If you skipped something in the Haggada last week it may well have been that page of disputations among the Sages in which they argue about precisely how many plagues the Egyptians suffered at the Red Sea. Was it 50, or 200, or 250? Since the book of Exodus only tells us about ten plagues in Egypt and says nothing about plagues at the Red Sea, it’s hard to fathom what the Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Akiva were trying to get at here. And could there really be enough permutations of vermin, disease, and natural disaster to make up 250 plagues?
But this midrash, like a number of others, shows that the Sages believed that, in some ways, the miracle at the Red Sea—which we commemorate on the seventh day of Pesach—was greater than the miracle of the escape from slavery. In fact, in many midrashim, the crossing of the Red Sea, not the Exodus itself, is the archetype of redemption, the model for the future salvation of the Messiah.
Rav Tzair, an anonymous Hebrew blogger, cites a midrash (Shemot Rabba 23) in this spirit:
Another view: “Then Moses sang,” and it is written (Prov. 31:26) “Her mouth opens with wisdom and the law of lovingkindness is on her tongue.” From the day that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created the world and until the day that Israel stood by the sea we do not find that a person sang to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, except for Israel. He created Adam, and he did not sing. He saved Abraham from the furnace and from the kings and he did not sing. And he also saved Isaac from the knife and he did not sing. And Jacob from the angled and from Esau and from the men of Shechem and he did not sing. But when Israel came to the sea and it divided before them, they immediately sang before the Holy One, Blessed Be He, as it is said, “Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel,” and this is “Her mouth opens with wisdom,” said the Holy One, Blessed Be He, for these I have been waiting.
Rav Tzair notes that in the week that passed between leaving the slave camps in Egypt and reaching the Sea, the Children of Israel were in flight, being pursued by the Egyptians, and so could hardly have felt an elation that would have broken forth in song. But, in fact, Pharaoh does not begin his pursuit immediately—only after he comes to believe that the Israelites have lost their way in the desert. So why did they not sing in the meantime?
The simple explanation is that the Israelites did not feel truly secure until they had put the sea between themselves and Egypt, and until they saw the destruction of the Egyptian army.
Another view is that they thought that the powers of whatever God had rescued them were limited to a particular place or realm. Perhaps this God could save them only in Egypt, or only on dry land. Only when they saw that God had domain over the sea as well, and on the far, non-Egyptian shore, did they really comprehend that this God was the God of the entire world.
But note that, at the end of the midrash, God says that he has been waiting for someone to sing to him. That seems to imply that, in some sense, the Song at the Sea was not a reaction to redemption, but part of its cause.
In other words, the physical redemption from slavery could become the spiritual redemption from slavery only when the Children of Israel found a way to use language not to complain, not as an instrument for achieving some practical result, but in order to express gratitude, wonder, and joy. In turning everyday language into poetry, they completed the circle that connected them to their God. In singing, they raised themselves toward heaven.