Last week, we examined the ramifications of the Passover sacrifice. Although a number of different approaches were investigated, we found that a common theme animated them all. The Korban Pesach quite clearly represented the first substantial break with the experience of Egyptian servitude. Whether understood as an act of iconoclasm, defiance, or self-realization, the ritual slaughter of the Paschal lamb and the ceremonial daubing of the doorframe with its blood was an act that set apart the Hebrews and their destiny from that of their Egyptian overlords. For the first time, Bnei Yisrael understood that freedom meant more than cessation from hard labor; it meant the privilege and the responsibility to live a life of purpose and ongoing spiritual development.
As the drama of the Exodus unfolds, we see Bnei Yisrael embark on their triumphant march from the House of Bondage. Led by Moshe, who tenderly carries the bones of Yosef on the journey, the people go forward and set their bearings for the wilderness. A pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, vanguards of God's presence, guide the people along a route whose memory in their collective conscience has long since faded. Unexpectedly, God commands the people to retrace their steps and to encamp before 'Freedom Pass' (Pi HaChirot), between 'Migdol and the Sea, opposite Ba'al Tzifon on the shore of the waters.' Portentously and enigmatically, God tells Moshe that He will harden Pharaoh's heart one last time; the bowed King of Egypt, convinced that Bnei Yisrael are hopelessly lost, will pursue his hapless former charges, and God 'will be glorified.'
Meanwhile, Pharaoh hears that Bnei Yisrael have fled. As the reality of the situation sets in, the incalculable loss of a vast and pliant slave population well-conditioned to following orders, Pharaoh and his ministers have a change of heart. Marshalling his best troops and six hundred of his most lethal chariots, the King of Egypt commences the chase and quickly overtakes the unsuspecting Hebrews as they calmly camp at the Sea of Reeds.
Predictably, the people are thrown into a frenzied panic. Persuaded by Moshe's reassuring promises of Divine redemption, they had thought that the horrors of Egypt were finally behind them, that the long and dreadful night of slavery had at long last ended. The matzot that had seemed to taste so sweet at that final meal in Egypt now turned bitter in the mouths of many. Had they not dutifully followed God's directives to offer the Paschal sacrifice just a few short nights earlier? Had they not hastily eaten the ritual repast in their full attire, prepared and expectant for the command to march? Had they not fearfully but obediently smeared the sacrificial blood on the door posts and lintels of their former hovels, demonstrating their trust in a God Who said that He would save?!
"Pharaoh drew close. Bnei Yisrael lifted up their eyes to see Egypt pursuing them, and they were very afraid. Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem. They said to Moshe: 'were there not any graves in Egypt that you took us out to perish in the wilderness, what have you done to us to take us out of Egypt? This is the very thing that we said to you in Egypt repeatedly: let us be, so that we may serve the Egyptians, for serving the Egyptians is preferable to dying in the wilderness!'"
No doubt the Ramban (13th century, Spain) is correct in asserting that Bnei Yisrael could not decide on a united course of action during those moments of trauma and turmoil that seemed to last an eternity. Many considered surrender, to swear renewed allegiance to the Pharaoh and to submissively offer to run back to the brick pits. Others demurred. The Egyptian host, like a tempest fast approaching, would not be in a sympathetic mood. Surely they would not accept surrender. Would it not be better to oppose them, to die like free men instead of vanquished slaves? Some cried out to God, tearfully imploring His mercy and resolutely holding on to His promise. Not a few were emotionally paralyzed, weakened by years of servitude and now shocked by the fear of imminent doom into an unfeeling and uncaring stupor. In front of them all, the deep blue waters of the Sea of Reeds glistened, its timeless and gentle waves washed the soft sandy shore and tried to ease their feverish minds, but in its azure reflection they saw the Specter of Death.
Why did Hashem bring Bnei Yisrael to the bank of Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds)? Hadn't His glory already been sufficiently impressed upon the Egyptians by the Plagues? Why was it necessary to orchestrate a situation in which the people of Israel experienced absolute dread, abject terror, utter hopelessness and then unexpected and complete salvation? Let us begin by imagining the drama and almost unbearable contrast of the moment: as morning dawned the night after the Plague of the Firstborn, the newly freed slaves, flush with feelings of liberation and victory, proudly followed their leader Moshe into the wilderness. The Egyptians, only too eager to be rid of them, sent them off with vessels of gold and silver. The Hebrews went forward, guided by the supernatural manifestation of the Pillars of Cloud and Fire.
Unexpectedly and without explanation, they were commanded to retrace their steps and to encamp along the shores of Yam Suf. A number of uneventful days passed until suddenly the thunder of horse hooves was heard in the distance. Without warning, Pharaoh's war chariots appeared on the horizon, but it was now too late to flee, for the people were effectively hemmed in by the waters of the sea blocking the option of escape. As Pharaoh drew near, the camp was thrown into a panic, and the still-fresh memories of cruel Egyptian bondage now constituted for many a pleasant diversion. The prospect of liberation, which only a night or two ago filled every Hebrew mind with dreams of a brighter future, now turned into a menacing nightmare.
The Mentality of a Slave
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) provides us with a critical glimpse into the situation by asking a question that begs to be addressed: "One might ask why a great multitude of six hundred thousand should fear their pursuers! Should they not prepare to fight for their lives and the lives of their children?" In other words, we would have expected that Bnei Yisrael, with no possibility of retreat and faced with the prospect of being cut to pieces by the Egyptian charioteers, should first and foremost be speaking of defending their lives. Hardly outnumbered by an enemy force that could have numbered no more than a few thousand, the six hundred thousand strong men of Israel should have been planning a counter attack. That this was not at all the case is attested to by the fact that words of insurgency are completely absent from the dialogue that takes place between the people and Moshe: 'were there not any graves in Egypt that you took us out to perish in the wilderness, what have you done to us to take us out of Egypt? This is the very thing that we said to you in Egypt repeatedly: let us be, so that we may serve the Egyptians, for serving the Egyptians is preferable to dying in the wilderness!' Here, we find expressions of dejection, disappointment and disillusionment, but none of resistance.
"The answer is, however," continues Ibn Ezra, "that the Egyptians were the masters of the Israelites, and the generation that left Egypt had learned from its youth to bear the Egyptian yoke, and its spirit was downtrodden. How could they now oppose their masters?" Thus, argues Ibn Ezra, the option of fighting for their lives was not one that was even entertained by the newly freed Hebrews. Burdened with a mentality that was conditioned to follow orders and to never object to their masters' commands, Bnei Yisrael could not for a moment imagine a course of action that defied Egyptian authority, even with their lives at stake.
How fragile must have been that new-found pride that animated the people on the dawn of their redemption, how tenuous that spirit of initiative and autonomy that God first attempted to inculcate with the command of the Paschal sacrifice. To Ibn Ezra's explanation belong the whole series of ancient and well-founded traditions that assert that the vast majority of Israelites had no interest in the Exodus to begin with! Had they not been 'thrust out of Egypt' by their impatient Egyptian overlords, they would have happily remained enslaved. Surely to our Western democratic ears this disdain of freedom seems incomprehensible, but we must attempt to fathom the matter from a completely different perspective.
The 'Comforts' of Egypt
The life of a slave is a difficult one filled with toil, travail, exhaustion and the ever-present fear of sudden and violent death. The slave has few if any rights, and many burdensome responsibilities. Hopes of relief are never far from his mind, but responding to that freedom is another matter. For all of its horror, the life of a slave includes one comforting reality: the lack of a necessity to take initiative and to make independent decisions. For the slave who has been raised in servitude forever, decisions are made by someone else, a master who wields authority with often frightening intensity. As long as the quota of bricks is met, however, the drudgery of serfdom can unfold with a mind-numbing predictability that dulls the senses and assuages the pain.
How different is the experience of liberation! Suddenly all of life's givens evaporate, as the limited series of variables that constitute the slave's sphere of influence abruptly increases by orders of magnitude. Destiny beckons, but to seize it one must activate one's ability to consider possibilities and to exercise one's will. Whereas under servitude a well-known (though oppressive) routine exists that can be counted upon, in freedom there is the 'unknown,' the proverbial wilderness that can only be traversed by those who are possessed of confidence and strength of spirit.
The Midrashic Account
Finding themselves closed in on one side by the impassable waters and pursued on the other by the Pharaoh, Bnei Yisrael cry out in desperation. Moshe attempts to comfort them with words of encouragement and promises of Divine salvation, but from all indications in the text, he himself does not know what God's plan might be. "God said to Moshe: 'why are you crying out to Me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them move forward! Raise up your staff and stretch out your hand upon the sea to divide it, and let Bnei Yisrael enter into the midst of the waters on dry land!"
Moshe, unsure of how to proceed and lost in prayer, is told by God to act: Bnei Yisrael are to move forward. Only afterwards is Moshe to raise up his staff and part the waters. The Midrash in Shemot Rabba 21:10 boldly describes the scene: "If they are to enter 'the midst of the waters' how can the Torah call it 'dry land?' And if they tread on 'dry land' how could they be in 'the midst of the waters?' Rather, this indicates that the waters did not part until they had entered them up to their nose, and only then was it made dry land!" Seemingly interested by a scriptural inconsistency that could have been easily resolved without recourse to such an explanation, the Midrash here actually captures the essence of the moment.
We can see Bnei Yisrael in our mind's eye as they desperately but tentatively enter the waters of the sea at God's command. Wading in up to their ankles, they anticipate some sort of miraculous intervention, but nothing happens. As the water reaches their knees they are sure that God will not abandon them, but no response is forthcoming. The waters begin to lap at their waists but still the Heavens are silent. With water now up to their shoulders, their hearts begin to sink as thoughts of sadness and dejection flood into their minds. But forward they go. The sea now at their noses, the hour of truth arrives, for in a short moment they will drown. Suddenly the waters part and Bnei Yisrael now proceed through the midst of the waters on dry land. What could be the significance of the Midrash's fantastical description?
The Real Miracle
We tend to think of the parting of the Sea of Reeds as a miracle of 'Biblical' proportions, and indeed it was. In a demonstration more impressive than any of the plagues that preceded the Exodus, God showed his absolute mastery over the forces of nature as well as over the affairs of men. The Midrash, however, suggests another more significant dimension to the event. In essence, the Midrash claim, the true wonder at Yam Suf was not the parting of the waters at all, but rather Bnei Yisrael's readiness to follow God's word. The trust that the people showed as they entered the waters, the complete faith in God's word, the spirited act of ardor and ambition that signaled the painful break with a past dominated by an ingrained slave mentality, these were the real miracles at the Sea of Reeds. In the face of such deeds, the waters had no choice but to part before them.
Approached from this angle, the outline of the narrative is now clear. Indeed, the events of the Exodus have been carefully orchestrated by God to bring Bnei Yisrael to the shores of Yam Suf with Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit. There, they will have no choice but to enter the waters at His command, to thereby perform an act of initiative that will forever destroy the possibility of a return to Egypt, to bondage and to the manner of thinking of a slave. In a sense, their act of trust and 'free will' will be coerced, for there will not be any other viable option. Just as the earlier events of the Plagues constituted an incremental process of instruction, just as the Paschal Sacrifice was the first expression of independent will, so too the miracle at Yam Suf may be considered the natural and inevitable continuation of that demanding but momentous journey.