A Jewish philanthropist pays a visit to a Hebrew school which he has been supporting for years. The teacher, wanting to show off his educational accomplishments, gives a quiz.
"Steven," the teacher calls out to one of the students, "Tell me, who broke The Tablets?"
To which the child responds: "Not I; I didn't do it."
The teacher, humiliated and enraged, begins to pound on his desk and shouts, "Steven, you better tell me right now who broke The Tablets!" The poor boy, struck by fear, pleads: "I swear to you, I did not even dream of doing it."
As the teacher sits in his chair devastated by his obvious failure, the Jewish millionaire approaches him. The teacher assumes that he will be fired for performing so poorly. Yet the wealthy man whispers into the teacher's ear and says, "Let me tell you something. I know this child, I know his parents, I knew his grandparents. If he said he didn't do it—he didn't do it.
"Concerning the broken tablets," the millionaire continues, "I am very sorry, but please don't worry, I will compensate you for them. Just give me the receipt."
A Sea Parts
This week's Torah portion, Beshalach, tells the story of the splitting of the sea(1). It describes that dramatic moment in the Bible when at the brink of being captured by the mighty Egyptian forces, the Red Sea parted before the Jewish people. The newly born nation of Israel crossed to the other side and embarked on its journey to freedom and to receive its spiritual mandate, the Torah, at Sinai(2).
This event occurred 3,322 years ago, on the seventh day after the Exodus of Egypt, which took place on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan(3)) and is celebrated to this very day as a Jewish holiday, known as "Sh'vei Shel Pesach," or the "Seventh of Passover."
This story also constitutes a large part of the traditional daily morning service and meditation. Each and every morning, seven days a week, 365 days a year, Jews the world over retell the entire tale of the splitting of the sea and sing the lengthy song that Moses and the Jews composed after crossing the parted sea. In fact, Jewish law dictates that one make mention of the event of the splitting of the sea twice each day, once in the morning and once in the evening(4).
The obvious questions are what was it about the splitting of the sea that turned it into such a central event in Jewish consciousness? Why must we recall it twice a day? And why was it necessary that the journey from enslavement to receiving the Torah include the journey through a sea that parted?(5)
The most important question is this: The Torah is not merely a book recording ancient tales; it is a handbook for daily living, a road map for life's turbulent voyage. Every episode recorded in Torah contains lessons for our personal lives today. But how can we glean personal guidance and inspiration from a miracle that occurred thousands of years ago in some remote location on earth? What is the psychological and spiritual meaning of an event in which a sea parts and turns into dry land?
A Map of the Subconscious
To understand this, we must first reflect on the difference between the land and the sea. Both the land and the sea are vibrant and action-filled terrains populated by a myriad of creatures and complete with a great variety of minerals and vegetation. Yet the universe of dry land is exposed and out in the open for all to see and appreciate, while the world of the sea is hidden beneath a dense layer of water.
In the Kabbalah, these two physical planes reflect the conscious and unconscious dimensions of the human psyche(6). Both parts of the self are extremely vibrant and action-filled. The difference between them is that while our conscious self is displayed and exhibited for ourselves and others to feel and experience, our subconscious self remains hidden, not only from other people but even from our own vision. Most of us know almost nothing of what is going on in the sub-cellars of our psyche.
If you were given a glimpse into your own "sea" and discovered the universe of personality hidden beneath your conscious brain, what do you think you would find? Black demons, an abundance of shame, fear, guilt, pain, insecurity, an urge for endless physical gratification, an urge to destroy, to survive, to dominate, a cry for unconditional love? Would you discover Freud's Libido, Jung's collective unconscious, Adler's search for power, Frankl's quest for meaning?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of the Chabad school of Kabbalah, was one of the greatest soul experts in the history of Judaism, and has written on the subject more than any other Jewish sage. Rabbi Schneur Zalman's view, based on the ancient Talmudic and Kabbalistic tradition, is that the hidden world of our subconscious is indeed filled with psychological demons and many layers of muck and mud.
Yet Rabbi Schneur Zalman states that if we dig a little deeper into the multi-layered subconscious, if we descend to a deeper stratum in our psychological sea, we are bound to discover an inherent purity, sacredness and innocence, an aspect of G-d within each person, a soul filled with spiritual light, genuine love and unshakeable confidence. This dimension of self is the spark of G-d existing within man, a reflection of the harmony, goodness and dignity of its Creator(8).
We may travel through life unaware of this dimension of self. Throughout our years on this planet we may behave as though this element of self does not exist. Though its symptoms reverberate through our consciousness—most often in the feelings of emptiness and lack of contentment when our spiritual self is not satiated—we are prone to dismiss it or deny it. After all, at least in the short term, it is far easier to accept that we are nothing more than intelligent beasts craving self-gratification than spiritual souls craving for truth.
Torah: Repressive or Liberating?
Now we may understand the deeper significance of that moment when "The children of Israel walked on dry land within the sea(9)."
The path to freedom, both on a personal and collective level, must include the "splitting of the sea," during which you recognize and come to terms with the fact that your deepest "I" is not selfish but selfless; that you are not an ego but a soul; that your true quest in life in not for self-gratification but for self-transcendence. Only after your psychological sea has turned into dry land, allowing you truly to become aware of your soul's reality, can you embark on your path to liberation and self-actualization.
This is also the spiritual reason that the receiving of Torah necessitated the introduction of walking through a parted sea.
On the surface, Torah is an inhibiting book, superimposing its never-ending demands on man's daily life, repressing individual expression and hindering personal growth. Some close friends who have grown up together with me in a Torah-observant community, left the religious lifestyle precisely because of this reason. They simply felt that a life of Torah robbed them of living a free and happy life.
They have a point. For somebody who never "split his sea," who never experienced the yearnings and melodies of his higher self, the Torah may indeed seem like a dogmatic document. Yet once you experience your spiritual self, you come to appreciate Torah as the most liberating force in your life, one that allows you and demands from you that you live 24 hours a day with your higher, noble and confident self.
This is why we retell the story of the splitting of the sea twice a day, for its message is crucial to our daily existence. When you awake in the morning in a rotten mood, apathetic to your spouse, uncaring about your life and uninterested in G-d or in love, do not despair; do not begin to behave in an obnoxious and selfish way. Instead, close your eyes and split your sea.
You will discover that deep inside you is more inspiration and more love than you have ever imagined(10).
1) Exodus chapters 14-15. 2) In fact, this Shabbos is called the "Shabbos of song," since on this Shabbos we publicly read this song, in the course of reading the weekly Torah portion. 3) See Megilah 31a; Seder Olam Rabah chapter 5; Rashi to Exodus 14:5. 4) See Tosefta Berochos chapter 2; Yerushalmi Berochos 1:6; Tur Orach Chaim section 66; Shulchan Aruch HaRav ibid. 66:12; Zohar Beshalach 54b. 5) The obvious reason for this tradition is in order to inculcate within the consciousness of the Jew the awareness that the existence of Jews as a people is nothing short of a miracle, a miracle sustained by G-d throughout history (Cf. Shulchan Aruch HaRav ibid.). 6) This notion of viewing the macrocosm as a metaphor for the microcosm is central to all Jewish writings. "Man is a miniature universe," our sages have declared (Midrash Tanchumah Pekudei 3), a microcosm of the entire created existence. The human being thus includes the elements of the land as well as the elements of the sea -- man has both a terrestrial and an aquatic aspect to his life. 7) In Kabbalah terminology, the sea is defined as "alma d'eiskasya," the hidden world; while land is described as "alma d'eisgalya," the revealed world (Torah Or Parshas Beshalach.) 8) The first section of his book Tanya (published first in 1796 in Russia) is based on the doctrine of "two souls," namely, that man operates on two levels of consciousness, a self-centered consciousness and a Divine consciousness. His many Chassidic works are replete with this theme. 9) Exodus 14:29. 10) This is how the Chassidic masters explain the fact that Moses, whom Maimonidies describes as "the greatest human being in the history of man," spent the early months of his life in water and he was named Moshe, which means "drawn out," since he was drawn out of water (Exodus 2:10). This was not just a coincidence, but it defines the essence of Moses. Moses came to the world in order to teach humanity about the inner hidden universe of the sea.