By Shlomo Riskin
“The Lord will do battle for you and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:14).
The last day of the festival of Passover is dedicated to the splitting of the Reed’s Sea, one of the most dramatic and cataclysmic events in Biblical history. The Israelites have left Egypt and believe they are “home-free”; however, the Egyptian hordes change their mind and begin to chase after the newly formed free men. The Israelites, faced by the Egyptians behind them and the Reed Sea in front of them, panic – and in their fear they cry out to Moses, “Are there then no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the desert?!” (Exodus 14:11). Moses attempts to comfort his people, exhorting them not to fear but rather to watch for Divine salvation, “The Lord will do battle for you and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:14).
But is this indeed the religious message of the Exodus? Does the Almighty expect us to stand quietly by in times of danger and challenge, simply waiting for the Almighty to emerge as a deus ex machana plucking us out from the fires of our enemies? Is such silence on our part consistent with Jewish history, and especially with these last six decades following the Holocaust? Where would the Jewish people be today had we not attempted to take our destiny into our own hands and fought battle after battle for the Jewish State?
Indeed, the classical Hassidic interpreters have turned the verse we’ve just cited on its head by providing an alternate literal interpretation: “The Lord will provide you with bread (the Hebrew yilakhem can mean to do battle but can also mean to provide bread from the Hebrew lekhem; most wars are after all fought after bread or material gain) but you must plow (the Hebrew heresh can either mean to be silent or to plow)” (Exodus 14:14). And although this reading of the verse would seem to be the very antithesis of its meaning in context, it is nevertheless the true meaning of this most dramatic miracle. Yes, Moses expected G-d to act and counsel the Israelites to silently await G-d’s miracle. But that is not the message that G-d conveys to Moses in the very next verse of the text: “And G-d said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them move forward’” (Exodus 14:15).
Yes, G-d is ready to effectuate a miracle, but not before the Israelites prove themselves by putting their lives on the line. Before G-d does anything, the Israelites must either do battle with the Egyptians or jump into the raging waters and attempt as best as possible to get to Israel by sea! It is only after “the children of Israel have entered into the midst of the sea” – despite its inherent dangers – that the waters will miraculously part and the Israelites will find themselves “on dry land” (Exodus 14:16). Rashi even goes as far as saying in G-d’s name to Moses, “This is not the time to engage in lengthy prayer when the Israelites are in such deep trouble.” When the going gets tough, tough people get going; from G-d’s point of view; prayer must be coupled with action. From this perspective, the Hassidim may be literally wrong in their interpretation but are certainly conceptually most correct!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.