Judaism: B'shalach: For Whom Did You Vote?
After generations of enslaving the Jews, Pharaoh had finally capitulated, and Moshe led the newly-liberated slaves out of Egypt. We left at our pace, at the time and in the manner that G-d chose. When Pharaoh called to Moshe and Aaron at night, saying “Get up – get out from the midst of my nation! Both you and the Children of Israel! Go and worship HaShem as you have spoken; take even your sheep and your cattle, as you said – and go! And bless me as well!” (Exodus 12:31-32), when Egypt urged the Jews to leave immediately (verse 33), that was the time for one final act of defiance.
“Moshe said to him: G-d has commanded us, ‘Not one man of you will leave the entrance of his house until morning!’ (Exodus 12:22). Are we then thieves, that we should slink out by night?! We will only leave with a high hand, in the sight of all Egypt” (Tanhuma, Bo 7).
The Seder Olam Rabbah (Chapter 5) records that four days later, on Monday the 18th of Nisan, Pharaoh received the report that the Jews had not returned and were not planning to return, contrary to Moshe’s original demand that they be allowed a three-day foray into the desert to worship G-d (Exodus 5:3, 8:23). Upon realising that his erstwhile slaves had no intention of returning of their own volition he led his army after them, pursuing them during the 19th and 20th of Nisan.
As the sun set on the 20th of Nisan and the evening of the 21st began, Israel went down into the Red Sea (Exodus 14:20 makes it clear that the stand-off between the Egyptian and Israelite camps happened by night). And the following morning, Thursday 21st Nisan, the Jews came up out of the Red Sea, the waters came crashing down on the Egyptians who were bogged down in its midst, and the Jews proceeded to sing the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-21).
Actually, it didn’t go quite so smoothly. The Torah records that “Pharaoh was approaching, and the Children of Israel raised their eyes; and behold! – Egypt was travelling after them; they were very frightened, and the Children of Israel screamed out to HaShem. And they said to Moshe: Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert? What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?! Isn’t this exactly what we meant when we told you in Egypt, when we said: Leave us alone and we will serve Egypt?! Because we’d be better off serving Egypt than dying in the desert!” (14:11-12).
This was an emergency: Moshe had to respond to the people’s seemingly valid complaints, calm them down, encourage them, infuse them with renewed faith, inspire them – all in a sentence or two. This was a nation that had been conditioned to despair for generations, conditioned to slavery for generations, which had all but forgotten the very concepts of hope, of self-respect, of dignity, of freedom.
Moshe’s response was short, sharp, and incisive: “Do not fear! Stand erect and see HaShem’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, because you will never again see Egypt as you have today! HaShem will fight for you while you remain silent” (14:13-14).
The Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, B'shallach, Masechet de-Vayehi 2; Yalkut Shimoni, Beshallach 233) tells us that there were four camps among the Jews, and Moshe’s words were carefully calibrated to address them all. One camp said: Let’s jump into the sea. One camp said: Let’s return to Egypt. One camp said: Let’s fight against the Egyptians. And one camp said: Let’s pray.
To those who said “Let’s jump into the sea”, Moshe said: “Stand erect and see HaShem’s salvation”. To those who said “Let’s return to Egypt”, Moshe said: “You will never again see Egypt as you have today!”. To those who said “Let’s fight against the Egyptians”, Moshe said: “HaShem will fight for you…”, and to those who said “Let’s pray”, Moshe said: “…while you remain silent”.
These four camps are all still with us today. The “Let’s-jump-into-the-sea” camp are today called Shas (being charitable to Shas). They have simple faith, unencumbered by any logical thought. They jump forward into seemingly suicidal situations – such as supporting the Oslo terrorism accords a decade ago – with no regard for the potentially deadly consequences.
The “Let’s-return-to-Egypt” camp are those who want to rely on the protection of hostile foreigners, whether Egypt, the PLO, the EU, Turkey or any others: they have experienced and lived through the beginning of the redemption, and might long for complete and true independence, at least in theory – but when faced with an enemy whom they perceive as being more powerful than us they reason that we can only survive by being practical and pragmatic.
The “Let’s-fight-against-the-Egyptians” camp are with us today as Otzma le-Yisrael, the inheritor of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party and the Jewish Defense League. Though a minority within the nation they have the certainty of faith, and perceive that we have the strength within us to stand strong and fear no mortal’s might. The “Let’s-fight-against-the-Egyptians” camp recognised G-d’s miracles, recognised that He had devastated our human enemies, and were prepared to throw off the psychological shackles of slavery.
And the “Let’s-pray” camp are represented today by United Torah Judaism. They wanted no part in the mundane world of day-to-day practical details: as spiritual people, they wanted to ignore the physical world in which they lived. G-d can take care of everything, and all they need to do is pray.
Now all of these ideologies have their place in Judaism. There is definitely an appropriate context for simple, blind faith, even when it seems suicidal, just as there is an appropriate time and place for practicality and pragmatism, for aggressive militarism, and for abandoning all concern for this world and being purely spiritual.
To truly live according to the Torah and its values, the Jew must know when to apply any of these ideologies, and how to combine them in their appropriate measures.
On that dramatic, disorienting night, standing on the shores of the Red Sea and watching the Egyptian cavalry approaching, those thousands of hooves pounding the desert floor, the sea barring our way forward and the hostile desert closing us in, it must have sounded convincing to argue that if there was ever a time in our history when we should have been entitled to passively rely on G-d to fight for us, this was it. G-d had engineered centuries of events – the brothers’ sale of Joseph, Joseph’s imprisonment, Pharaoh’s dreams, the famine, the later Pharaoh’s cruelty, the Ten Plagues – to bring us to this situation. Now, more than ever, we should have been justified in telling G-d: You got us into this mess, now You get us out of it!
But no. “HaShem said to Moshe: Why are you shouting out to Me?! Tell the Children of Israel to move!” (14:15). Even at this juncture, G-d told Moshe that we were responsible for our salvation. We were charged to take our destiny into our own hands, not to rely on G-d to perform miracles for us.
The Targum Yonatan renders this verse: “HaShem said to Moshe: Why are you standing and praying to Me? Behold – My nation’s prayers have preceded yours! Tell the Children of Israel to move!”.
Rashi comments here: “We learn that Moshe was standing and praying, until G-d said to him: Now, when Israel are in distress, this is no time for lengthy payers!”.
This comment of Rashi’s follows the Midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 21:8 and Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Masechet de-Vayehi 4): “G-d said to Moshe: Moshe! My children are in distress! The sea in blocking them, the enemy is pursuing – and you just stand there with your long prayers?! Why are you shouting out to Me?!”.
And the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) sees here an allusion to the prayers that Moshe was one day to utter. When G-d said, “Why are you shouting out to Me?!”, the word He used for “Why” was “mah”, spelt “mem-heh”. The numerical value of mem is 40, and of heh is 5, alluding to the 40 days that Moshe would pray for the Jews after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32, Deuteronomy 9:18) and to the 5 Hebrew words he would pray for his sister Miriam to be cured of her leprosy, “G-d, please heal her now” (Numbers 12:13).
The Ba’al ha-Turim concludes, “There is a time to keep prayers brief and a time for lengthy prayers; but now, this is not a time for praying at all. Rather ‘Tell the Children of Israel to move!’”.
For sure, G-d rescued us. But first of all we had to take the initiative, to move. Then, and only then, did G-d intervene on our behalf. As then, so is it always. We must make the initial effort, and then – and only then – “HaShem your G-d will bless you in all the works of your hands” (Deuteronomy 24:19). If there are no “works of your hands”, there is nothing for G-d to bless.
“Tell the Children of Israel to move!”. Do not stand passively, expecting G-d to fight for us unless we begin to fight for ourselves. As when we faced the remnants of Pharaoh’s elite cavalry forces, as when the gentle shepherd David faced the battle-scarred veteran warrior Goliath, as when the untrained Maccabees confronted the mightiest empire the world had ever seen – then the command of the hour is “Move!” Do something – whatever is appropriate for that time.
In the event, as the Talmud (Sotah 37a) and the Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, B'shallach, Masechet de-Vayehi 5) tell us, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the Tribe of Judah jumped into the Red Sea, thus showing the example for Israel to follow. Only then did the Red Sea split, allowing the nation to cross on dry land.
3,260 years later, the nation of Israel was returning to their Land, attacked from all directions by hostile Arabs who outnumbered and outgunned them, and harshly restrained from defence by the British Empire which still controlled these parts.
On the evening of 26th Adar II 5708 (5th April 1948), the Haganah launched its most ambitious operation to date. Previously its biggest operations had been on company level; now, to relieve the siege on Jerusalem, David Ben-Gurion called for a brigade-sized operation, a force of some 1,500 soldiers organised in three battalions, to capture the road to Jerusalem and to secure the high ground on both sides.
The Haganah had no experience in such a large operation. It was the first time they had ever attacked with the purpose of capturing territory. No one knew how to organise coordination, communication, command structure, or supplies on such a scale. Moreover, this operation necessitated drawing troops and materiel from other parts of the country where they were desperately needed. It left several fronts vulnerable to Arab attack.
That campaign was code-named Operation Nachshon, named for Nachshon ben Aminadav. The command of the hour was: “Tell the Children of Israel to move!” Without knowing what the consequences would be, they took up arms, went forward, and fought. A week and a half later the siege on Jerusalem was broken; the city was reinforced with a steady stream of supplies; Abd el-Kader el-Husseini, commander of Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (Army of the Holy War) and nephew of the infamous pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was dead, killed in battle; the Arab forces were demoralised; and the Haganah was ready for “Plan D” – the capture of strategic points which could influence battles along the axes of the impending Arab invasion.
Today, 35 km (22 miles) west of Jerusalem, the intersection of Highway 44 and Highway 3 is called the Nachshon Junction, tribute to Operation Nachshon and the soldiers who fought for Israel 65 years ago.
As then, so today. The lesson that G-d taught us by the shores of the Red Sea echoes through the centuries. G-d will not fight for us. But He will send us success if we but make the right decisions.