“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the L-RD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”
– Exodus 14:21-22, JPS 1917 Tanach
“If they came into the sea, why does the Torah write: “they came unto dry land?” If they came unto dry land why does the Torah call it “sea?” (Shemot Rabbah 21.10). The verse teaches that the sea was not split for them until they had set foot in it while it was still sea up to the level of the nostrils (to demonstrate their faith). Immediately after they had done this the sea was converted to dry land.
– R’ Bachya on Exodus 14:22, sefaria.org
The midrashim are not always meant to be taken literally, rather to make a point. Perhaps, one inference to be drawn from this particular midrash, concerns the nature of emunah (faith). While the faith required by B’nei Yisrael to enter into the narrow passage created in the midst of the sea is comprehensible, an even greater faith would have been required if they began to enter the water, even before the splitting of the sea.
The nature of faith, is not only an abstract quality of belief, per se, in something that is unseen. True emunah is to actually believe in what one cannot see, beyond speculation, as if it exists in actuality, and has an influence in a person’s life. Therefore, while many people confess a belief in G-d, only in tandem to the day to day challenges, does that belief become more of an actuality.
Belief in G-d is more than an intellectual exercise in speculation, in order to compel us to have a reference point (usually, somewhere in Heaven) to direct our prayers towards in times of need. The nature of faith denotes an interface between a person’s belief system and practice, not as something removed from a person’s life, compartmentalized in a region of the mind, wherein a disconnect exists to that person’s practical existence.
At the Sea of Reeds, the Almighty’s Presence within the pillar of fire, and the pillar of cloud, were manifestations of His actual existence. Additionally, the splitting of the sea served as a sign of His power, not only to the Children of Israel, also to the rest of the world at that time. The existence of G-d, the manifestation of His Presence, and the signs of His interaction in this world are not as easily found in our lives, surroundings, or greater environmental milieu. Instead, emunah (faith) requires a profound degree of awareness.
“The L-RD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him.”
– Exodus 15:2, JPS 1917 Tanach
The midrash states that even a lowly handmaid saw more at the Sea of Reeds than the prophet Ezekiel saw in his visions (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In other words, she was able to perceive more in regard to H’Shem, because of her actual experience, where G-d’s intervention was clear. The midrash emphasizes the importance of seeing G-d’s direct interaction in our lives; this type of interaction is referred to as hashgacha peratis – G’d’s guidance over the life of every individual on earth, even on a personal level. Once we begin to open our eyes to this truth, then our belief will take root in our soul.