Before one of my lectures, an Israeli woman led us through a chapter of Psalms.

The woman’s voice was beautiful, and as she sang, her face reflected the intensity of emotion that King David’s haunting words evoke. She sang in the original Hebrew about lifting our eyes to G‑d and finding our strength no matter how dark or difficult our circumstances. I later learned that the woman’s daughter had been seriously ill, and, after taking upon herself a mitzvah, her daughter recovered.

After my talk the woman approached me to thank me. As far as taking on more mitzvot, though, she warned me that she considered herself “a very secular Israeli who is not religious.”

I looked at her with utter disbelief and responded, “I watched you say that Psalm, with such intense faith. The emotions written all over your face clearly demonstrates your belief and trust in G‑d.”

“Thank you,” she answered. “That is one of the nicest compliments I ever received.”


This week, the Jewish people experienced the miracle of the sea splitting.

As the Israelites stood before the Sea, Moses says, “Don't be afraid! Stand still and see the L‑rd's salvation…The L‑rd will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

The Talmud (Sotah 30b) teaches: “At the time the Israelites ascended from the Red Sea . . . the baby sat upon his mother’s knee, and the suckling sucked at his mother’s breast. When they beheld the Divine Presence, the baby raised his neck and the suckling released the nipple, and they exclaimed: ‘This is my G‑d and I will praise Him . . .’ (Exodus 15:2).”

Describing the G‑dly revelation, the Mechilta describes, “A simple servant girl saw at the sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the other prophets did not behold.”

And yet, just three days later, the story takes a complete turn.

“They walked for three days in the desert but did not find water…The people complained, saying, ‘what shall we drink?’” (Ex. Ch. 14:22-24)

This was not respectful entreating for water, but bitter and insolent complaining (Rashi 14: 25). Moreover, the grumbles and grievances continued throughout the Jewish people’s forty year sojourn in the desert, even after the revelation at Sinai, in one failed test after another.

How can we reconcile this lack of a faith with a nation that reached, and demonstrated, such spiritual heights, so recently?

The Jewish mystics describe two types of divine-human encounter: it’aruta de-l’eyla and it’aruta de-l’tata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G‑d, the second by mankind.

An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, and overwhelms the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is human, coming from our own awakening and reaffirmation of commitment to G‑d.

In the “awakening from above,” we are passive recipients to G‑d’s gift. This revelation can change nature, but it does not change human nature. It overwhelms us while it lasts, but after, we revert to who we were. This explains how the divinely inspired revelation at the splitting of the sea could dissipate so quickly.

An “awakening from below,” by contrast, may not be nearly as spectacular, but it is our human journey of transformation. It is this spontaneous emergence of faith unaccompanied by heavenly miracles that is most impressive.

Perhaps this explains the teaching that Moses, despite his unparalleled experience of the divine, had a vision of the Jewish people as they would exist at the end of times, and he envied them. Though his generation experienced the greatest revelation of G‑d at Mount Sinai, he admired the simple character of Jews at the end of the long exile.

Why was he envious?

Moses saw Jews that had been battered and badgered through a tortuous exile. He saw Jews who had been afflicted materially, emotionally, and physically. He saw Jews who were enveloped in a spiritual darkness, Jews who were leaderless and directionless. He saw Jews who were on a lower level than any Jews that preceded him.

And yet, he saw Jews who, despite their circumstances, despite the difficulties, held on. He saw people who, despite all that they had gone through, still putting forth the effort, big or small, to remain connected to their Creator.

And, I think Moses must have seen that Israeli woman and some of the many other amazing Jews that I meet.

He saw them. And he envied them.