…and you raise up your staff, lift your hand and the waters will split and Bnei Yisrael will enter into the sea on dry land.” (14; 16)
And finally, the conclusion of both events begins with the very same phrase: “and the waters returned” (Breishit 8: 16-17 and Shemot 14: 28).
It is therefore obvious that through these textual and thematic similarities the Torah wants us to compare the two events. The question remains however as to why it is important to do so – what Yam Suf-significance can we glean from Noach’s flood? Of course, whenever there are similarities, the differences are highlighted, and, in this case, it is actually through the contrast of these two episodes that we will learn the greatest lesson.
There are five major differences that, together, create one specific theme: (in no specific order)
- While everything (people, animals, land) was destroyed at one time during the flood, the destruction in Shemot was in two stages: the devastation of the entire land of Egypt (property, money, animals, many people) and then at Yam Suf, the death of the Egyptian army.
- The method of saving Noach and family was atop the water, in the tevah; Bnei Yisrael were saved passing through the water.
- In His promise to never again destroy the entire world with a the flood, God says that, “the days [or: time] of the land; the seeding, harvesting, cold and hot, summer and winter and day and night will not [ever again] be destroyed” (8; 22); but with the exodus from Egypt (right before Yam Suf) God establishes a new calendar, redefining time by the exodus not destroying it.
- The same Hebrew word for ‘split’ is used both by Noach and Yam Suf; however, by the former the ‘underground wells split’ (7; 11) to let forth the flood’s gushing destruction, but by the latter, ‘the water split’ (14; 21) to allow Bnei Yisrael’s safe passage.
- Lastly, the survivors of the flood were merely individuals, while an entire nation was saved at Yam Suf.
The distinct contrast between Noach and Yam Suf is the purpose of the destructive waters: for Noach, it was purely to destroy the world of its evil, leaving a deserving individual and his family to start a life again in a barren world; by Yam Suf, however, the deadly waters created through their destruction! The true destruction for Egypt was in Egypt, with the plagues (allowing Yam Suf to play a very different role) (#1); instead of just ‘weathering the storm’ atop the waters, Bnei Yisrael went through, in essence using the water as their conduit to safety (#2); it was this conclusion of the Exodus that created a new beginning of time, a dawn of a new definition for the years to come (#3); the ‘splitting’ at Yam Suf was there only to preserve the people not destroy it (#4); and finally, a nation, a new significant entity was produced from the water’s devastation, a tangible addition to the world’s existing order (#5).
But what is so significant about this ‘new addition’ to the world that the Torah needed to so strongly relate it to the flood? Remarking on the deep evil that had spread across the entire world, God says, “I have regretted that I have created them” (6; 8). God ‘made a mistake’ in the way He made the world and chose to then erase it and start anew. However, why would the ‘new’ world be any better? What would be different to prevent such egregious behavior in the future? God understood that the reason the world went astray was because it had no direction or guidance – everyone was left to independently decide and act, and they failed; so God decided that He needed to create a nation from among the inhabitants of the world, especially choosing it, elevating it above the other nations to be the necessary guide for them. Exactly ten generations after the flood, Avraham is chosen to head this nation and is then told in the Brit Ben HaBtarim how this future nation will ultimately come about. While the events of the exodus from Egypt (as described in that covenant) produced that chosen nation – it was Yam Suf that introduced them as a now independent nation to become the exemplary model to the world. Yam Suf’s distinct connection to the flood teaches us the true role of this miraculous event: the corrective measure to the world’s previous fault (which caused the flood) was now finally implemented; with the flood God destroyed the world to start all over again, and with Yam Suf He initiated the only hope for its continued survival.