The triumph at the Red Sea was convincing and final. Watching their former taskmasters washing up on the jagged banks of the ocean convinced the doubtful slaves that their freedom was final and that their Divine protection impermeable. This newfound confidence and faith erupted in national song and ambitious language. Their imaginations ignited, the Jews sang to their God after years of muted silence under Egyptian oppression.
Much of this jubilant song surrounded the actual drama unfolding before their very eyes: chariots and militias being tossed by the sea, furious waters being stilled on behalf of Jewish passage, and taunting threats of our enemies being easily dismissed by Hashem. Yet, the final stanzas of Az Yashir revolve around visions that their optical eyes couldn’t visually behold. The Jewish imagination quickly turned to future thoughts of entering the Land of Israel, achieving sovereignty and constructing a Temple. The final section of Az Yashir reverberates with visions of Israel and the Mikdash. What aspect of this miraculous ocean passage awakened such vision and redirected their thoughts from the seaside cliffs to the Land of Israel? How did this watery tempest ferry their spirits to Yerushalayim?
Evidently, their vision was awakened by the “gathering” effect of this event. Wild and untamed ocean waves were neatly gathered to enable safe passage of Jews, the surging swells of water were likewise “packed” to engulf the Egyptian columns: “U’veru’ach apecha ne’ermu mayim nitzvu k’mo neid nozlim, Through Your Spirit the waters were heaped, fluids stood at attention, and depths were frozen [and solidified] in the ocean abyss.” Something about this gathering of water was deeply resonant and stirred their imaginations.
In truth, all of human history began with a similar “gathering.” Human experience begins when God gathered the original primal waters, which had previously covered the entire Earth. By collapsing global waters into particular oceans, God created continental peninsulas to enable sustainable human life and prosperity. Initially, when humanity squandered this privilege through moral degeneracy, God restored the waters to their original, unrestrained sweep and Man had no space under these flooding waters. The great mabul wasn’t an indiscriminate punishment but merely a reversal of the original gathering; humanity no longer deserved their carved-out peninsulas.
The original gathering during creation, responsible for the launch of human experience, established a historical pattern—collecting scattered elements into specific areas. The Divine gathering of water provided a metaphor for a human mission of gathering. What are humans meant to gather in parallel to the Divine gathering of water?
For one, we strive to gather God’s presence and to condense it into one saturated presence. This has very distinct meaning in kabbalah and the consequent human task of collecting the divided presence of Hashem and integrating it into one indivisible wholesomeness reflecting His indivisibility. However, even in the world of empirical religious experience (niglah) we strive to “gather” Hashem’s all-pervasive presence and to align it within a specific location—the Land of Israel, Yerushalayim and of course the Mikdash. The saturated presence of the Shechinah is experienced more deeply in these areas of “gathered” presence.
In fact, King David senses the manner by which the original “water gathering” serves as a metaphor for the gathering of Divine presence. In a well-known chapter of Psalms (24), King David considers the creation of mainlands through water contraction: “ki Hu al yamim yesada, God founded the continents upon the [previously unbounded] water.” Abruptly, his attention shifts toward the actual Temple and the mountain upon which it rested: “mi ya’aleh behar Hashem… who will ascend the mountain of God?” The Zohar detects the seamless transition in this Psalm—from reflections upon the original repositioning of primal waters to thoughts about the repositioning of the Shechinah atop the mountain of God. The Jews at the sea evidently sensed the same innate parallel that King David intuited. Watching these gathering waters reminded the Jews of creation waters and in turn of the prospect of gathering before a Mikdash; ultimately, Az Yashir turns away from the gathered sea waters and imagines the ultimate gathering in Jerusalem.
In fact, both the Jews at the sea and King David employ the very same word to describe the Mikdash. The term “naveh” typically refers to the Temple based on its aesthetic beauty. In a similarly themed Psalm (93), which unites thoughts of water with dreams of Mikdash, King David writes “To Your beautiful and holy house—l’veitcha na’avah kodesh—employing this term “na’avah’ to describe the Temple. He employs the exact same term that was twice uttered by the Jews at the Sea. In the end of the song at the sea we referred to the Mikdash as “Neve Kodshecha” while in the beginning we alluded to it through the term “V’anveihu,” which stems from the same root of “nava.” For King David as well as our ancestors at the sea, the gathering of waters—both at the point of creation and during our safe passage from Egypt—suggested Temple construction and the centering of Divine presence in our world. Their employment of the exact same term to describe the Mikdash merely highlights their common association between gathered waters and Yerushalayim.
Not only did King David sense the metaphor of water gathering, but Yirmiya grasped it as well—not just as a template for the gathering Divine presence but also for the amassing of human assemblies. Describing the flocking of all humanity to Yerushalayim during the Messianic era (3:17), Yirmiya employs the term v’nikvu (they will gather), which is the exact word utilized to describe the gathering of Creation waters—yikavu hama’im. For Yirmiya, gathering Divine presence and centering it within Yerushalayim is only one aspect of “gathering.” For the Divine Presence to be fully expressed in the human realm, an entire civilization must rally around that presence and assemble in this location. For Yirmiya, gathered waters imply a Temple, but more so, the gathered waters represent throngs of human beings eager to be inspirited by the Divine presence.
There is great irony in this dual symbolism of the gathered waters—irony that yields an important message. The water imagery at the sea was associated with the death of our enemies and their deserved suffering. However, as Jews, we don’t delight in this misery and we certainly do not envision our role in history as the “defeaters” or “drowners” of other nations. We are meant to represent God in this world, draw His presence to our Homeland and draw a convocation of the entire planet to Jerusalem. The gathered waters represent our attempt to gather the presence of God, but also every human being to celebrate that presence.