January 21st-22nd, 2000
Shevat 15, 5760
Shalom Aleichem to all past and present readers of Savannah Kollel Insights. I
am pleased to be back writing, after a longer-than-expected hiatus, chock full of
unexpected and sometimes dizzying (but, thank G-d, not tragic) "life
circumstances" that made it difficult for me to sit down and record my thoughts
on the parsha. Over the months, a decent number of people have asked what ever
became of me (in the on-line sense, anyway), and this has inspired me to attempt a
(cyber-) resurrection. I very much appreciate the encouragement of people at the
O.U., who have always been ready to help out.
Well, then, here's a brief Insight for this week to get the ball rolling.
They say that we reveal our true selves under pressure. When a difficulty arises,
and the normal course of life is interrupted (and our typical composure upended), our
strongest motivations and tendencies come to the fore. It is not uncommon that we
are surprised--both pleasantly and not--at what bursts forth at such times.
This week's parsha gives us a glimpse of just such a crisis (and self-revelation) in
the life of the Jewish people as a whole. The Egyptians are furiously pursuing
the Children of Israel from behind; the waters of the Sea of Reeds are adamantly
blocking their passage forward. The Torah describes the scene:
"Pharaoh approached; the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold!-Egypt
was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; the Children of Israel
cried out to Hashem. They said to Moses, 'Were there no graves in Egypt that you
took us to die in the Wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us
out of Egypt?" (Exodus: 14, 10-11; Artscroll translation.)
What is the first reaction to their drastic situation as recorded by the Torah?
They "cried out to Hashem." Rashi cites the teaching of the
Mechilta: "they seized the profession of their forefathers." One classic
Jewish response to adversity: prayer. The Mechilta goes on to compare the Jewish
people to a worm (based on the verse in Isaiah, Chapter 41: "Fear not, O worm of
Jacob."): just as a worm does damage to the hard cedar only with its soft mouth, so
the Jewish people triumph over their adversaries (who are likened to cedar-R. Bachya)
through their mouths-by means of prayer.
But, then, in the very next verse, bitter recrimination replaces humble piety. Another
classic Jewish response to adversity, it would seem-and a somewhat less noble use of the
Ramban tries to understand the sudden transformation,
and offers a number of plausible interpretations-one being that the people
simultaneously had utter faith in G-d and His saving power, while still harboring
suspicions that Moshe may have led them out of Egypt to rule over them.
He also cites the Mechilta, which explains that there were actually (four) conflicting
groups at the Sea, each with its own plan about how to proceed. (Could there
be any doubt that the Torah is true when we see how accurately it reveals this third
classic Jewish response to adversity: division?!) Ramban notes that this would
explain why verse 10 repeats the phrase, "Children of Israel," while
Moshe's response after their outburst is directed not at the "Children of
Israel," but at, "the people" (verse 13). The Torah is resorting to
its custom of employing the term, "Children of Israel," to designate the more
righteous individuals (who focused their energies on supplicating Hashem), and the term,
"the people" to designate those on a lower level (who, in this case, were
denying G-d's deliverance and arguing about the best alternative strategy).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch follows the viewpoint of Ramban noted above that the Jewish
people had doubts about Moshe's mission. It is important for the Torah to show us,
he writes, that the Jewish people were clear-headed, and not gullible or given to blind
faith. For then, if
"this very people have cheerfully given themselves
up for centuries to fight the world, and to die for 'the teachings of Moses,' it is a
proof that the sending of this Moses must have won them over to an unassailable
conviction by the force of actual deeds and occurrences." (Hirsch, Commentary
to Exodus, p. 180)
And Hirsch concludes by insightfully noting the ironic tone of the complaint to Moshe
("Were there no graves in Egypt?"). A fourth classic Jewish response to
adversity: comedy (black, in this case)-the irrepressible expression of "the witty
vein which is inherent in the Jewish race from their earliest beginnings." (ibid, p.
Of course, this episode has a happy ending: the Jews ultimately gird their loins, and
enter the sea. They witness the divine retribution against the Egyptian army, and
sing a beautiful and inspired song of praise to G-d (which gives this Shabbos its special
name-Shabbos Shirah); a few weeks later, they will be standing at the foot of Mt.
Sinai to receive the Torah, with all divisions (at least, temporarily) mended, "like
one man with one heart."
Whatever the initial shaky response, we Jews have ultimately always risen above adversity
and triumphed. That should give us faith in these difficult times. We've got
our faults, to be sure (and the Torah never tried to hide them), but--hey-- we've got a
Friend in the right place.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the
Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP).
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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