Parshas Pesach (5776)
As we read publicly in the synagogue each year on the Seventh Day of Passover, the Jewish people sing a song of praise and thanks to G-d – known as the Shiras HaYam (the “Song of the Sea”) – upon witnessing the great miracle of Kerias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Sea.
Towards the beginning of this beautiful and moving song, the Jewish people declare: “This is my G-d and I will beautify Him ..” (see Exodus 15:2). The Talmud in Shabbos 133b teaches that this verse is the Scriptural source for the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah (lit. "beautification of the mitzvah), enhancement or meticulous observance of a mitzvah (divine commandment) beyond the formal demands of the law.
As the Talmud states: “‘This is my G-d and I will beautify Him’ – Make your mitzvos beautiful in front of G-d: Make a beautiful Sukkah, Lulav, Tzitzis, and a beautiful Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) written in nice ink with a nice quill by a professional scribe, and wrap it in nice silk!”
In addition to beautifying our mitzvah objects, Hiddur Mitzvah requires that we spend as much as an additional third to acquire a mitzvah object of greater beauty (see the Talmud in Bava Kama 9b).
In other words, when selecting or purchasing an object with which to perform a mitzvah, we should not “cheap out” and try to get away with the least costly option. Rather, we should go “all out” and make sure that the mitzvah objects that we use are as beautiful as they can be.
The only question we can ask is how come the Jewish people committed themselves to beautifying their mitzvos specifically at this point in time when they were witnessing the Splitting of the Sea? In other words, what is the connection between Hiddur Mitzvah and Kerias Yam Suf?
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin ZT”L, in his commentary Oznayim LaTorah to Exodus 15:2, answers as follows:
G-d didn’t just save the Jews from their oppressors by splitting the sea for them and drowning their enemies, although that would certainly have sufficed, and our ancestors would have said Dayeinu (“it is enough for us”). Instead, G-d went “all out” and performed many extra miracles at the Sea just to make the Jews’ journey through the splitting waters more secure and more enjoyable.
In fact, the Mechilta (a major Midrashic work on the Book of Exodus) lists ten additional miracles that occurred during the Splitting of the Sea:
1) The walls of water that rose on either side of the split sea formed a canopy over the Jewish people, keeping them warm and protecting them from the elements.
2) The normally muddy seabed became like dry land, making it easier for the Jewish people to walk on it.
3) The part of the seabed where the Egyptians treaded became like wet cement, making it incredibly difficult for them to chase after the Jews.
4) The walls which were made of blocks of ice (see below) disintegrated as soon as the Egyptians arrived, showering them with ice pellets and causing them much harm.
5) The waters turned into stones which pelted the Egyptians.
6) The water did not just split in half, leaving one path for all the Jewish people. Rather, it split into twelve different sections, with each tribe having its own separate tunnel through which to pass as a family.
7) The waters piled up as blocks of ice, one atop the other.
8) The waters became like solid walls on either side of the Jews.
9) The frozen walls of salty seawater provided sweet drinking water for any of the Jewish people who were thirsty.
10) The floor of the sea froze, resembling a smooth glass floor, thus enabling the Jews to walk on the sea floor without any obstructions.
And that’s not all … There are Midrashic sources that list many more amazing miracles that occurred during the Splitting of the Sea. Indeed, the Haggadah that we read at the Seder records the opinion of one sage that there were as many as 250 (!) different miracles that G-d performed for the Jewish people at the Splitting of the Sea.
Just to cite two examples:
The Midrash tells us that the walls and floors of the sea were not just plain blocks of ice. Rather, they were formed in decorative patterns and mosaics of great beauty to give the Jewish people pleasure as they walked through.
Furthermore, the ice walls were crystalline and transparent, allowing the people in each tunnel to see into the neighboring tunnel. This way they felt more secure and relaxed, knowing that they were not alone by themselves, but were connected to the rest of the Jewish people.
So when the Jewish people witnessed at Kerias Yam Suf how G-d performed miracles above and beyond what was necessary to save them, they responded in kind and committed themselves to Hiddur Mitzvah and to making G-d’s mitzvos beautiful above and beyond what was required.
One of the major themes of the Passover Seder is Hakaras HaTov, expressing gratitude to our Father in Heaven for all the miracles that He performed for our ancestors during the Exodus from Egypt and at the Splitting of the Sea, and how He went “all out” - and continues to go “all out” in every generation - for the Jewish people in so many amazing ways.
This year, let us respond to G-d’s great miracles by committing ourselves to making our mitzvos great (and beautiful) again, just as our ancestors committed to so many millennia ago.
[Sources: Let My Nation Go by Yosef Deutsch, Feldheim Publishers]