Moses said to the people: “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of G‑d which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. G‑d shall fight for you, and you shall be silent.”
G‑d said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they should go forward.” (Exodus 14:13–15)
We all know the feeling: you wake up one morning to the realization that the world is not as you would like it to be.
A common experience, to be sure, but different people have different reactions. One person embarks upon a quixotic crusade to change the world. A second gives up the world for lost, and retreats into whatever protective walls he can erect around himself and his loved ones. A third takes a pragmatic approach, accepting the world for what it is and doing his best under the circumstances. A fourth recognizes his inability to deal with the situation, and looks to a higher power for guidance and aid.
Our forefathers experienced just such a rude awakening on the seventh day after their liberation from Egypt.
Ten devastating plagues had broken the might of the Egyptians and compelled them to free the Jewish people. After two centuries of exile and slavery, the children of Israel were headed toward Mount Sinai and their covenant with G‑d. Indeed, this was the stated purpose of the Exodus: as G‑d told Moses, “When you take this nation out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d at this mountain.”
But suddenly the sea was before them, and Pharaoh’s armies were closing in from behind. Egypt was alive and well; the sea, too, seemed oblivious to the destiny of the newly born nation.
How did they react? The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people were divided into four camps. There were those who said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” A second group said, “Let us return to Egypt.” A third faction argued, “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.” Finally, a fourth camp advocated, “Let us pray to G‑d.”
Moses, however, rejected all four options, saying to the people, “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of G‑d which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. G‑d shall fight for you, and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:13). “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of G‑d,” explains the Midrash, is Moses’ response to those who had despaired of overcoming the Egyptian threat and wanted to plunge into the sea. “As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again” is addressed to those who advocated surrender and return to Egypt. “G‑d shall fight for you” is the answer to those who wished to battle the Egyptians,
“and you shall be silent” is Moses’ rejection of those who said, “This is all beyond us. All we can do is pray.”
What, then, is the Jew to do when caught between a hostile mob and an unyielding sea? “Speak to the children of Israel,” G‑d says to Moses in the following verse, “that they should go forward.”
Tzaddik in a Fur Coat
The road to Sinai was rife with obstacles and challenges. The same is true of the road from Sinai, our three-thousand-year journey devoted to the implementation of the ethos and ideals of Torah in our world.
Now as then, there are several possible responses to an adverse world. There is the “Let us throw ourselves into the sea” approach of those who despair of their ability to grapple with, much less impact, the world out there. Let us plunge into the sea, they say—the sea of the Talmud, the sea of piety, the sea of religious life. Let us sever all contact with an apostate and promiscuous world. Let us build walls of holiness to protect ourselves and our own from the alien winds which storm without, so that we may foster the legacy of Sinai within.
An old chassidic saying refers to a such-minded individual as ah tzaddik in peltz—a holy man in a fur coat. There are two ways to warm yourself on a cold winter day: you can build a fire, or wrap yourself in furs. When the isolationist tzaddik is asked, “Why do you think only of conserving your own warmth? Why don’t you build a fire that will warm others as well?” he replies, “What’s the use? Can I warm the entire world?” If you persist, pointing out that one small fire can thaw several frozen individuals, who may in turn create enough fires to warm a small corner of the universe, he doesn’t understand what you want of him. He is a tzaddik, remember, a perfectly righteous individual. There is no place for partial solutions in his life. “It’s hopeless,” he sighs with genuine sadness, and retreats into his spiritual Atlantis.
The Slave and the Warrior
A second camp says, “Let us return to Egypt.”
Plunging into the sea is not an option, argues the Submissive Jew. This is the world in which G‑d has placed us, and our mission is to deal with it, not escape it. We’ll just have to lower our expectations a little.
This Exodus thing was obviously a pipe dream. How could we presume to liberate ourselves from the rules and constraints that apply to everyone else? To be G‑d’s chosen people is nice, but let us not forget that we are a minority, dependent on the goodwill of the Pharaohs who hold sway in the real world out there.
Certainly, it is our duty to influence the world. But then again, the Jew has many duties: it is his duty to pray three times a day, to give charity and to observe Shabbat. So, we’ll do the best we can under the circumstances. Yes, it’s a tough life keeping all these laws while making sure not to antagonize your neighbors, but who ever said that being a Jew is easy?
A third response to an uncooperative world is that of the Fighting Jew. He understands that it is wrong to escape the world, and equally wrong to submit to it. So he takes it on, both barrels blazing.
The Fighting Jew strides through life with a holy chip on his shoulder, battling sinners, apostates, Jew-haters, un-Jewish Jews and non-fighting Jews. Not for him is the escapism of the first camp or the subservience of the second—he knows that his cause is just, that G‑d is on his side, that ultimately he will triumph. So, if the world won’t listen to reason, he’ll knock some sense into it.
Finally, there is the Jew who looks at the world, looks at the first three camps, shakes his head and lifts his eyes to the heavens. He knows that turning his back on the world is not the answer, nor is surrendering to its dictates and conventions. But he also knows that “the entirety of Torah was given to make peace in the world”; that “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
“You hope to peacefully change the world?!” say the other three camps. “When was the last time you looked out the window? You might as well try to empty the oceans with a teaspoon!”
“You’re absolutely right,” says the Praying Jew. “Realistically, there’s no way it can be done. But we are not subject to this reality that you are so impressed with.
“Do you know what’s the common denominator between all three of you? Your assessments and strategies are all based on the natural reality. But we inhabit a higher reality. Is not the very existence of the Jewish people a miracle? Ours is the world of the spirit, the world of the word.”
“So, basically, your approach is to do nothing,” they counter.
“Again, you are employing the standards of the material world,” answers the Praying Jew, “a world that views spiritual activity as ‘doing nothing.’ But a single prayer, coming from a caring heart, can achieve more than the most secure fortress, the most flattering diplomat or the most powerful army.”
And what does G‑d say? “Speak to the children of Israel, that they shall go forward.”
True, it is important to safeguard and cultivate all that is pure and holy in the Jewish soul, to create an inviolable sanctum of G‑dliness in one’s own heart and one’s own community. True, there are times when we must deal with the world on its own terms. True, we must battle evil. And certainly, we must acknowledge that we cannot do it on our own.
Indeed, each of the four approaches has its time and place. But none of them is the embracing vision to guide our lives and define our relationship with the world we inhabit. When the Jew is headed toward Sinai and is confronted with a hostile or indifferent world, his most basic response must be to go forward.
Not to escape reality, not to submit to it, not to wage war on it, not to deal with it only on a spiritual level, but to go forward. Do another mitzvah, ignite another soul, take one more step toward your goal. Pharaoh’s charioteers are breathing down your neck? A cold and impregnable sea bars your path? Don’t look up; look forward. See that mountain? Move toward it.
And when you move forward, you will see that insurmountable barrier yield and that ominous threat fade away. You will see that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, you have it within your power to reach your goal. Even if you have to split some seas.