Thursday, January 17, 2008

Parashat Be-shallach:When a leader has to jump

By Daniel Pinner

“With Pharaoh approaching, the Children of Israel raised their eyes – and behold! Egypt was travelling after them; they were very frightened, and the Children of Israel shouted to Hashem. And they said to Moshe: Was it because of the lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert? What is it that you have done to us by taking us out of Egypt? Is this not what we were talking about when we spoke to you in Egypt when we said, Leave us alone, and we will serve Egypt?! Because our serving Egypt is better than our dying in the desert.

“And Moshe said to the nation: Do not fear. Stand erect and see the salvation of Hashem that He will perform for you today. Because as you see Egypt today, you will never see them again. Hashem will fight for you, while you remain silent” (Exodus 14:10-14).

The first thing that strikes us about the Jews’ attitude is their fear. This was no nation of lawyers, doctors, and accountants with hunched shoulders, clutching their briefcases and wearing business suits and neck-ties; this was a nation of over 600,000 men of fighting age (Exodus 12:37, Numbers 1:1-46), armed (13:18), who had spent their entire lives doing physical labour as slaves and were therefore well-muscled and physically tough. Why, then, were they so afraid of the Egyptian army, which had been mortally weakened by Plague after Plague, and finally decimated and deprived of its most important commanders in the final Plague, the Slaying of the First-Born?

The Ibn Ezra addresses this issue: “It is amazing that such a vast camp of 600,000 men were terrified of those who were pursuing them. Why did they not fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians had been Israel’s masters, and this generation that was exiting from Egypt had been trained from childhood to accept the yoke of the Egyptians’ burdens, and its soul had been humiliated. So how could they now fight against their masters, when Israel had been weakened and unschooled in warfare?” (commentary on Exodus 14:13).

This is an incisive perspective into the soul of a nation of slaves: it is, quite simply, psychologically inconceivable for a slave to arise against his master, even though he may be far more powerful physically. And the Ibn Ezra concludes: “So Hashem Himself, ‘He Who works great things [Job 5:9], and ‘by Whom peoples’ deeds are reckoned’ [1 Samuel 2:3] saw to it that all the males of the nation who left Egypt died [in the desert], because they did not have the strength to fight the Canaanites until a new generation – the generation of the desert – arose, who had not seen exile, and who had an exalted soul”.

If this was the case after just 210 years in Egypt, then how much more is it the case after 2,000 years of exile! This, more than anything else, is the reason that the current leaders of Israel are psychologically unable to stand up to Israel’s enemies, why Arabs can shoot missiles into Israeli cities and the most powerful retaliation from Israel’s current leadership is to bomb empty fields (after first requesting permission from the USA to do so), or when Jews are daily under threat of murder, those leaders’ concept of an appropriate response is to ask the UN to condemn terrorism (see, for example,

In two simple words: galut [exile] mentality. 2,000 years of exile cannot be extirpated from a nation in three generations.

However, before we judge Israel’s current leadership too harshly, it behoves us to consider that even Moshe was mistaken in his response: “Moshe said to the nation: Do not fear. Stand erect and see the salvation of Hashem that He will perform for you today. Because as you see Egypt today, you will never again see them. Hashem will fight for you, while you remain silent”. A fair assumption, on the face of it. After all, G-d Himself had engineered this situation. 430 years earlier, in His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:13-16), He had decreed that this would happen. G-d had wrought the Ten Plagues on Egypt that had filled the survivors with vengeful fury. He had brought Israel to the brink of the Red Sea, and the brink of disaster, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. G-d had decreed the slavery that had brought the nation to this psychological inability to fight. If there was ever a time when we were entitled to turn to G-d and demand: You got us into this mess – now You get us out of it!, then the time was now.

But “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways, says Hashem” (Isaiah 55:8). While Moshe may have wanted to rely on G-d to do all the fighting, G-d disagreed: “And Hashem said to Moshe: Why are you shouting to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel, that they go forward!” (Exodus 14:15). In the paraphrase of the Targum Yonatan: “And Hashem said to Moshe: Why are you standing and praying to Me? After all, for Me, My nation’s prayer takes precedence over yours! Speak to the Children of Israel, that they go forward!”

The Midrash continues with the same idea: “Rabbi Yehoshua says: G-d said to Moshe: Moshe, all Israel has to do is to go forward. Rabbi Eliezer says: G-d said to Moshe: Moshe, My children are in distress, with the sea blocking them and an enemy pursuing them, and you stand there with long, drawn-out prayers?! Why are you shouting to Me?” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Be-shallach 4).

Of course there is a time to pray; and, in Rabbi Eliezer’s dictum, “there is a time to keep prayers brief, and there is a time to lengthen prayers” (Mekhilta, ibid.). This parallels King Solomon’s famous dictum, “For everything there is a time, and an appropriate season for everything under the heavens… A time to keep silent, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7). “A time to speak – [such as] ‘Then Moshe and the Children of Israel sang’” (Rashi, ad loc). But when facing a murderous enemy from behind, trapped by the sea ahead and the desert on both sides, that is not the time to pray; that is the time to act.

This is the meaning of genuine emunah (faith). Emunah does not entail watching passively for God to do all the work; neither does it entail praying or saying Psalms while expecting G-d to act on our behalf. Rather, true emunah demands that we exert the maximum effort that we can, with the tools at our disposal, and believing that G-d will send success. If the only way to go is forward into the sea, then that is the way of emunah: leap forward into the sea, and trust G-d that He will send success.

“Hashem your G-d will bless you in all the work of your hands,” promises the Torah (Deuteronomy 14:29); and again, “You shall not lend money to your brother with interest…so that Hashem your G-d will bless you in all that your hand undertakes” (ibid. 23:20-21). And similarly, the Torah promises over and over again rewards for keeping Mitzvot: a typical example, and the best known because it is part of the Shema, is “I will give the rain of your Land in its correct season, the first rain and the last rain…” (ibid. 11:14). But the most generous rain ever is worthless unless we have made the effort to plant the seeds, and will make the effort afterwards to reap the harvest. Without “the work of your hands,” there is nothing for G-d to bless.

And as much as emunah demands action, action demands emunah. The first person to plunge into the Red Sea before it split was Nachshon, the son of Amminadav (Sotah 37a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Be-shallach 6; Numbers Rabbah 13:7, et al); his action became the very symbol of emunah. And it was in the merit of his act of unflinching emunah that he later became the leader of the tribe of Judah. More than this: when travelling through the desert towards Israel, it was the tribe of Judah, led by Nachshon, who led the rest of the nation (Numbers 2:3, 10:14).

This, then, is the true Jewish leader: one who has both emunah, and the courage to act according to that emunah. Only one like that is fit to lead the Nation of Israel. And the result was tangible: “Then Moshe and the Children of Israel began to sing…” (Exodus 15:1). It was clearly miraculous that the entire nation would sing, in unison, a song that they had never heard before. But a leader who can show the way forward in genuine emunah can unite the nation miraculously – even as a leader who is corrupt inevitably divides the nation.


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