The Bible is a book that is filled with miracles, descriptions of events that are supernatural – outside of the natural order of the world as we know it. In Numbers 22 we have the story of Balaam and his talking donkey. In 1 Kings chapter 17 Elijah brings a boy back to life, and 2 Kings chapter 4 the prophet Elisha does the same thing. Elijah also stops rain from falling for a period of 3 years. In the Book of Joshua, the 10th chapter, Joshua stops the sun in the middle of the sky, where it stays for an entire day without moving. In Numbers chapter 20 Moses makes water flow from a rock. In 2 Kings chapter 5 the soldier Naaman is cured of leprosy. In chapter 6 of that same biblical book the prophet Elisha makes the iron head of an axe float on the water. And of course who could forget the dramatic description in Joshua chapter 6 of the walls of Jericho coming down?
And then we have the Passover story, where the miracles seem to come one after another after another. Moses’ staff turns to a snake and back. The plagues – the waters of the Nile turn to blood, the locusts, the boils, the cattle, the vermin, the darkness, the slaying of the first born. But the ‘wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,’ to quote a well known song, has to be the splitting of the Reed Sea that we read about in the Torah this morning. The 7th day of Passover has long been understood in the tradition as the day on which the Israelites witnessed that greatest of miracles, as at the very moment of their despair the waters of the sea parted before them, allowing them to escape their Egyptian tormenters who would all drown while attempting to follow them.
Still to this day the depiction of that moment in the 1956 Cecil B. Demill film the Ten Commandments compellingly portrays how dramatic those events were. Charlton Heston as Moses stands on an outcropping of rock, terrified Israelites all around him. In what I can only call a Moses like voice he cries out, raises his staff, and the sea begins to split, the rushing waters defying the laws of physics, drawing upwards and away, forming massive walls of water and leaving a wide, dry path through the sea that Israelites can walk on. It is one of the great scenes in all of film, and even today, in an age of astonishing computer generated video images, there are few scenes that can equal it.
In the Torah that incredible moment is described in just two biblical verses. “Moses held out his arm over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
I’ve always felt that in those two verses there are actually two descriptions of the splitting of the sea and how it might have happened. It is the second description – והמים להם חמה מימינם ומשמואלם – the waters were for them like walls, one on their right, one on their left – that is the miraculous one, reflecting Demill’s vision of the moment in the movie. This is supernatural, impossible, a true miracle. Massive amounts of water, held in suspension for hours upon hours, the walls, as depicted in the movie, 30, 40, 50 feet high. There is only one way this could have happened, and that is because God willed it to happen. And it was a one time event, its like will never be seen again.
But the first of the two verses in the Torah, at least in my mind, seems to describe an entirely different set of circumstances. God drove back the sea ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה – with a strong east wind, that blew all night long. As many of you know Becky and I spend some time every summer in Gloucester MA, where Becky grew up. There is a beach there on the what is called the ‘Back Shore’ where a large island sits out in the ocean, about 50 or 60 yards from shore. Most days, when the time is right and the tide is low, a sandbar emerges from the water that makes a bridge between the shore and the island and hundreds of people walk out to the island to hunt for sand crabs and shells. The bridge is there for a couple of hours, and then the waters return – you have to get off the island and back to shore before that happens! It is not uncommon, walking out to that island, that a stiff wind comes up, pushing the water off the sand, rippling it into the sea on either side. And I’ve often thought, watching that happen, or walking in that procession myself, that it is probably very similar to what the Israelites experienced at the Reed Sea, at least according to that first verse.
Along those same lines, just a few years ago, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research performed a study using a computer simulation that there is a point in the Nile River where a coastal lagoon lies just under the waters. And again, using computer simulation, they showed that a strong wind, blowing for hours onto that spot, could drive the water back, opening a land bridge that would enable people to walk across. And of course, when you take the wind away, the waters rush back in. The head author of the study, when interviewed about it, said that the results from the simulations match closely with the description of the event in Exodus that we read from the Torah this morning. It is in a way a combination of two of our favorite modern sayings: timing is everything, and? location, location, location.
Now as western educated, scientifically oriented people we might be more comfortable with the idea of a natural explanation for the splitting of the sea. But I want to say this: just because there is a possible natural explanation does not mean it was not a miracle. I will tell you that when I walk on that momentary land bridge out to that island in Gloucester, I understand scientifically what is happening. The tide is low, the sand bar is there waiting to be exposed, the wind adds the rippling effect that makes the waters look like they are being pealed back. But knowing all that, it is still a breathtaking thing to watch, and when you walk over that sand out to the island that just 30 minutes before was surrounded by the ocean, there is something about it that feels miraculous. A miracle does not have to be an event that suspends the laws of nature. But it does have to be an event that in some powerful and profound way makes you feel the presence of God in the world.
That is why I like to order of the verses in the Torah. It is the first verse that gives us the natural explanation – the wind blew all night, and over a period of time the sand was exposed. The people began to walk across, but as they did they began to experience that moment as a true miracle in their lives, a sign that God was with them, paying attention to their fate, coming to help them in their darkest moment, and as they felt God’s presence the moment felt more and more miraculous, and the second verse expresses that – the great walls of water, suspended on either side, and God’s great hand doing that work.
That moment left such a deep impression on our ancestors that they not only experienced it as a miracle, but they passed it down to us, through the generations, that we might also feel God’s presence in our lives because of the freedom that was granted to them so long ago. And that fact that we still do, thousands of years later, is in and of itself a miracle to be celebrated.