After experiencing the incredible miracle that was the Red Sea splitting, the people collectively sang Az Yashir:
זה קלי ואנוהו אלקי אבי וארוממנו – This is my God, and I will glorify Him – the God of my father – and I will exalt Him. (15:2)
The Mechilta observes how any maidservants at the sea saw things that even Yechezkel ben Buzi, who had the most vivid prophecies, did not.
Who were these maidservants? How were there any servants among the Jews, a newly liberated people?
The commentaries wonder how Chazal derived their statement. The Vilna Gaon, the Maharil Diskin and the Maskil L’David accept essentially the same view. Rashi writes that there are two parts to the passuk. The second half, that of “אלקי אבי וארוממנו”, is a reference to Hashem being the God of their fathers, illustrating a relationship begun earlier than those saved at the Sea. The above commentaries explain that the word “זה” refers to both clauses; once for “זה קלי ואנוהו” and then for “זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו”. However, the Jews did not leave Egypt alone. Non-Jewish servants and maidservants, a.k.a. the Eirev Rav, came along in order to convert. Unable to refer to their relationship with Hashem as beginning with their forefathers, substituted “זה קלי ואנוהו” instead. Did the Jews say both statements? Maskil L’David says they did, whereas the Eirev Rav said only “זה קלי ואנוהו”. The Vilna Gaon and Maharil Diskin teach that this passuk was truly split; with the Jews saying”זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו” , and the non-Jewish servants and maidservants saying “זה קלי ואנוהו”.
The commentaries explain how Chazal understood that the maidservant saw “more” than Yechezkel. The word “זה” – “this here” – was used at the Sea to connote something concrete and direct, as opposed to the general “ואראה” – “I was shown” – used in the later prophesies. Chazal saw from this that even this maidservant, essentially any non-Jew who was there, was able to point and say “זה קלי ואנוהו”; and truly saw a greater revelation than even the greatest of the prophets; the Presence of Hashem was manifest in such a great way that one could simply point and say, “This is my G-d”.
Interestingly, there is discussion amongst the Rishonim regarding the nature of Hashem’s “revelation” at the Sea. Rabbeinu Bachayei writes that Chazal do not mean to say that the maaidservant had greater ability to grasp such things, nor were they wiser than Yechezkel. Hashem simply “showed” Himself more at the Sea than He ever did to Yechezkel. The Rambam disagrees; in describing the lofty levels reached by the Jews in the generation of the Exodus and the Desert travels, he writes: “The lowest of them was like Yechezkel, as Chazal say. This seems to be a reference to the statement of Chazal under discussion. Apparently Rambam understood this statement to be descriptive of the nation’s spiritual heights, which enabled them to have as remarkable a revelation as they did.
According to the Rambam, two insights would appear. Firstly, that even the “lowest” Jew at that time was indeed greater than Yechezkel. Secondly, it appears that we need not understand that the maidservant was at least originally non-Jewish. In context, the Rambam is discussing the great level of the Jewish nation at the time, and yet he uses this statement of Chazal as a proof. This leads one to surmise that the Rambam understood that the maidservant in question was Jewish. If this is the case, our original question returns; why is there a “maidservant” in this newly liberated nation?
The Gemara in Sota 11b tells the story of how the pregnant Jewish women in Egypt would go out to the fields to give birth, and would leave their newborns there. To take them home would mean their being captured and tossed into the Nile. Hashem took care of these newborns, sending angels to clean, feed and care for them. When the Egyptians found out about these children living in the fields, they came to kill them. A miracle occurred; the earth would swallow these children deep enough to protect them from Egyptian plows. After the Egyptians left, the children sprouted out of the ground like plants. When they grew up, herds of them would return to their homes. And when Hashem revealed Himself at the Sea, these children “recognized” Him first having been raised in His presence and said: “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Clearly this Gemara understands that the Jews too said “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Now according to the Maskil L’David, that “זה קלי ואנוהו” was also said by the Jews, this Gemara can be congruent with the Mechilta. However, according to the Vilna Gaon and the others, this Gemara too needs reconciliation with the word usage of the Mechilta: “maidservant,”, and we are left with our question.
Food for thought.