By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
The last days of the festival of Passover are dedicated to the splitting of the Reed Sea, one of the most dramatic and cataclysmic events in biblical history. The Israelites have left Egypt and believe they are “home free.” However, the Egyptian hordes begin to chase after the newly formed free men. The Israelites, faced by the Egyptians behind them and the Reed Sea in front of them, panic — and in their fear they cry out to Moses, ‘Are there then no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the desert?!’” (Exodus 14:11).
Moses attempts to comfort his people, exhorting them not to fear, but rather to watch for divine salvation. “The Lord will do battle for you and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:14).
But is this indeed the religious message of the Exodus? Does the Almighty expect us to stand quietly by in times of danger and challenge, simply waiting for the Almighty to emerge as a deus ex machina plucking us out from the fires of our enemies? Is such silence on our part consistent with Jewish history, and especially with these last six decades following the Holocaust? Where would the Jewish people be today had we not attempted to take our destiny into our own hands and fought battle after battle for the Jewish state?
Indeed, the classical Chasidic interpreters have turned the verse above on its head by providing an alternate literal interpretation: “The Lord will provide you with bread [the Hebrew yilakhem can mean to do battle but can also mean to provide bread, from the Hebrew lekhem; most wars are, after all, fought after bread or material gain], but you must plow [the Hebrew cheresh can either mean to be silent or to plow].” And although this reading of the verse would seem to be the very antithesis of its meaning in context, it is nevertheless the true meaning of this most dramatic miracle.
Yes, Moses expected G-d to act and counsel the Israelites to silently await G-d’s miracle. But that is not the message that G-d conveys to Moses in the very next verse of the text: “And G-d said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them move forward’” (Exodus 14:15). G-d is ready to effectuate a miracle, but not before the Israelites prove themselves by putting their lives on the line.
Before G-d does anything, the Israelites must jump into the raging sea and attempt as best as possible to get away from the Egyptians. It is only after “the children of Israel have entered into the midst of the sea” — despite its inherent dangers — that the waters will miraculously part and the Israelites will find themselves “on dry land” (Exodus 14:16). Rashi even goes as far as saying in G-d’s name, “This is not the time to engage in lengthy prayer when the Israelites are in such deep trouble.”
When the going gets tough, tough people get going; from G-d’s point of view, prayer must be coupled with action. From this perspective, the Chasidim may be literally wrong but conceptually right.
I believe there is yet a second interpretation of Moses’ statement to the Israelites that G-d will do battle and they remain silent. Perhaps Moses understood very well that although the ultimate victor in Israel’s battles is the Almighty Himself — “The Lord is a Being of battle, the Lord is His name” (Exodus 15:3) — nevertheless, G-d does not fight alone. He battles alongside of the Israelites, but the Israelites themselves must wage the war.
They were frightened to take on the seven indigenous nations inhabiting Canaan during their first 40 years in the desert, so G-d did not make war either. It was only in the case of Amalek and then later in the time of Joshua that Israel fought — and then G-d fought with them and led them to victory.
Every war, though, is a tragedy because the fallout of every war is the cruel and untimely death of the best and brightest of our people. Yes, we won the wars against Amalek, just as we won the wars in conquest of Israel 4,000 years ago; we also won our recent wars of self-defense enabling us to come home after 2,000 years of exile and establish Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem. But despite these miraculous victories, we suffered unspeakable losses of so many of our best and brightest, and bravest and most committed.
In 1952 I was privileged to pray in the Beth Moses Hospital, which had been taken over by the Klozenberger Chasidim who had survived the European Holocaust. That particular Sabbath was the first Sabbath circumcision the Chasidim had experienced since leaving Europe. The Rebbe, who himself suffered the loss of his wife and 13 children, rose to speak, ‘And I see that you are rooted in your blood [damayich] and I say to you, by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live.’ This verse of the Prophet Ezekiel is intoned at every Jewish circumcision, explaining to us that the price for our eternity is the necessity that we shed blood on behalf of our G-d, our faith and our ideals. However, I would give the verse an alternate interpretation. The Hebrew word dam is usually translated as blood; but the root d-m can also mean silence, as in vayidom Aharon, “and Aaron was silent,” when his two righteous sons died a tragic and untimely death.
I believe the prophet Ezekiel was telling us that when Jews suffer, and even seem to suffer needlessly, tragically and absurdly, but still remain silent and refuse to cry out against G-d, we express with that silence the profound inner strength which justifies our eternal life.
Perhaps this is what Moses was saying to the Jewish people: Yes, the Lord will wage battle for you, and some very good Israelites will tragically die in battle, but you must still remain silent in terms of your relationship to G-d. It is by the faith of that silence that you will live eternally and ultimately redeem the world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.