One of the most dramatic and visual scenes in the Torah is that of the splitting of the Red Sea. To see nature reverse its natural course — rupturing a natural pattern of flowing water, splitting it as it transforms into two walls of water on each side of dry land — this alone is breathtaking.
But coupled with the timing and pressure of the Israelites being pursued by the Egyptians, this scene is doubly stunning. Not for nothing has the dramatic splitting of the sea been the centerpiece of a number of movies.
To imagine Moses and his staff, standing over the waters as they split, cries of desperation behind him, death hovering over some three million people, is indeed mesmerizing. And in the last second, the sea parts; a miracle redeems the people from the fate of death by drowning.
In English, this biblical scene is often referred to as the splitting of the sea, the crossing of the sea or the parting of the sea. But in Hebrew, this miracle is referred to as keriat Yam Suf, meaning the ripping of the sea.
Interestingly, when you read the biblical text depicting the dramatic scene, the words keriat Yam Suf are nowhere to be found. The words with which we traditionally and routinely refer to this incident are absent. Instead, the Torah employs the word bekia, as in bekiat Yam Suf.
The word bekia is used a number of times in the Torah. For example, in the story of Korach, when the earth opens and engulfs Korach and his followers, the root for the word bekia is used for the earth opening. Bekia is regularly used in conjunction with splitting, or opening, often in conjunction with nature.
So, according to the Torah, the miracle of the Red Sea is bekiat Yam Suf.
Yet none of us refers to the miracle that way. Only as the “ripping” of the sea.
Famously, in the narrative of Yosef and his brothers, when Reuven, the eldest son, returns to rescue Yosef but instead finds the pit empty and understands that he is too late — in those painful moments of realization that the unthinkable has happened to Yosef, Reuven’s instantaneous response is to rend his garments. In the Torah, to rip one’s clothes is a symbol of grief and mourning.
Similarly, when Yaakov is presented with Yosef’s signature coat of many colors — soaked in blood — he rips his clothes as a sign of bereavement at the implied death of his beloved son.
When King Shaul loses the kingdom of Israel and the prophet Shmuel is parting from him, Shaul’s loss of the kingdom is symbolized by the tearing of a cloak (it is ambiguous whether it was Shmuel’s or Shaul’s garment that was torn), whereupon Shmuel says to Shaul: “G-d has torn the kingdom from you…”
And to this day, the Jewish ritual of mourning is expressed in the ripping of a garment. Emotional loss is expressed with keria, a symbolic ripping of fabric.
When you consider the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the Torah’s word bekia fits perfectly as a description of a cut, of a split, of division.
But the Sages wanted to amplify another perspective for us about this miraculous moment.
While the Israelite collective was saved, the pursuing Egyptians drowned in the same waters that moments prior stood as two pillars enabling the Israelites to walk between them on dry land. There is a certain dissonance that the Sages are calling our attention to. The splitting of the sea was our miracle, but it was the Egyptians’ tragedy.
The same waters. The same moments.
Of course the Egyptians were evil. They enslaved and tortured the Israelites. Their end was just. Nonetheless, they were still drowning.
As the Midrash famously comments in a rebuke of Moshe’s Song at the Sea, “The work of My hands are drowning in the water, and you are singing?”
There is a mourning within the miracle. Hence the sages coined the term for the splitting of the sea, keriat Yam Suf, which simultaneously encapsulates the miracle and the mourning of the miraculous splitting of the sea.
As heard from Yael Schlossberg.