The1 Torah reading that is connected with this day of the week2 describes how the Jews, having left Egypt, had already reached Pi HaChiros. And though, as the Midrash teaches, Egyptian law granted freedom to any escaped slave who reached that point, Pharaoh and his chariots were still in hot pursuit.

As we learn in the Mechilta, the Jews at this point divided up into four groups.

One said, “Let us leap into the sea.”

A second group said, “Let us return to Egypt.”

A third group said, “Let us fight Pharaoh.”

And a fourth group said, “Let us cry out and pray.”

Moshe Rabbeinu answered them all3 according to the command of G‑d.

To those who said, “Let us leap into the sea,” he said: “Stand firm and behold the salvation of G‑d.” There is no reason for suicide, because G‑d’s salvation will soon be seen.

To those who said, “Let us return to Egypt,” he said: “You will never see them again.”

To those who said, “Let us fight Pharaoh,” he said: “G‑d will do battle for you.”

And to those who said, “Let us cry out and pray,” he said: “And you shall hold your peace.” There is no need even to cry out and pray.

What, then, should be done? G‑d’s answer to Moshe Rabbeinu comes in the next verse: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and let them journey ahead!”

Now, this appears problematic. In Moshe Rabbeinu’s compound reply, how could all four groups be latched together — the group that said, “Let us return to Egypt,” together with the other three groups? Since the stance of that group is the antithesis of the Exodus from Egypt, how can its members be grouped together even with those who argued, “Let us leap into the sea”? For the desire to leap into the sea indicates self-sacrifice. A person in this frame of mind wants to have nothing to do with a world in which the victors are Pharaoh and his hosts. True, this desire stems from the World of Tohu,4 [which is the very opposite of Tikkun,] but the fact remains that it indicates self-sacrifice. It is certainly unrelated to a desire to return to Egypt.

More problematic is the question of how the group that said, “Let us return to Egypt,” could be coupled together with those who said, “Let us fight Pharaoh,” for fighting Pharaoh and the Egyptians would certainly be a positive move.

And even more problematic is the question of how the group that preferred to return to Egypt could be coupled together with those who said, “Let us cry out and pray.” After all, what could be loftier than the avodah90of prayer? Ever since the Torah was given, there has been (according to all halachic opinions) an explicit Scriptural commandment to turn to G‑d in prayer for all of one’s needs, especially in time of distress. True, the above debate took place before the Giving of the Torah, but if one of the four groups correctly anticipated the future mitzvah of prayer, how could they be coupled with the other three groups, especially with the group that preferred to return to Egypt?

Apart from that, what is signified by the command to “speak to the Children of Israel, and let them journey ahead”? Why was it inappropriate to turn to G‑d in prayer? At first glance, surely it would appear that to cry out and pray to G‑d indicates that one is entrusting one’s entire self into His Hands. And surely this is particularly true when one senses that his very survival is in the balance. By contrast, journeying ahead could be motivated by all kinds of causes, such as a fear of Pharaoh.

* * *

As has often been pointed out, the subjects that the Torah speaks of are not narrations of one-time events from the past. Rather, the word Torah shares a root with horaah, which means a teaching5 — and from every teaching one is intended to learn something, in all places and at all times.

This principle applies especially to subjects related to the Exodus from Egypt. The Mishnah teaches:6 “In every generation a man is obligated to regard himself as if he personally came out of Egypt.” When the Alter Rebbe paraphrases this in chapter 47 of Tanya, he writes: “In every generation and every day....” Clearly, then, subjects that are related to the Exodus from Egypt should serve as lessons day by day.

This principle applies even more particularly to our subject because, as is taught in the Tosefta and cited in Torah Or, just as one must mention the Exodus every day, so, too, must one mention the Splitting of the Sea every day. And since the Splitting of the Sea came as a response to all four groups, it is of course relevant to every day, so that people will know that their avodah should not be directed to follow the approach of any of the four groups. Instead, “Speak to the Children of Israel, and let them journey ahead,” for it is specifically this approach that will make the Sea split.

* * *

In one’s avodah, his personal service of G‑d, even on the positive side, there are also “four groups” — four approaches.

The easiest approach is to say, “Let us leap into the sea.” That is an approach of Tohu. When a person observes that he is located in This World, which is known as the World of Asiyah,7 a world “in which the wicked prevail” (as is written in Etz Chayim and cited by the Alter Rebbe in Tanya8 ), and so on, the easiest resort is to “leap into the sea,” and to have nothing to do with civilizing the world. As to what will be with the world, such a person will argue that the world can survive through the efforts of others. Moreover, he will argue, such matters are “the mysteries of G‑d,”9 His affairs that He will attend to. As to this individual himself, he will “leap into the sea” — whether it be the sea of Torah study, or a sea of mitzvos, or a sea of teshuvah,56depending on the individual. After all, the sea is a purifying agent, so this individual will unite with his Maker, but in a way from which the world will gain nothing.

There is a second approach. When one observes what goes on in the world around him, he falls into despair. However, he realizes that “against your will you live,”10 so he has no license to leap into the sea. Indeed, he must interact with This World. The trouble is that he fulfills this obligation like a slave — in fact, like a fully-fledged slave in the bondage of Egypt, so that he bites his tongue and nods his assent to every approaching wave in this revealed world. Day after day he drags his burden and toils his due — but through all this, not only does he not illuminate Egypt, but he has become a mere slave.

True, he does not transgress the Torah’s commandments, but whatever he does is a mere fulfillment of the order that “against your will you live.” This kind of acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven11 is lower than mortal reason. For such a person, kabbalas ol does not serve only as a starting point for his avodah; rather, all of his Torah study and observance of the mitzvos is no more than kabbalas ol. Having despaired of ever doing anything worthwhile with This World, he resigns himself to his lot which is — as he perceives it, G‑d forbid — to remain forever a slave to Pharaoh.

In truth, of course, one should keep in mind that “you are My servants, and not servants to servants.”12 An awareness of this ought to arouse one to study Torah and fulfill the mitzvos with vitality and exuberance, so that even a bypasser will be able to discern that he is studying Torah not out of despair, but joyfully. With such a person, the commandments will likewise be observed not out of kabbalas ol alone, because that is only “the beginning of Divine service and its core and root.”13 After that, he will proceed to observe the mitzvos with vitality and joy. He knows that he can take the skin of an animal, inscribe four passages on it, bind it on his arm and head, and thereby fulfill the Divine Will. He knows that he can make the animal cease being an animal and transform it into a mitzvah, a vessel for Divinity. Realizing all this, he will obviously perform his mitzvah with joy.

By contrast, the above-described individual who chooses to return to Egypt has already lost hope. He sees no option, because he has been told that “against your will you live.” So he drags his burden with neither joy, nor vitality, nor pleasure, nor desire, nor hope that he will accomplish anything thereby. Having no choice, when the sun rises he prays at dawn, when it’s time for Minchah he davens138 Minchah, when it’s time for Maariv he davens Maariv, and when he has to eat something he duly recites the appropriate blessings before and after eating. But he has long since given up hope. He has already returned to Egypt.

Then there is a third approach: “Let us fight Pharaoh.” However, a person in this frame of mind does not ask G‑d how this should be done: he relies on his own mortal understanding. Seeing no alternative, he sets out energetically to do battle with Egypt. Now, at first glance this course of action would appear to be right. It will not be right, however, if instead of consulting the Divine Will he follows his own reason. The fact that he personally sees no alternative does not mean that G‑d, too, can find no alternative solution. It could well be that the Divine Will perceives the situation quite differently.

The fourth approach proposes, “Let us cry out and pray.” As to what will happen next, “G‑d will do what seems good in His eyes,”. Cf. I Shmuel 3:18. and the individual who lives according to this approach is no longer concerned with the outcome. It is true that prayer is the beginning of the “ladder placed on the ground,” and that through prayer one can reach a point at which “its upper end reaches up to the Heavens.”14 However, if one submits everything into the Hands of G‑d so that He should do as He sees fit, and as for oneself one does nothing, this is no way to tackle one’s avodah.

Two opposites are expected of a Jew. Since, as was discussed in today’s maamar,15 the capacity for boundlessness16 is to be found in This World, too, it is possible to demand of a Jew that he combine two opposite thrusts.17

On the one hand one is required to believe18 that “everything is in the hands of Heaven,”331 and that every detailed occurrence is directed by the particular Providence162 of the Holy One, blessed be He. And since it comes from Him, then even if His Word contradicts what a mortal perceives as reasonable, that mortal will respond by willingly saying, “Here I am,” even if it is the opposite of overt and manifest good.

On the other hand one is required to have trust,19 which is one of the essential foundations of our faith. Having trust does not mean being certain that G‑d will do something that He knows is good; it means being certain that He will bestow — in material affairs, too — the kind of good that is visible and manifest,174 at a level that is “lower than ten handbreadths[from the ground].”. In the original, lematah me’asarah tefachim — a common Talmudic phrase that is borrowed here as a metaphor to signify something that is actual, tangible, and down to earth.

Now, one knows that it is written in Iggeres HaKodesh that hidden acts of kindness20 can sometimes find a contrary expression here below. In such a case — after the event, when the order has already been given from Above — one must know that what has happened is in truth something good, except that it is a hidden and concealed good. Beforehand, by contrast, one ought to trust that things will certainly work out well, visibly and manifestly, even when according to the laws of nature there is no such prospect.21 Despite that, one trusts that G‑d will help him, because G‑d is unbounded and can thus change the laws of nature.

By way of parallel: At the same time that one needs to know that “everything is on the hands of Heaven” and that one should utterly rely on G‑d alone, one must simultaneously keep in mind the continuation of that teaching: “Everything is on the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.”22 In matters related to the fear of Heaven, it is not appropriate to rely on “G‑d, [Who] will do what seems good in His eyes.”512 Together with that, one must invest one’s own effort.

To fear Heaven does not mean being afraid of the One on High, such as being afraid of punishment (G‑d forbid). Rather, it resembles the anxiety of an only son who would like to carry out his father’s will, but is afraid that his efforts may perhaps not have been quite on target. Since a mortal realizes that in every respect he is finite, he is afraid lest he has not fulfilled the will of his Father in Heaven. (This is discussed at length in Hemshech 5666.23 ) That is why he checks to see if every move of his accords with the Divine Will.

* * *

And this explains why all four groups were latched together in the compound answer that Moshe Rabbeinu relayed to the people on the brink of the Sea. For what was common to them all was that they were all lacking in the fear of Heaven.24 If they were not lacking in their yiras Shamayim, they would not have propounded their own opinions: they would have asked Moshe Rabbeinu what they ought to do. However, since this fear of Heaven was lacking, even a proposal to fight Pharaoh and even a proposal to cry out and pray can run counter to the Divine Will, just like the proposal to leap into the sea or the proposal to return to Egypt.