Jerusalem and the Sea

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One of the highlights of our parsha is the splitting of the sea. Generally, we think of this miracle as an act of divine kindness or perhaps as a reward for the Jewish people’s great faith in following God into the wilderness.  

Interestingly, though, in the midrash we find the following opinion:

Rebbi Yishmael says: [God tells Moshe] Why do you scream out to me? In the merit of Yerushalayim I will split for them the sea.

This seems to be quite surprising. Why, of all things, is Yerushalayim the merit for which the sea will be split?

The Maharal explains as follow. The sea is essentially a large material space containing a lot of water – a material item. The sea is thus a natural phenomenon, entirely of this world. Yerushalayim, though, represents an opposing force:

Yerushalayim is a sanctified place. It is fitting for a place that contains the sanctity of God to overpower and push aside something that is its opposite such as the sea, which is a place in this world. 

In other words, there is an ever-present conflict between the forces of spirituality and materiality. In the end, the forces of Godliness, represented by Yerushalayim, can break and bend the forces of materiality, represented by the sea.

While this provides a conceptual explanation for why Yerushalayim overpowers the sea, a glaring question remains. At this point in Jewish history the Jewish people had never been to Yerushalayim and were several hundred kilometers from the holy city. In what way could the merit of Yerushalayim aid the Jewish people when they stood between the Red Sea and the approaching Egyptian army?

To answer this question, the Maharal continues:

And because the Jewish people are fitting for Yerushalayim… when they reached the sea it was pushed aside and it split before them as it was a place that is the opposite of a sanctified space such as Yerushalayim.

Even before the Jewish people entered or had even heard about their future city, they were still deeply connected with it. Of all places in the world, Yerushalayim is a “fit” for them and they are a “fit” for Yerushalayim. This connection is so deep and essential that it traversed time and space, allowing the merit of Yerushalayim to stand by them even immediately after they left Egypt.

It is fitting, therefore, that the Song of the Sea concludes with a verse about Yerushalayim: “You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage, directed toward Your habitation, which You made, O Lord; the sanctuary, O Lord, [which] Your hands founded.” Even though the Jewish people had never yet been to “the mount of Your heritage“ and did not know what it looked like, nonetheless, they sensed that this place was the ultimate destination of the long journey that they were currently beginning. Leaving Egypt meant that they had their eyes facing the place that was “fitting” for them – Yerushalayim.


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