The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back — Psalm 114:3
Psalm 114 is part of a group of six psalms that were originally sung after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. It is a psalm of praise, rejoicing in the amazing events that followed their Exodus from Egypt. It describes the sea as “fleeing,” the Jordan “retreating,” and mountains “leaping like rams.” The sea fled when it parted, allowing the Israelites to safely escape their Egyptian enemies. The waters of the Jordan retreated when they separated, offering secure passage for the Israelites through to the Promised Land. The mountains shook when God descended upon Mount Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments.
Psalm 114 recounts the many miracles that brought about the birth of the nation of Israel. But one miracle, in particular, deserves a closer look. The psalmist wrote that when the Israelites approached the Red Sea, it “looked and fled.” What did the sea look at that made it split?
Jewish tradition teaches that the sea fled upon seeing the bones of Joseph, the son of Jacob, who had requested that the Israelites take his remains with them when they left Egypt. Something about the bones of Joseph caused the sea to react. But what? For the answer, we turn to Joseph’s greatest moment.
Joseph’s greatest achievement was not becoming the viceroy of Egypt. It wasn’t even his willingness to forgive and help his brothers, despite their betrayal. Joseph’s greatest moment came when he refused the advances of his master’s wife.
As you may recall, after being sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, Joseph found himself working in the home of the Egyptian, Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife took a liking to him and tried daily to seduce Joseph, but Joseph was able to refuse her offers. The Bible recounts his struggle: “‘How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’ And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her” (Genesis 39: 9–10). Joseph fought against his natural desires, and he won.
Such self-mastery is an achievement like no other. The Jewish sages teach that when the sea saw the remains of Joseph, it said, “If Joseph can go against his nature, I can go against my nature, too,” and it parted.
Friends, are you looking for miracles? We don’t need to wait for a sea to divide or mountains to leap. For miracles, we need to look no further than ourselves. Every day is a chance to bring the miraculous into the world. Are we drawn to gossip? Hold our tongues. Do we worry incessantly? Trust in God. Find the areas in which you come up short – and go beyond them. That is a true miracle!
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President