In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh experiences a change of heart and decides that the Jewish people should not be granted their freedom to serve God in the desert. He rallies his army and chariots and travels en masse from Egypt in order to forcibly return his former slaves to the land. The eventual encounter between Pharaoh and the Jewish people –between master and slave—leads to one of the most momentous and historic events in the Torah: The Splitting of the Red Sea.
The verses relate, “Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! The Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.” (Exodus 14:10). In times of trouble and distress, men of faith have always turned and prayed to God for deliverance and salvation. As the saying goes, there is no atheist in a foxhole. This moment in history was no exception. However, the Torah describes God’s reaction to the prayer of the people in a way that we would not expect. The verses write, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel. And you raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it, and the children of Israel shall come in the midst of the sea on dry land.’” (Exodus 14:15-16). Rather than offering immediate rescue, God seemingly turns Moses away and instead encourages the people to rely on themselves to determine their own destiny. Why is this God’s response to Moses and the Jewish People? Perhaps even more importantly, what is the deeper message here that we can learn and take to heart for our own times?
In answer to the above, the classic Biblical commentator Rashi writes that these verses are coming to teach us that rather than just relying on prayer or Godly miracles in a time of need, man must also take concrete action in order to find his own salvation. That is why God commanded Moses to stop praying and to instead speak to and compel the Jewish people to action — to quite literally travel forward into the sea. Rashi writes, “They have nothing to do but to travel, for the sea will not stand in their way. The merit of their forefathers and their own [merit], and the faith they had in Me when they came out [of Egypt] are sufficient to split the sea for them.” (Mechilta, Exod. Rabbah 21:8) From this explanation it becomes clear that once the people put forth their own efforts, God was prepared to perform miracles for them.
On this idea, Rabbi Moshe Lichtman in his work “Eretz Yisrael in the Parsha” brings a fascinating insight from Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, the author of the Eim Habanim Semeicha. Rav Teichtal quotes the Siftei Chachamim who further explains Rashi’s comments above as follows: The Jewish people traveled into the sea, and when Moses raised his staff over the waters, they split. However, if the Jewish people had stayed in place on the dry land and did not travel forward into the water, then even if Moses had raised his staff over the sea, it would not have split. Without their concrete action, the miracle of the Splitting of the Red Sea would not have taken place. Rav Teichtal explains that during the entire period of the Exodus, from the beginning of the Ten Plagues until their encampment opposite the sea, the Jewish people had only their inner faith, “…They did not reveal the strength of this inner faith with actual deeds.” However, when they marched headfirst into the sea they catapulted to a new level; when they coupled their determined inner faith with a strong concrete action they became worthy of a miracle. (Eretz Yisrael in the Parsha ,pg. 142-144)
But why the back and forth? Why did the people need to take the concrete actions of moving forward into the sea in order for the miracle to take place? From this we learn that the necessity for action and effort on the part of man is in fact a matter of faith: namely, our faith is only as strong as our actions. The most truthful indicator of the mettle and authenticity of a man’s faith is in the actions that he undertakes. It is not enough to think or to preach—one must act and follow through with his beliefs in order for them to truly be called his own.
More importantly without actions to reinforce it, over time even the strongest of faith will begin to decay. A poignant story of this concept is written by Rabbi Nachman Kahana, spiritual leader of Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue, The Young Israel of the Old City.
Picture an observant family at the Seder night, living in any one of the great Torah centers in the galut. The home of Reb Sender and Mrs. Rayza is impeccable; the result of the great time and energy, not to speak of the money, which the expeditious and skillful ba’alat ha’bayit has devoted to it.
The sofas and arm chairs in the sitting room that look so inviting, were it not for the thick plastic covers which insure that the upholstery retains its “new” look. The five-meter-long dining room table is covered with the finest Irish linen table cloth. In the middle of the table stands the imposing sterling silver candle sticks handed down from mother to daughter for generations. The china is the finest Rosenthal, with each plate delicately rounded off with a band of gold.
The seder goes better than expected. There are words of Torah, beginning with an invitation to the hungry to join with them in the meal, despite the fact that there is not a needy person within 50 miles. A lively discussion develops on the characters of the “four sons.” The main course of Turkey and cranberry sauce is served, in the finest American tradition of giving thanks to the Almighty for all His abundance.
Songs of thanks to HaShem for freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt are recited. For it is a mitzva on this night for each person to undergo a deja vu experience as if he or she were slaves in Mitzrayim. Birkat Hamazon (grace after meal) is said, as is the second part of Hallel. Chad Gadya puts the final touch on the mitzvot of the night. Now, just as HaShem destroys the “Angel of Death” in the song, father jumps up and gathering the family in a circle, they all break out in a frenzy of song — L’shana ha’ba’a Be’Yerushalayim — “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Suddenly Mama collapses into a chair, crying hysterically. The singing stops. Father runs over and asks why she is crying just at the apex of the beautiful, sacred night?
“What do you mean next year in Yerushalayim? What about the table, the chandelier, the Rosenthal china, the garden! How can we leave all this?”
Father approaches Mama and taking her hand while gently dabbing her tears away, in a voice full of compassion, says to his beloved Rayza, “Darling, don’t cry, it’s only a song!”
Faith and faith alone is not enough to sustain the Jewish people; when it is not paired with concrete actions, we fall short of fulfilling our national destiny. Just like the Jewish people on the edge of the Sea, it is incumbent upon us all to find the strength to follow our faith through with concrete action, to be the “do-ers” of our generation. May we merit, with our faith and actions, to write the next chapter of Jewish history.