By Shlomo Riskin
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them travel’ (Exodus 14:15)
The climax of the Festival of Passover, the festival’s seventh day which we will be celebrating this week, commemorates the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea, which teaches one of the most important messages of our Exodus from Egypt. The Hebrews have been traveling in the desert for three days, distancing themselves from the Egyptians. God then gives a strange commandment to Moses: “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them turn back; and camp before the entrance to the Temples of Horus between the Tower and the Sea in front of the Idol Master of the North, encamping near the sea.” (Exodus 14: 2)
Apparently, God wanted Pharaoh to believe that the Hebrews were lost in the desert, thus tempting him to pursue them and bring them back to slavery in Egypt. This is precisely what happens.
The Hebrews hear the Egyptian hordes — replete with 600 chariots — approaching from behind them, in front of them lies the Re(e)d Sea. The Hebrews are in turmoil. They seem to be in an impossible situation, devoid of any meaningful exit plan. Ibn Ezra argues that they could have assembled an army of hundreds of thousands, but this possibility did not even occur to them. Twice within the first nine verses of this chapter, the Bible identifies the names of their encampment. They are positioned before “Pi Hahirot,” which we previously identified with the Temple of Horus, but which could well be translated as “Freedom Way” or “Bay of Freedom” (the Hebrew word herut means freedom and is closely allied to hirot, which can also be connected to the Egyptian god Horus). They face the Idol Master of the North.
The Bible may well be telling us that these newly freed slaves are standing on the cusp of freedom, literally between Egyptian enslavement and Jewish liberation.
Idolatry as a political philosophy removes the possibility of meaningful action from the hands of human beings; all they can do is to attempt to propitiate the gods by bribing them with petty sacrifices into effectuating whatever they need. Judaism, on the other hand, sees human beings as God’s chosen partners within the cosmic drama with a mission being to perfect the world in the Kingship of God.
The Israelites remain strongly influenced by Egyptian idolatry. The possibility of waging war against their Egyptian pursuers doesn’t even enter their minds.
The only thing they can do is cry out to God in prayer, saying, “Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to take us into the desert to die?” (Exodus 14: 11) Moses also seems to be insufficiently imbued with the true message of freedom and the necessity of fighting for it even unto death. He admonishes the nation not to fear, to stand by and watch the salvation of the Lord: “God will do battle for you; you must merely be silent.”
The second half of this chapter – which is divided into two equal halves – has God chide Moses for his passive advice: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them go forward.” (Exodus 14: 15) Rashi quotes a midrash which puts the following words into God’s mouth: “This is not the time for a lengthy prayer, Israel is in such terrible trouble; speak to the Children of Israel and let them move on”.
What is God telling them to do? If they jump into the Re(e)d Sea, they will most likely drown. Our Sages tell us that we dare not rely on miracles; we must always act to the utmost of our ability.
Clearly, God was asking them to demonstrate by their actions that they understood the value of freedom, and that they were willing to choose death over enslavement. For to live the life of a slave without the freedom to direct one’s own destiny was worse than death itself. God was telling them through Moses that they must jump into the Re(e)d Sea and thereby publicly declare, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Our Sages teach us that “One who comes to purify [himself or others], will be helped from on High.” (Shabbat 104a) That is not necessarily guaranteed – we are not to rely on miracles – but it can happen. In this case, after the first Israelites jumped into the sea, God miraculously divided it, enabling the Israelites to cross safely but drowning the pursuing Egyptians.
The Jews were only helped, however, when they demonstrated that liberty was more important to them than life itself.
It is fascinating to note that the first proposed seal for the United States of America — which was suggested by Benjamin Franklin — was a pictorial representation of the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea, the triumphant Israelites, the drowning Egyptians, and Moses with his arms outstretched over the waters. The caption beneath reads “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” This great and universal message is especially important as the world stands by—mostly indifferent—to the enslaved peoples in Syria as well as in Iran. The message of Passover must yet be learned.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.