“A handmaid saw at the Red Sea what even [the prophet] Ezekiel, son of Buzi, did not see.”

– Mechilta Exodus 15

The Rabbis made this astonishing statement, not about the revelation at Sinai, but about the experience of the Children of Israel at the Red Sea. What was the great power of this revelatory experience? What brought the people of Israel to such an elevated state of consciousness?

Let us try to imagine the force and the magnitude of the moment at the Red Sea.  The Children of Israel are gathered on the shore. As they watch the waves rush in before them, they cannot fathom how they will cross over to the other side. Then, all of a sudden, Pharaoh appears on the horizon with six hundred charioteers in hot pursuit. Now they are totally hemmed in by Pharaoh and his army on one side, while the sea roars before them on the other.

Just as they have lost all hope, Moses lifts his rod and the sea miraculously parts in two. But the choice before the Children of Israel is still not an easy one. The sea has split, forming two huge walls of water with a narrow path in the middle. If they enter into the sea, they are entering into an abyss that leads off into the distance. Once they leave the shore, they are trapped. The waves could come crashing down on them at any moment.

Imagine the awe and the fear that they experienced. To the Israelites, the path ahead must have seemed like a strange mirage or a door into another reality. If we were in their place, would we have found the courage and faith to go forward? Could we have leapt into the waters, believing that it was dry land?

It is true that the Children of Israel had witnessed the miracles of the plagues. But let us consider human nature: even outright miracles are quickly forgotten once the mind is plunged back into physical reality again. The shocking sight of the approaching Egyptians would have snapped any sense of inner peace and security that remained from the higher awareness of the Exodus. The thought of walking through the sea and then wandering off into the desert would have seemed like an act of pure madness to them.

In the spiritual life, there is a time when we undergo a similar experience, where “the forces of materiality” make an unexpected assault upon us. It comes after we mistakenly believe that we have already vanquished our enemy. Their sudden reappearance, therefore, takes us totally by surprise. We are caught unprepared for both the power and the intensity of their attack.

All our spiritual aspirations now appear naïve and foolhardy. Our plans for a spiritual journey seem like a leap into the unknown, where there is nothing for us to hold onto – nothing that is familiar, nothing in which we can trust. The obstacles in our path loom before us as huge mountains. Our spiritual goals feel like grandiose objectives that are impossible to achieve. And all the while, our old way of life softly beckons – entreating us to return back home.

Such an episode takes place in the life of the Buddha:

After six years of intense spiritual practice, the Buddha sits under the Bodhi tree and vows not to rise from his seat until he has reached enlightenment. As the hours pass, maya – the powers of illusion – makes a final assault to try and swerve the Buddha from his purpose.

Maya tries to entice him with beautiful maidens and earthly treasures. When this doesn’t work, it sends great armies of terrifying warriors to attack the Buddha. Finally, maya realizes that it can no longer tempt the Buddha and gives up its attack. In that moment, the Buddha transcends the myriad worlds of illusion and reaches the one true reality.

It is hard for modern man to have faith. His reasoning, doubting mind pulls things apart and is skeptical of anything that it cannot see. But the truth is that the external reality upon which our intellect builds its self-righteous certainty and sense of superiority is itself only a fragile illusion. As Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh once said:

“Do not trust your intellect. Intellect is only a finite, frail instrument. It cannot solve the transcendental problems… it depends upon the senses and the mind for its knowledge. You see that the sky is like a big blue dome; but is it really so? No. Like that, you see spread before you the vast panorama of the universe. But in reality it does not exist at all, even as the blueness in the sky is a false perception. The intellect must be trained in this manner to enquire into the real nature of things, this will lead to intuition or direct perception of the Truth.” [1]

The reasoning mind is only our lower mind. It is a finite instrument that categorizes, analyzes and orders things into concrete forms. It cannot give us answers to the greater questions of life – for that we are obliged to use our higher mind.

The lower mind bases its reality on facts. But what in the end are facts? They are only temporary propositions to try and explain a reality that is always changing and evolving. The facts of yesterday are the mistaken beliefs and superstitions of today. Most of what we understand as “facts” in our present world did not even exist a hundred or two hundred years ago. And the same will be true of what we know today in a hundred, never mind a thousand years from now.

The lower mind learns through experiment and observation of a material reality that is fleeting and always in flux; the higher mind gains wisdom by touching the infinite and eternal reality that lies behind all external forms. The lower mind is contracted and fixed; the higher mind is expansive and fluid. The lower mind sees in details and theoretical constructs; the higher mind perceives in patterns and the impressions of direct experience. The lower mind is about thinking; the higher mind is about Being.

The revelation of the Red Sea is a shift from the consciousness of the lower mind to that of the higher mind. This is why the revelation was so stupendous. The Children of Israel were lifted completely out of their ordinary way of experiencing reality and taken into another plane of being.

The Midrash is filled with miraculous details about the events of the crossing: the waters united in a vault above their heads, twelve paths opened up, one for each of the tribes, the water became as transparent as glass and each tribe could see the others, through the brackish water flowed a stream of sweet water from which the Israelites could slake their thirst, and the sea yielded to the Israelites whatever their hearts desired. If a child cried as it lay in the arms of its mother, she needed only to stretch out her hand and pluck an apple or some other fruit to satisfy and quiet the child. And finally, the waters themselves were piled up to a height of sixteen hundred miles that could be seen by all the nations of the earth. [2]

All these different midrashim are trying to convey to us the same truth: the passage through the Red Sea was much more than just a parting of the waters so that the Children of Israel might traverse the seabed. The crossing of the sea was a journey outside of ordinary time and space.

The shift from the consciousness of the lower mind to that of the higher mind does not always take place on such a grand scale and in such a dramatic fashion. A devotee of Sri Ramana Maharshi provides us with a more personal example of such a transformation in perception, in this moving description of his first visit to Sri Ramanashram:

“I found my whole outlook entirely changed. After that short period I could find little evidence of my old self, a self that had been tied down with all kinds of preconceptions and prejudices. I felt that I had lost the chains that bind the eyes of true vision. I became aware that the whole texture of my mind had undergone a change. The colours of the world seemed different, even the ordinary daylight took on an ethereal aspect. I began to see the foolishness and the futility of turning my gaze only on the dark side of life.

“In those few days Sri Bhagavan…opened up for me a strange new world of illumination, hope and joy.” [3]

True faith is not a mindless belief based on some vague internal feeling; it is simply a different kind of knowledge. True faith comes from inner experience, from the knowledge of the higher mind. This living faith will sustain us through the many difficulties of life in this world. It is this tangible faith for which we all are searching.

The challenge that lies before us is to hold on to this faith even when our old mental conceptions and emotional desires return to attack us. At this time, it is vital that we strive to maintain our awareness that there really is nothing to fear; that all the turmoil we are experiencing is just the manifestation of our lower mind fighting for control. It is all the same maya that attacked the Buddha.

If we can strengthen our inner connection, and shift our focus away from the facts of the lower mind to the inner truth of the higher mind, then we will be ready for the moment when the Red Sea splits. We will be able to stride forward on the dry ground of higher consciousness even as we walk in the midst of the turbulent seas of this physical world.

– from Seeking the Divine Presence: The Three Pillars of a Jewish Spiritual Life

copyright © 2009, by Yoel Glick



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  Swami Sivananda, Doon Lecture, chronicled by Swami Venkatesananda, Dec. 14, 1950
  2.  Mechilta, Torah portion Beshlach, Shemot Rabbah: 21:10, Targum Yerushalmi, Exodus 14:22
  3.  Godman, Power of the Presence, Vol. II, p. 177