Ari Sacher

“Moving On” Parashat Beshalach 5784

The Egyptian nightmare is well and truly over. Pharaoh’s troops have drowned in the sea and the Jewish People can now move on down the road to their destiny. They will first receive the Torah and then, soon afterwards, enter their homeland, the Land of Israel.

That is, if they agree to move. After the Egyptians have drowned and Moshe and the Jewish People have finished singing “The Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam)”, the Torah tells us [Shemot 15:22] “Moshe led Israel away (Va’yasa) from the Reed Sea, and they went out into the Desert of Shur.” The word “Va’yasa” is in the active-causative (hif’il) tense, meaning that Moshe had to pry them away from the sea so they could continue their journey. Why did they want to remain on the seashore? Rashi[1] quotes our Sages in the Midrash, who fill in the blanks: The Egyptian Army adorned their horses with gold, silver, and precious gems. After they drowned in the sea, the carcasses washed up on the shore and the Jewish People plundered the precious adornments. Moshe had to lead them against their will into the desert.

Rabbi Asher Wasserteil[2], writing in “Birkat Asher”, has immense trouble with Rashi’s explanation for several reasons. First, the optics of the people pulling horses out of the sea and stripping them of their gold and silver ornaments just looks bad. It reeks of greed. It reminds me of a Daffy Duck cartoon in which a genie grants Daffy a fortune of gold coins. I vividly remember him sitting covered with coins and saying, “I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well off!” Second, the people had just experienced a Divine Revelation the likes of which had never been seen before. According to our Sages in the Midrash, the simplest handmaiden experienced a revelation that eclipsed that of the Prophet Ezekiel[3]. One could actually point his finger at G-d and say, “There He is!” Are we really to believe that five minutes later they were stripping cars? Finally, didn’t the people already strip the Egyptians of their possessions? Before they leave Egypt, they are commanded [Shemot 11:2] “Borrow from the Egyptians silver and gold utensils”. They do as they are ordered, the Egyptians willingly “lend” them their gold and silver and, according to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [9b], Egypt is left looking “like a silo emptied from all of its grain”. Did they really need more gold and silver? Indeed, according to the Midrash quoted by Rashi, the “spoils of the sea” were greater than the “spoils of Egypt”. What is going on here?

Rabbi Wasserteil answers his questions by quoting from “Ein Aya”, written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook[4]. Rav Kook teaches that a slave wearing rags cannot properly connect with G-d. Similar to the way in which a person dresses up to go to synagogue on Shabbat, he must “uplift his spirit” in order to connect with the Divine. The “spoils of Egypt” were required to prepare the Jewish People for the Divine Revelation at the exodus and the “spoils of the sea” were required for the heightened revelation at the splitting of the sea. Rabbi Jacob Moshe Charlap[5] points to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [92a] that states that prophecy settles only upon a person who is “wise, heroic, and wealthy”.

Let us investigate a different direction, beginning with the commentary of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[6]. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the Jewish People did not want to leave the Reed Sea precisely because of the Divine Revelation they had just experienced. They had just seen indescribable miracles and had encountered an unparalleled closeness to the Divine. Moving anywhere else would be anticlimactic, especially to some godforsaken desert.

I suggest that their unwillingness to move on proved to be their undoing. They were mesmerized by the miracles that G-d performed at the sea but by choosing to remain in at the site of those miracles, they rejected the potential for future miracles. That “godforsaken desert” that they did not want to follow Moshe into was meant to be the location of the next miracle. At the end of forty years of wandering in the desert, as they stand at the gates of the Land of Israel, Moshe gives them a recap. He warns them not to fall into the honey trap of wealth and to remember to attribute their accomplishments to G-d [Devarim 8:15-16]: “Who led you through that great and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; Who brought water for you out of solid rock, Who fed you with manna in the desert, which your forefathers did not know, in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to benefit you in your end.” In the desert, the Jewish People were surrounded by miracles 24/7. Their food fell from the heavens, their water came from a rock, their clothing did not exhibit any wear and tear, and they were not harmed by dangerous native wildlife. Rabbi Bahya ben Asher[7] explains that the desert “tested” them by determining the amount of trust (bitachon) they had in G-d to provide their necessities and to make this trust their second nature. We can take Rabbi Bahya’s explanation one extra step by asserting that the Jewish People were immersed in miracles while in the desert in order to learn how to trust in G-d to perform miracles.

The unwillingness of the Jewish People to move on to the next miracle comes back to bite them. Forty days after Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the people are frantic, believing he has died, and they look for a replacement. Aaron commands them to hand over their gold jewellery, he melts it down, pours it into a mould and out comes a golden calf (egel). The people celebrate, shouting [Shemot 32:4] “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” G-d, seeing that He has been replaced by a cow, decides to kill everybody and to replace them with a “Jewish People 2.0”. Moshe comes to their defence, telling G-d [Shemot 32:31] “Please! This nation has committed a grave sin. They have made themselves a god of gold.” The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [32a] explains Moshe’s strategy: “[Moses is saying to G-d:] It was You Who caused them [to sin], for You lavished upon them gold and whatever they desired. What should they have done so as not to sin? [This may be illustrated by] a parable of a king who gave his son to eat and drink, dressed him up, hung a coin purse on his neck, and stationed him at the entrance of a brothel. What can the son do so as not to sin?” Moshe’s point seems logically sound. After all, it was G-d Who ordered them to take the gold from the Egyptians, was it not? I submit that the answer is “no”. Moshe was accusing G-d of giving the Jewish People great wealth from “spoils of Egypt”. That accusation was incorrect. They had fashioned the egel with the gold taken from the “spoils of the sea”, at least conceptually. By clinging to the seashore, by continuing to bask in the glow of yesterday’s miracle and refusing to move on to the next one, they had limited G-d, and to limit G-d is to commit idolatry. It is no different than bowing down to a golden calf.

David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles[8].” Israel today is in a complex situation, fighting a multi-front war against savage terrorist organizations. Sometimes it seems there is no end in sight. It is all too easy get all caught up in the panic and uncertainty. Whenever this happens, think of the words of the Prophet Micah [7:15]: “As in the days of your exodus from the Land of Egypt, I will show you wonders.” Trust in G-d. Do not limit Him. We have no other recourse.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the 11th century.

[2] Rabbi Wasserteil lived in Jerusalem in the previous century.

[3] The one where he sees aliens.

[4] Rav Kook was one of the fathers of Religious Zionism. He lived in Poland and in Israel during the first half of the 20th century. He was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Modern Day Israel.

[5] Rabbi Charlap was a disciple of Rav Kook.

[6] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the 19th century.

[7] Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, known as “Rabbeinu Bahya”, lived in Spain at the turn of the 14th century.

[8] I know I used this quote only two weeks ago, but it is so fitting that I could not ignore it.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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