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Parashat Hashavua Beshalach 2002 / 5762 - The Splitting of the Sea: When Prayer is NOT the Answer

22.01.2002 by

This week, the Israelites actually leave Egypt, and we read the dramatic description of another climactic moment in the Exodus story - the splitting of the Red Sea. The action begins with the Egyptians regretting their decision to send the Jews out of Egypt after the deaths of the first born sons - "what have we done, for we have sent the Israelites out of our servitude?" And so, losing no time, Pharaoh and his men saddle up the chariots, and chase after the Israelites. The Jews, for their part, are camped near the sea, a few days walking distance from Egypt. When they see the Egyptians approaching, they realize they are trapped, and panic: "And the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, Egypt was marching after them, and they were very afraid, and the children of Israel called out to the Lord. And they said to Moshe: "What, there aren't any graves in Egypt, you had to take us out into the desert to die? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? This is what we said to you in Egypt, when we said 'leave us alone and we'll work for the Egyptians'. It's better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"

Pretty annoying, eh? Moshe's response seems to indicate that he thought so, too: "And Moshe said to the people: Don't be afraid. Stand here and see the salvation of God that He will do for you today. For, as you see Egypt today you will never see them again. God will fight for you, and you keep quiet." Moshe has come to the conclusion that it is way too early for these people, who, until just a few days before, had been slaves, to act as independent, willful, free men and women. Faced with danger, they complain, blame Moshe for their predicament, and state clearly that they yearn for the simpler, less threatening reality of slavery. This being the case, Moshe expects absolutely nothing from these people; "Stand here", "God will do for you", "keep quiet". There seems to be no hope, on Moshe's part, that this bunch of sarcastic whiners can do anything for themselves. He, alone, can't do anything either, so the best advice he can give them is to shut up and watch the fireworks that God will provide.

It is interesting to note, here, that the Ibn Ezra has pointed out that this slave mentality stuck with the Jewish people for years; it was really only the next generation of Jews, those born in the desert, as free men and women, who could get it together to actually enter the Land of Israel, fight the Canaanites, and take possession of the land. That is why, according to the Ibn Ezra, God "arranged" for the slave generation to die out during the 40 years of wandering in the desert - they could not have handled the challenge of conquering and settling the land. Interestingly, he also points out that Moshe, born a Jew but raised as a free Egyptian, in the house of Pharaoh, was especially suited to lead the people out of slavery, being untainted by the slave mentality with which they were afflicted.

I would add that the description of the Israelites as passive, simply standing and watching quietly, stands in sharp contradistinction to their former masters, the Egyptians, who are depicted here as being very active: "And Egypt pursued after them", "Egypt marched after them", ""Pharaoh drew near". The Egyptians are described as the exact opposite of their former slaves; active, in constant movement, powerful. So, it is this uninspiring sight that Moshe, along with the reader, sees, and accepts as the sad truth, when he looks at his people; trapped like a deer between the Reed Sea and the oncoming headlights of the Egyptian army, unable and unwilling to act on their own behalf.

God, however, sees something completely different. After Moshe completes his speech, telling the Jews to stand still and shut up, God says: "Why do you call out to me? Tell the children of Israel that they should move! And you, you pick up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it, and go!" Rashi, noticing that God doesn't say "why do THEY call out to me", which would clearly be a reference to the cries of the people of Israel mentioned above, but, rather, speaking to Moshe, says "why do YOU call out to me", quotes a Midrash which posits that after Moshe told the Jews to keep quiet and watch, he then did what he felt he could and should do - he turned to God and prayed, asking Him to save the Israelites. According to this Midrash, God's response " Why do YOU call out to me" is directed at Moshe, and his prayers, and this is what God is saying: "Now is not the time to schlep out your prayers! The Jews are in trouble!... what they should do now is just GO, the sea won't stand in their way; the merit of their forefathers, and the faith that they had in me when they left Egypt, is enough to split the sea for them."

This is such a great speech! Look at what God, according to Rashi, is saying - "Now is not the time to schlep out your prayers, the Jews are in trouble!" It is so counterintuitive, such a shock! Because, after all, what better time to pray and pray and pray some more, than when the Jews are in trouble?! But no, God says. Enough of that, you guys are out of Egypt, out of slavery. As slaves, all you had was faith, all you could do was hope and pray and believe that God will save you. But now you are free, and that same faith must be transformed into action. Don't bother me with your prayers, just go, on your own, armed with nothing more and nothing less than who you are and what you believe, and split the sea yourself! I love the way everyone - Moshe, the people - all got it wrong. They all assumed it was about having a passive, quietist belief in God - well, quietist in the Jewish mode: accompanied by a strong dose of whining. Moshe could not imagine, at this early stage, that the people could, or should, take independent action, should rely on themselves. "Stand still", he says to them, "shut up and let me pray, and watch what God will do for us." "Wrong!", says God. "Do it yourself. Don't bother me. You have the inner strength to handle this independently. Your history as a free people, and the faith that got you out of Egypt and made you free again, can continue to work for you, if you actively access it yourself, as free men and women!" And so, with a little help from Rashi and the Midrash, a careful reading of this conversation at the shores of the Reed Sea between the people, Moshe, and God, turns the splitting of the Sea, which could have easily been seen as the ultimate example of man passively and prayerfully putting his faith in an omnipotent God, into a polemic for activism, bravery, and self-reliance.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Torah Portion Summary - Beshalach


In Beshalach, the Israelites are trapped between the oncoming Egyptians, who regret having freed them, and the Reed Sea. The sea splits, the Egyptians are drowned, and the nation begins its journey to the Promised Land of Israel.

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