As Hard as Splitting the Red Sea

Posted on April 21, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

In a d’var Torah for the 7th day of Pesach, my colleague and friend Rabbi Michael Marmur recalls a favorite midrash — one that I like to share at weddings:

A wealthy Roman woman once asked R. Yosi ben Halafta, “How many days did it take God to create the world?” “Six days,” he answered. “And what has God been doing since then?” she asked. “Matching couples,” said R. Yosi.

“Is that all!” she said dismissively. “Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. I can match them up in no time.”

To which R. Yosi countered, “It may seem easy, but even for God it is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.”

The next day she lined up a thousand male and a thousand female slaves and paired them off before nightfall. The morning after, they returned to her, this one with a bruised head, another with a wounded eye, a third with a broken foot. Each one said, “I don’t want this one as my mate.”

The woman summoned R. Yosi and, upon his arrival, said, “Your teaching is wise and worthy of praise.” He said, “I told you, it may look easy, but even for God, it is as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea.”   (Bereshit Rabba, 97:3).

As this 7th day of Pesach is the anniversary of the splitting of the Red Sea, this sweet midrash begs the question: why was it so difficult for God to part the waters? After engineering the Ten Plagues, parting the waters of the sea would seem to be a modest feat, well within God’s powers to achieve.

Rabbi Marmur’s answer, drawn from the Zohar, is that it wasn’t the technical act of moving the waters that challenged God, but the moral, philosophical question of whether it was the right thing to do.

Another midrash imagines the moment when the Israelites have crossed over and the sea closes, drowning the Egyptians. At that moment, says the midrash, God’s ministering angels begin to sing in celebration. But God is displeased by this and rebukes them, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you sing praises?!” (Talmud Megillah 10b)

Our polarized world is replete with claims to moral superiority and certainty from both sides of whatever issue is at hand. These arguments, conveyed by partisan media and amplified by social media echo chambers, tend to be painted in simple black-and-white. The real world, however, is predominantly colored in shades of grey and fraught with complexity and ambiguity.

So many of those I’ve spoken with recently look at Russia’s war against Ukraine and decry the failure of the world to intervene more forcefully. I share their distress. And yet, is it not wise and prudent to be cautious about precipitating what could easily turn into a world war with nuclear weapons?

Some wonder why Israel isn’t doing more to support Ukraine. The answer is that Israel’s considerations are morally and strategically complex and ambiguous. There are over a million Jews still living in Russia, and over a million more Russian citizens of Israel who have relatives in the FSU, including Ukraine. These Jews from the FSU are a deeply divided population, influenced by different voices, whose families are in lethal confrontation with each other.

Furthermore, Israel has critical security arrangements with Russia that give it free reign over the skies above Iran’s actors and proxies in Lebanon and Syria. To scuttle this relationship is to expose Israel’s citizens to mortal danger. These are complicated matters, ones that are as hard as God’s parting of the Red Sea.

Another midrash imagines the moments before the sea split. The Egyptian chariots are closing in on the Israelites on one side and the sea is on the other side. The fear of death and re-enslavement are palpable, and the Israelites are paralyzed. At that moment, Nachshon ben Amminadav leaps into the sea and leads the way forward. The water, we are told, was up to his nostrils before the sea parted and Israel went forth to freedom. (Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 14:22)

There are such moments when one must brave uncertainty and make a bold move toward action. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that the right path is obvious and that such decisions are easy.

Life is filled with tough choices — for war and peace, for life and death, and in less dramatic but often consequential personal matters of family, business, and community. Yes, decisions must be made. But let us temper our judgments by remembering that the choice is not always between good and bad; it is often between good and good or bad and bad.

Let us emulate the image of God portrayed in the first midrash and acknowledge the complexity of life and its moral choices. Let us remember that even our greatest enemies are also God’s children. And let us all pursue and pray for peace.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck