Thoughts for B’shalah

Our sages relate: “Our fathers broke into four groups at the Sea.  One said, ‘we should throw ourselves into the sea.’  One said, ‘we should return to Egypt.’  One said, ‘we should do battle with them.’ One group said, ‘we should pray.’

What are we to make of this?  The aggada relates parts of the verses in the Torah to Moshe’s response to each group.  To the first group Moshe responded ‘stand and witness the salvation of God.’  To the group advocating return to Egypt Moshe responded ‘you will not see Egypt again as you have seen them today.’  To the would be warriors, Moshe responded ‘God will fight for you.’  And to those who promoted prayer Moshe said ‘be silent.’

So, was everyone wrong?  Essentially, Moshe told each group ‘put your plan on hold’.  Humbling and frightening at the same time.  We are so used to being in control, and our master Moshe tells us ‘don’t just do something; stand there!’

Despite the fact that all proposals are rejected at some level, we see here a certain tension between different values within the Torah.  Two seemingly conflicting values are that of Bitahon/reliance on God, and Hishtadlut/making efforts applied to our reality.  The direction taken by each of the four groups may reflect an emphasis on one or the other of these values.  It may also reflect something of their belief-driven psychology at the moment.  What is especially interesting is the subtlety in play.

Both the Korban HaEida and the Torah T’mimah try to understand this narrative by looking at the motivations driving each group.  They characterize each group based on how they interpret their motivation.  Even without acting, something is revealed just by the group’s considerations.

The Korban HaEida says the first group, ‘let’s throw ourselves into the sea’, are perfectly righteous.  He sees their position as one of faith, ‘there is nothing to prevent God’s salvation whether in the sea or on dry land.’  The group that advocates return to Egypt he sees as clearly evil.  To him this is self-evident.  The group that advocates a fight he describes as ‘benonim’/morally moderate.  He explains that this group believes that there is need for some human initiative (an ‘awakening from below’), since they don’t think they are otherwise worthy of a great miracle.  Similarly, the group that advocates prayer is also of a moderate spiritual stature, the only difference being that they think the human initiative will be enough in thought and speech, without need to actually act.

The Torah Temimah has a similar approach, with a quite different take on things.  He says that those who advocate a fight and those who advocate prayer are both groups of ‘believers.’  Those who advocated returning to Egypt he labels ‘heretics’.  Those who suggest throwing ourselves into the sea he says had ‘despaired.’

It is hard to reconcile the difference between these two views of the aggada.  They clearly disagree about the group willing to throw themselves into the sea.  They clearly agree about the group who basically advocates giving in to our enemies.  They seem to draw close in the understanding of the groups who advocate fighting and praying.  We tend to think of these as very different.  In fact, the sword and prayer belong very much together when it is time to act on behalf of Jewish survival.  When confronted by Amalek in the end of our parsha, Moshe sends troops out to fight under Yehoshua.  Then, he goes to the hill top with Aharon and Hur.

‘When Moshe lifted his hands, Israel was victorious; when he lowered his hands Amalek was victorious.  Moshe’s hand grew heavy, so they took a rock to place under him, and he sat and Aharon and Hur supported his hands.  His hands were steady until the sunset.  Yehoshua defeated Amalek and his people by the sword.’ (my translation)  Sh’mot/Exodus 17:11-13

Our sages explain that when Moshe’s hands were lifted, Israel’s hearts were turned to God.  When his hands were down, so were our hearts, so to speak.

We see in this incident that the roles of prayer (hearts turned to God) and action (doing battle) were both crucial.  Neither is considered as a sole course to be taken.  Nor is there any consideration of neglecting one course.  And keeping one’s hands and heart turned to God is apparently no simple task.  It is one that requires support and participation with others; as doing battle with our enemies does.

Our brave soldiers in Israel daily do battle for the safety of Jews in Israel; and by extension, everywhere.  This is a tremendous mitzvah.  For those who cannot do so, let me urge you to raise your hearts in prayer for their safety and success.  Do so reliably, consistently.  Seek out others who will do so as well.  Draw together in faith and prayer, and do so especially for the sake of those who act on our behalf in the battlefield.  And let me add, that at that time you should also ask for the safety and success of soldiers elsewhere risking their lives in defense of free and civil society everywhere.

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