The splitting of the Red Sea, the dramatic finale to the Jewish People’s Exodus from Egyptian bondage, began when Moshe heeded G-d’s instruction to lift his staff and stretch his arm over the sea. The Targum Yonasan informs us that this staff was inscribed with the name of G-d, as well as the names of all ten plagues, the three patriarchs, six matriarchs, and all twelve tribes.
The inclusion of all twelve tribes arouses our curiosity. If the names in the inscription are intended to invoke the merit of our ancestors, the memory of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaacov ought to be enough. Why include the name of each tribe?
A World of Details
The Targum Yonasan says that the sea split not once, but twelve times, providing each tribe with a unique path through the ocean. Understood from a Chasidic perspective, this detail takes on a world of meaning.
The sea is an unknown realm, and try as we might, we cannot perceive the mysteries hiding beneath its surface. In our inner psychology, the ‘sea’ is the barrier that separates our consciousness from an awareness of the divine. An impenetrable curtain blocks our view of the divine unity underlying all the disparate details of the world. The splitting of the sea signifies the moment it came crashing down.
We generally assume that an experience of spirituality is meant to show us how insignificant the minor details of our lives are. Yet, in the ultimate supernatural act, G-d respected the specific individuality of each tribe.
While the three patriarchs represent the general approach to divine service, which all Jews share, the twelve tribes represent the differentiation into various approaches to serving G-d. When the Jews began their particular journeys towards G-d, it was important that there be different paths to the same end.
So too, the staff needed to express the specific details of each tribe’s divine service. The rod, and the miracle it set off, brought to life the fact that G-d’s idea of enlightening the world requires each of us to express G-d’s unity in our unique way.
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
תורת מנחם, כרך כז, עמ’ 326