The ancient Jewish art form called Midrash is a combination of Biblical commentary and application to modern concerns. A Midrash always starts with a Koshi, a difficulty or curiosity in the Biblical text, and then moves to some kind of moral lesson.
In the case of the crossing of the Red Sea, Exodus 14 and 15, the ancient Sages picked up on an interesting phrase in the narrative, “And they went into the sea on dry ground.” This may not seem weird to you, because we think of “the sea” as a place on a map. However, one ancient Sage suggested that “the sea” is actually water, and this makes the verse impossible. If one goes into the water, how can it be dry land? The result is a story utilizing a Biblical character who, while well-known and respected, is not usually at the center of the Exodus narrative: Nachshon, son of Amminadab, a leader of the tribe of Levi and the brother-in-law of Aaron.
The story goes like this: “When the Israelites stood on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, terrified at the onrushing chariots, Moses lifted up his rod to divide the waters, but nothing happened. Then Nachshon, an Israelite filled with faith and bravery, jumped into the water and started walking. ‘By our faith shall these waters be divided,’ he shouted, and everyone followed him in. When all the people were in the sea — with the water up to their noses — only then did the sea part, and the Children of Israel could walk through on dry land.” (Talmud Sotah 37a and Numbers Rabbah 13.7)
The “explanation” or solution to the Koshi is that the phrase “they went into the sea on dry land” is sequential. First, they went into the sea, and then it became dry land. This is clever, but the moral dimension is much more profound: Some of God’s miracles require human participation.
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The notion of God’s miracles has always been difficult. One the one hand, the holy Scriptures are full of descriptions of truly miraculous events. On the other hand, such miracles are rare. Though we celebrate the many miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, remember that the Hebrews endured 400 years of slavery — waiting. Thus there has always been a tension in religious thinking about the nature of miracles and how we are supposed to factor them into our plans.
I would suggest that there are three kinds of miracles. First are the everyday miracles of life. The sun rises, the plants grow, the body heals and our existence is possible. Though this may seem to be the natural order of things, there is something miraculous about the creation and the principles and dynamism that give us life.
Second are those times when the impossible happens, when the overwhelming presence of God intervenes in the natural world and awes us with the unexpected. These are very rare, but the Bible and subsequent experiences tell us that they do happen.
The third kind of miracle is the variety to which our Midrash alludes. Though human action is probably not going to cause the splitting of the sea, we can help God along in many sacred tasks: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the captive and searching for the presence of God in each and every human being. We can help in God’s work. We can be God’s partners. We can participate in miracles.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.