This Sidra relates the story of the division of the Red Sea, its waters parted by a powerful wind sent by G-d. When the wind ceased and the waters closed on the pursuing Egyptians, we are told that “the sea returned to its strength.” Why did the Torah add this extra phrase? The Midrash finds an allusion in it to the condition (the words “strength” and “condition” in Hebrew are composed of the same letters) which G-d made with the Red Sea when it was first created, that it should part its waters for Israel when the time came. The Rebbe explores this theme in depth, analyzing in general the part which natural objects and forces have to play in G-d’s design for the universe.
1. The Division of the Sea
“And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea and the sea returned to its former strength at the turning of the morning; and the Egyptians fled towards it; and the L-rd overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.”1
The Midrash2 comments on this that G-d made a stipulation at the time when the Red Sea was first created, that it should divide itself for Israel when they needed to cross it. This is the meaning of the phrase “the sea returned to its former strength,” namely that it “kept to the terms of the condition which I stipulated from the beginning” (a play on the words “condition” and “former strength” which have the same letters in Hebrew).3
But the Midrash is difficult to understand. For the verse refers, not to the fulfilling, by the sea, of the undertaking to divide; but clearly to its returning to its former state, closing its waters over the pursuing Egyptians.
An answer has been suggested.4 In the Talmud,5 Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair tells the River Ginnai to divide its waters and when it refused, he told it “If you do not do so, I will decree that no water shall flow in you forever.” If the same were true of the Red Sea, then its returning to its former strength would be evidence of its having fulfilled its agreement with G-d.
But the answer itself is incomplete:
(i) It suggests that if the Red Sea had not divided, it would not only not have had its strength returned, it would not have had any waters at all. The verse, on the other hand, suggests that only the full strength of the Red Sea hung on the agreement, not its very continuance as a sea.
(ii) In any case, the Midrash sought to couple the words “full strength” with the word “condition.” But the explanation makes the Sea’s strength only a consequence of its previously fulfilling the condition and does not link it with the condition itself.
2.The Condition Made at the Beginning of
We can resolve the first of these difficulties by the explanation given by the Maggid of Mezeritch6 (which he had heard from the Baal Shem Tov). At the time of the creation of the world all the objects of nature were created on the condition that they obeyed the will of righteous men, even if it ran counter to their normal physical laws.7 So that if they did not do so, not only would they cease to exist: It would be as if they had never been created. In other words, had the Red Sea not divided, it would not only never have water again, its whole previous existence would be obliterated. So that when the verse tells us “the sea returned to its former strength,” it is conveying that in the fulfilling of its agreement with G-d it both assured its future continuity and at the same time ratified its past existence.
This point may be difficult for us to understand: For though we know what it is for something to be obliterated, surely its past existence is an objective fact, which cannot be retroactively removed? The mental block we have in comprehending this possibility is because of a two-fold secular conception to which our minds tenaciously cling: Firstly, that objects have a real and independent existence, and secondly that our time-scheme (in which we cannot reach back and change the past) is the only possible one. Both conceptions are false in Judaism. In the first instance objects only exist because G-d continually creates them; in the second instance, time is a human conception, one by which G-d is not bound (indeed, one which G-d created and so, obviously, can stand aside from). It follows that if G-d decides to “uncreate” something, He can do so retroactively and by removing its whole (past as well as future) being. The closest analogy in human terms (and one which is germane to the subject in hand) is that of a conditional legal agreement. If the condition is not fulfilled, it is not that the agreement suddenly terminates, but rather that this establishes that the agreement never came into being.
3. Two Kinds of Miracles
But the second difficulty still remains: That the sea’s returning to its strength was a result of and not the same as its fulfilling its condition.
To resolve this we must understand why the Midrash needed to comment on the phrase “the sea returned to its strength.” What is problematic about it? The answer is that since the phrase “the sea returned” would have sufficed,8 there must be some additional point made by the phrase “to its strength.” Now why should we doubt that the sea’s strength would return? Is there any ground for thinking that its parting, to leave dry land for the Israelites’ crossing, permanently “weakened” it, so that a second miracle was needed to restore its force?
Now we can discern two distinct types of miracles:
(i) The miracle which transforms the whole nature of a thing, so that a second miracle is needed to return it to its original state (for example: When G-d made Moses’ hand leprous as a sign of the authenticity of the revelation at Horeb? He performed a second miracle in turning it back).9
(ii) The miracle which only changes the appearance or form of a thing, leaving its essential character unaltered, so that when the miracle ceases it returns to its earlier state of its own accord (like the rivers which were changed into blood, the first of the ten plagues, which later returned to water without further miracle:10 For the rivers, were not essentially transformed: They still remained as water when the Israelites drank from them.)11
Therefore, if we were to say, that the division of the Red Sea was of the first kind, it would follow that a second miracle would be needed to return it to its former state. This is what the verse negates by informing us that the Sea returned “to its strength,” i.e., that the Sea had only changed externally, but not essentially.
But in fact we cannot say this, for the Torah already stressed that the Sea was only kept in its divided state by constant vigilance: “And the L-rd caused the sea to go back by a powerful east wind all the night.”12 From which it is clear that, had the wind dropped, it would have returned to its flowing of its own accord, so why need the Torah stress in a later verse that the Sea returned “to its strength?”
Therefore the Midrash implies that the extra information conveyed by telling us that the Sea returned to its strength, must be that it had its whole previous existence ratified by its fulfillment of G-d’s condition. And even though it had fulfilled it by dividing rather than returning, the sign of its fulfillment was evident only when its waters were restored.
4. Temporal and Eternal Existence
But why did G-d need to make an agreement with the Sea, and why particularly at the moment when it was created? For His power over His creations is unlimited and He could have divided the Sea when He wanted and without its “consent.”
Rashi’s comment that the world was created “for the sake of Israel and the Torah’’13does not simply mean that it exists to allow Israel to perform G-d’s will on earth, but more strongly that by Israel’s service the world itself is sanctified into becoming a “dwelling-place” for G-d and thus brought to its own fulfillment.
Thus by stipulating at the outset that objects should change their nature when it was necessary for the sake of Israel, G-d wrote this miraculous possibility into their very constitution. So that when miracles occurred, this would not be an interruption of their normal purpose but a continuation and fulfillment of it.
And indeed this makes their existence of an entirely different order. They become not things which exist for a while and then pass away; but rather things whose destiny is (by the very nature of their creation) linked with that of Israel. And Israel is, in the deepest sense, eternal. They are, to G-d “the branch of My planting and the work of My hands.”14 And this makes natural objects far more than the instruments of Israel’s progress (for they would then be bound to their natural functions only); but instead they are embodiments of G-d’s will (even when this involves a change in their nature).
This is why the Midrash connects the fulfilling of its agreement with G-d with the sea’s return to its strength, rather than with its division. For while it was divided to reveal dry land, it still did not show the vindication and eternalization of its existence (for it could have been a (change and) negation of its nature). Its true fulfillment came only when its waters returned. And when they returned, it was to their “full strength,” not simply as they had been before, mere waters of a sea, but as the eternal bearers of G-d’s will for the destiny of His people.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VI pp. 86-94)