ויאמר משה אל העם: אל תיראו, התיצבו וראו את ישועת ה’ אשר יעשה לכם היום. כי אשר ראיתם את מצרים היום, לא תספו לראתם עוד עד עולם
(שמות י”ד, י”ג)
Bnei Israel have finally left Egypt, led by Moshe to the shores of the Red Sea, where they are caught between a rock and a hard place: the Egyptians have caught up with them and have trapped them on the shore. Out of fear, they complain to Moshe for liberating them and remind him that back in Egypt they had actually pleaded with him to let them be: better the devil you know than facing certain death in the wilderness…
To this, Moshe replies:
And Moses said unto the people: Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will show to you today: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen today, ye shall see them again no more for ever
(Shemot 14, 13; KJV)
Is this the appropriate response? One cannot help but wonder about the attitude of Bnei Israel. After all, they just witnessed miracles that no living person before them has witnessed: God brought down the great nation of Egypt to its knees with the ten plagues and provided a group of slaves its freedom. Surely this calls for them to exhibit a different behaviour and show a little courage and willingness to fight, rather than complain and whine about their fate using phrases such as “are there no grave in Egypt that you took us to die out here?” One would also expect Moses to be angry or discouraged; instead, he promises them a “painless war” in which God does all the fighting and they merely stand by and enjoy the show. Instead of being punished, they are being rewarded. Or so it seems.
The Midrash in Eicha Raba provides us with an insight to a possibly different angle on this promise of “painless war”. It tells us about four Jewish kings – David, Assa, Yehoshafat and Chizkiyahu – the way they approached the issue of war and how God responded to their approach:
David said: “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them, I did not turn back till they were consumed” and God responded by giving David the strength to beat his enemies and pursue them. Assa said: “I have no power to kill my enemies, but I will pursue them so that you, God, can kill them” and indeed God answers Assa’s prayer and aids him in vanquishing his enemies. Yehoshafat said: “I have no power to pursue and kill my enemies, so I will pray (sing) and you, God, will do so for me” and we read that God took care of Yehoshafat’s enemies once the singing started. Finally, Chizkiyahu said: “I have no power to pursue and kill my enemies, and not even to sing, so I will lie on my bed and you, God, will do so for me”, following which we read that God’s angel fought against the Assyrians directly.
What we see here is a gradual decline through the ages, from David who believes in God but also fights his own wars, down to Chizkiyahu who does not even have the strength to pray and has to rely entirely on God’s powers. It is obvious from this Midrash which kings are to be praised and which are to be pitied for their inability to take action.
The same goes for Bnei Israel on the shores of the Red Sea. By casting aside their faith in God and “forgetting” the miracles they witnessed but a few days ago, they forfeited the right to stand and fight. Furthremore, they also forfeited the right to even sing and pray for God to help. It is as if they are punished twice: God will fight for them and they must be silent. Instead of being rewarded with courage and the ability to stand on their own feet, as is befitting a people freed from generations of slavery, they need to be “nannied” and taken care of.
It is only after Bnei Israel show faith and leap into the Red Sea to cross it, that they regain some of their rights, as is shown by the song they sing with Moses on the other bank, the Shira that we read in this week’s parasha.
The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from the weekly newsletter of Hemdat Yamim.