The great German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said that we relate to and experience God in three ways: Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh)’s depictions of the Sea encompass all three themes, and add one that he left out: destruction.
In the first chapter of Genesis, watery depths are depicted as preexisting creation. God creates light, then makes the firmament to separate the upper from the lower waters, which are gathered into seas, leaving room for the dry land. From this primary watery chaos, distinctions are made and order occurs. Science also tells us that life emerged from the sea, the womb of all living things.
When we visit the sea on a beautiful day, we feel the awe of creation. When I can’t be by the sea, I like to look at pictures, or videos, or listen to recordings of waves. I also keep seashells on my desk as a reminder.
The story of Noah provide the story of the Great Flood, destruction through water the mabul. It is more than a story of massive rain, but, ” All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open.” (Genesis 7:11) The water that was limited and contained by God in the first Chapter of Genesis was let loose, drowning and destroying all creatures except those saved in Noah’s ark.
If you have lived through a hurricane, flood, or tsunami, you have witnessed water’s power of destruction. Like Noah, you may have experienced the trauma of starting anew or the mitzvah of helping others to rebuild.
It’s a bit less obvious why the Sea is connected to the theme of Revelation, since the classic picture of Revelation in Judaism is standing at a mountain. But there is also a connection to the Sea. For one thing, the Talmud, the great corpus of Rabbinic Law and Lore, is so vast and deep that it is often called a “Sea.” At least one prophet, Jonah, received his revelation deep under the sea while in a “submarine” in the form of a great fish. But most of all there is a messianic vision of a peaceful future time when God consciousness will suffuse the earth like waters fill the Sea:
לֹֽא־יָרֵ֥עוּ וְלֹֽא־יַשְׁחִ֖יתוּ בְּכָל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֑י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ דֵּעָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה כַּמַּ֖יִם לַיָּ֥ם מְכַסִּֽים׃
None shall hurt or destroy in my holy mountain, for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of YHWH, as water covers the sea.
Immersing ourselves in deep study of Torah and Talmud may open us to a wonderful sense of revelation.
The classic image of Redemption in the Torah is the parting of the Red or Reed Sea in the book of Exodus. We were slaves in Egypt (since we are commanded to feel that we personally experienced this), and God sent ten plagues on our oppressors, led us out of Egypt and parted the Sea so that we could pass through to freedom. Some say that the parting of those waters was like the breaking of the water when a baby is born, the birth of a nation.
After our rescue at the sea, we sang a song of praise and gratitude. This redemption is celebrated in our prayers such as the Mi Chamochah and the Friday evening kiddush, and in our celebration of Shabbat and of holidays such as Passover. These continual commemorations of the Exodus are intended to remind us to know the heart of the stranger and to work for the redemption of all who are in distress. The Exodus became the archetype for many movements of liberation and redemption.
Engaging in acts of justice and compassion, we help to make the sea part for others.
Consider and Comment: Which aspects of the Sea have you felt in your life?