The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:15) makes a startling claim about the Israelites who witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea:
“Come and see how great were those who crossed the Sea. Moses pleaded and beseeched before God that he should merit seeing God’s Divine Image, ‘Please, show me Your glory!’ (Ex. 33:19). Yet God told him, ‘You may not see My face….’ But every Israelite who descended into the Sea pointed with his finger and said, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Ex. 15:2).
Could it be that those who crossed the Red Sea saw more than Moses, about whom the Torah testifies, “No other prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel” (Deut. 34:10)? Furthermore, Moses was also there when they crossed the sea — he certainly saw what everyone else experienced!
Clearly, the Midrash cannot be referring to the level of prophecy, for it is a fundamental article of faith that Moses’ prophecy was unparalleled. Rather, the Midrash must be referring to some aspect of prophetic vision that was only experienced by those who participated in this miraculous crossing.
What was so special about the splitting of the Red Sea? God performed other miracles for Israel, but those miracles did not entail the complete abrogation of the laws of nature. Nature as a whole continued on its usual path; God only temporarily changed one aspect for the benefit of His people.
But with the miraculous splitting of the Sea, God suspended the entire system of natural law. The Sages wrote that this miracle did not occur solely in the Red Sea. On that night, bodies of water all over the world were split. According to the Maharal, Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, water symbolizes the physical world, so that this miracle affected the entire physical realm of creation (Gevurot Hashem, chap. 42). The entire rule of nature was breached.
Our world is governed by the framework of cause and effect. When the underlying rule of nature was suspended during the splitting of the Red Sea, the entire system of causality was arrested. During that time, the universe lost its cloak of natural law, and revealed itself as a pure expression of divine will.
What is the essence of prophecy? This unique gift is the ability to look at God’s works and recognize in them His greatness.
As long as nature’s causal structure is functioning, a prophet may attain sublime and even esoteric knowledge, but he will never achieve immediate awareness of God’s directing hand. Through his physical senses and powers of reasoning, the prophet will initially recognize the natural system of cause and effect. Only afterwards does the prophet become aware that the entire universe is created and directed by an ultimate Cause.
At Mount Sinai, God told Moses, “You will only see My back.” What is God’s ‘back’? Maimonides explained that this is a metaphor for the system of natural law by which God governs the universe. God granted Moses an awareness of the inner connectivity within creation. This understanding of God’s true nature exceeded that of any other prophet.
When God split the Sea, all laws of nature were temporarily suspended. God took “direct control” of the universe. Those witnessing this miracle were instantly aware of God’s intervention and providence, each according to his spiritual level. Certainly none reached the prophetic level of Moses. But whatever enlightenment they attained, it was perceived immediately. They did not need to first examine the natural system of causality, and from this, recognize the prime Cause of creation.
Therefore, those experiencing the miracle of the Red Sea called out spontaneously, “THIS is my God.” Their comprehension was not obscured by the logical system of cause and effect; they witnessed God’s revealed rule directly, without the cloak of causality.
(Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 353-357)