Panic in Times of Crisis

A story is told of a man who was driving about, desperate to find a parking spot. With no spots available, he called out, “Dear G‑d, give me a parking spot and I will pledge a thousand dollars to charity.” Instantaneously a spot became available, and he quickly amended, “Never mind, dear G‑d, I found one on my own . . .”

We feel self-reliant as we make our way through life. So long as we train, plan and execute well, we can weather the storms thrown our way. But when there comes a crisis that we are unequipped to handle, we panic. There is little we, as individuals, can do to save a sinking economy, counter the threat of terror or protect ourselves against natural disasters. Unable to take constructive action, we are left without our usual shield. Exposed and vulnerable, we often panic.

No nation faced odds worse than those faced by Israel at their moment of exodus. Indeed, they had left Egypt, but where could they go? If they would take the most direct route to Israel, they would encounter the fierce Philistines, who were determined to halt the Jewish advance.1 If they would turn toward the desert, they would venture into an arid and inhospitable environment with little hope for survival. What to do?

The Long Way Home

Knowing that His children were unequipped to counter the Philistines, G‑d turned them toward the wilderness.2 The Hebrew words for “G‑d turned them” are vayaseiv Elokim, but the word vayaseiv has multiple meanings. It means “turned”; it means “surrounded”; and it is also etymologically related to the word leiseiv, to lean or recline. Utilizing all three meanings, our sages offered a timeless insight that inspires faith and courage even in times of difficulty.3

Vayaseiv—He turned and He surrounded. When G‑d turned our ancestors toward the wilderness, He also surrounded them. Imagine a shepherd who comes across a pack of wolves while driving his herd across the range. The first thing he does is ride circles around his herd. As he rides, he forms a protective circle around the herd that enables him to shield them from the wolves.

G‑d did the same. When He turned the Jews to the desert, He exposed them to terrible dangers, but they remained safe because He surrounded them with a protective circle of miracles. Here we see the first two translation of the Hebrew word vayaseiv: He turned them [to the desert], and there He surrounded them.

Now we come to the third translation of vayaseiv: G‑d taught them to lean or recline against Him. When the Jews first left Egypt, they did not know how to lean on G‑d or trust in Him. For decades they had relied solely on the Egyptians for provisions. Entering the desert was a huge test of faith. For the first time, they would have to discard their protective blanket and put their full trust in G‑d.

Despite the dangers, they thrived. G‑d surrounded them with a chain of miracles that protected and sustained them. First He split the sea and saved them from the Egyptians.4 Then G‑d granted them a cloud canopy to protect them from the desert elements. Then came the manna, food provided from heaven. And finally, He provided a miraculous well that never ran dry.

For forty years G‑d provided for our ancestors and protected them from all harm, and thus they learned to lean on Him—that is, to trust Him.5 After forty years, when such absolute trust became second nature to them, G‑d brought them to Israel, where they would finally battle and overcome their powerful enemies.

Had they fought these wars forty years earlier, when they lacked confidence in G‑d, they would have panicked in the heat of battle and lost. A forty-year diet of miracles and complete dependence on G‑d allowed this trust to percolate through them and saturate their very bones. Now they could face any danger. They would meet it head-on, fully trusting in divine deliverance.

Reclining at the Seder

Our sages taught that this verse is the root of our tradition to recline at the Passover Seder when we celebrate our exodus from Egypt. “Even a poor Jew,” they commented, “should recline, for G‑d leaned the Jews against Him on this night, as it is written, vayaseiv Elokim, G‑d leaned them [against Him].”

If you read closely, you will note that in this particular comment they left the timing open-ended. They did not specify that reclining was required only on the Seder night. Indeed, our faith is not reserved for one night in the year. It remains with us through thick and thin, for all time. As the Torah writes, “This [night of Passover] is a night of divine protection for the children of Israel, for generations.” It began on the night of Passover, but it extends to all nights, across the generations.6

Raised to Depend

In many ways, we too are raised to depend on ourselves, rather than G‑d. When we are young, we are trained to rely on our parents. As we grow older, we are taught to depend on ourselves; and for very large problems, we are taught to rely on our governments. For problems that even governments cannot handle, we have no solution.

Our sages sought to lift us to a higher plane by empowering us to believe and stand fast, no matter the danger. Remember, they taught, having done all that you could to help yourself, you may rest easy, secure in the faith that G‑d will deliver. Lean on G‑d for strength. He is there for you. He surrounds you day and night. You can trust Him.

We cannot see the protective canopy that G‑d spreads around us. All we see is the encroaching danger, and are quite justifiably intimidated. But we see only the physical, and are not privy to the full picture. If we could visualize G‑d’s protective presence, we would know and trust that we are safe.

We pray every day to be spared from such trials; no wants to be tested. However, the journey of life is rarely smooth, and is often strewn with troubles. When this happens, we must remember that we are not alone. We are in G‑d’s good company and under His protection.7