In the Midst of the Sea

“Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward.” – Exodus 14:15

“He who can forebear, lives. He who cannot, is lost.” – Sri Ramakrishna [1]

There are times in life when we feel closed in on all sides, moments when the way back is cut off, and the path forward is blocked. At such times, all we can do is hold on to God and put one foot in front of the other. Under such circumstances, we need to move forward even when there appears to be nowhere to go.


This, Rebbe Natan of Nemirov explains, was the situation of the Children of Israel at the shores of the Red Sea. Behind was the Egyptian army coming toward them in hot pursuit. In front of them lay the waves of the Red Sea standing as a wall of water blocking the path ahead. Trapped and cornered, they began to panic. Even Moses did not know what to do and cried out to God for help. But God did not perform a miracle or provide Moses with guidance; instead the Almighty turned to Moses and declared: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward.”

Moses raised his staff, expecting the Children of Israel to move ahead, but nothing happened. The people just stood there arguing about who should go first. Finally, the Midrash informs us, Nachshon ben Aminadav took his courage in his hands and jumped into the sea, the waves suddenly parted and the people strode forward “on dry land in the midst of the sea.” (Exodus 14:16)

Nachshon ben Aminadav, Rebbe Natan tells us, is showing us how we need to respond to the moments of confusion and distress in our lives. We need to turn away from all of the doubts and fears that are assaulting us. We need to ignore the whirling thoughts and emotions which tell us to give up and change our course. We need to push everything aside, grab on to God and move forward with faith and determination.[2]

Accomplishing such an act of faith is no simple matter. It requires enormous courage and strength. It means controlling the mind and stilling the emotions even as they thunder against us with all of their might.

There are three principles that will help us succeed at this difficult task. The first principle, Rebbe Natan urges, is to keep up our spiritual practices no matter what happens. We cannot allow our anguish or misery to stop us from maintaining our inner devotions. We need to concentrate our mind on God through continual prayer, constant remembrance of the Presence, and spiritual reading or study. These are our tools in battling the inner demons that attack us.

 

The second important principle in crossing the turbulent waters is to develop a certain measure of detachment. If we are to survive the storm raging around us, then we have to place some distance between ourselves and the situation. Detachment is essential if we are to act with clarity and strength. However, let no one be mistaken, the detachment that we are trying to achieve is not a heartless, emotionally-numb state. The following incident from the life of Swami Ashokananda of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco makes this point clear.

After the sudden departure of one of his much-loved disciples, Swami Ashokananda remarked:

“I sometimes think that when I die they will find my bones like those of Dhritarashtra [a central figure in the Indian epic the Mahabharata], all full of holes. At first they thought that it was because of the arrows that had been shot at him. But no, it was his grief for the loss of his hundred sons. My bones will be like that.”

In response to his words, once of his disciples asked:

“But Swami, I thought monks were supposed to be detached!”

“That is detachment,” he replied, “when there is no self mixed up in it. Do you think detachment and hard-heartedness are the same thing?”[3]

Of course we feel the pain and sorrow of a loss or betrayal, if we didn’t; then we wouldn’t be human. However, we do not allow anger, personal hurt, and ego to take over our hearts. We refuse to give in to the self-pity, pettiness and self-recriminations of the lower self. We do not permit sentiment, accepted conventions or our own trepidation to turn us from doing what we believe to be right and true.  This is real spiritual detachment.

 

The final principle that is crucial if we are to reach the dry land in the midst of the sea is to learn to just let go. Turning to heaven, we offer up our troubles, worries and struggles at the feet of the Lord. Is not the Source of all Life in control of everything that happens to us? Does not the Divine Architect have a plan for each of our lives? Is there anything that the Omnipotent and Omniscient cannot do? Do we really have faith or is our faith merely a lot of empty words?

We do not have to find all of the answers. We do not have to solve all of our problems on our own. If we can surrender our burdens and rest in God, then God will step in and lead the way.

“A handmaid saw at the Red Sea what [the prophet] Ezekiel, son of Buzi, did not see.” – Mechilta Beshlach, Ch. 3

All of these crises are not only times of immense difficulty; they are also moments of spiritual opportunity. It is in when we are faced with the most painful circumstances, when we confront seemingly impossible dilemmas that the most profound revelations can occur. These situations force us to reach beyond ourselves to discover new strengths, qualities and understanding that we did not know that we possessed. Through the tension of these struggles we are lifted into a higher realm where God is very close, where the power of our true Self floods into us, where the wisdom that we need to move forward is revealed.

The Torah states, “And the waters parted. And the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground.” (Exodus 14:21-22) Rebbe Natan teaches that the mystical interpretation of this verse is that the sea of supernal wisdom was revealed to the Children of Israel. Through their suffering the Children of Israel opened the door to the Divine source from which all knowledge comes, the ocean of pure consciousness which is the Mind of God.[4]

This, the Zohar teaches, is the hidden meaning of the verse in Genesis (1:3), “and the Spirit [ruach] of the Lord moved upon the surface of the waters.” It was the spirit of God moving on the waters of the Red Sea that caused it to split, as it is written, “With the blast [ruach] of Your nostrils the waters were piled up.” (Exodus 15:8) And it was the spirit of God moving on the waters that split the sea of supernal wisdom and caused the wellsprings of revelation to flow forth, as it is written, “A handmaid saw at the Red Sea what Ezekiel, son of Buzi, did not see.”

Both the physical as well the spiritual salvation occurred through the intervention of the spirit of God. It is to spirit that we turn when we are faced with the stormy waters of life in this world. It is to spirit that we look for guidance and inspiration as we strive to move forward in our lives. [5]

According to the tradition, the crossing of the Red Sea took place on the night of the seventh day of Pesach. May we all experience a great revelation on this night of ruach kodesh (holy spirit). May we find the courage, detachment, and the strength of spirit that we need to tread on the high ground of spiritual consciousness even as we walk in the midst of this worldly sea.

copyright © 2010, by Yoel Glick
first published 4/4/2010

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Swami Prabhavananda, Eternal Companion, p. 237
  2. Natan of Nemirov, Likutei Halachot Yoreh Dayah, Shiluach Hakain, halacha 4,7
  3. Sister Gargi, A Heart Poured Out, p. 281
  4. Natan of Nemirov, Likutei Halachot, Yoreh Dayah: Kibud Av v’Aim, halacha 2, 12
  5. Natan of Nemirov, Likutei Halachot, Orech Chayim, Tefillin, halacha 6, 12

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