This week’s Torah reading is Beshalach, centered on the climactic narrative of the Splitting of the Sea. We read that following the Exodus, the Israelites are walking towards the Promised Land before suddenly being told by God to turn back. Soon, they find themselves at an outcropping near Yam Suf, the “Reed Sea”. Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s spies have informed him that the Israelites appear to be coming back to Egypt. Seeking his revenge, Pharaoh summons all the chariots of Egypt (led by 600 of the choicest officers) to obliterate the Israelites. Stuck between a rampaging military on one side and the sea on the other, the Israelites panic. We know how the story ends, of course, with God sending the greatest of His miracles in the nick of time, splitting the sea in two, allowing the Israelites to pass through unharmed, and drowning the Egyptian charioteers that attempt to follow.
Commenting on these verses, the Sages tell us that there were actually four types of Jews among those Israelites. The first group immediately fell into a fright and were so paralyzed by their fear that they were unable to do anything. The second group were the weak-spirited ones who immediately decided to surrender and return to Egypt. The third group were the brazen warriors who took up arms to fight the Egyptians to the death. And finally, the fourth group were those who started to pray fervently.
Moses addresses all four groups: “Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see Hashem’s salvation that He will do for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again for eternity. Hashem will fight for you, and you shall remain silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14) To those who feared, Moses said not to be afraid. To those who wanted to return to Egypt, he promised they would never see the Egyptians again. To those that wanted to do battle, Moses reminded them that God will do the fighting for them. And to those that prayed, Moses said to be silent.
It is easy to understand Moses’ command to the first three groups. Why fear after all that God had done for them? Why return to Egypt when God had already brought them so far? Why battle when God had battled on their behalf?
But what of the fourth group? What’s wrong with offering a prayer at such a difficult moment? Does it not show their faith in God? Indeed, although Moses silenced those who prayed, the following verse tells us that he himself prayed! And then it was God who silenced Moses! Why was God not looking for their prayers at that moment, and what was He looking for?
A Test of True Faith
The Talmud (Sotah 37a) fills in the details of what was going on at the time. God told Moses to stop praying, and Moses replied: “What is there in my power to do?” Moses felt powerless at that moment, and was waiting for God to act. God, however, was waiting for His people to make a move. Thus far, He had done everything for them. He had brought the plagues upon their tormentors, took them out of Egypt with riches and fanfare, and had proved beyond any reasonable doubt that He exists and protects His people.
Now, God was telling them: v’yisa’au, “go forth!” Cross the sea. Yet, the people stood still, as did Moses. Where was their faith? Did they not understand by now that God would never abandon them, or let them perish? Did they not recognize that everything had gone exactly as God had commanded? If God directed them to go into the sea, that is what they needed to do! This was not a time to pray, but a time to act.
One person did understand this. His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of the tribe of Judah. He realized that if God commanded them to cross the sea, than that is exactly what they needed to do. And so, he marched on into the waters, and as he did, the waters parted before him. The Talmud states that only at this point did God tell Moses to lift up his staff and keep the waters parted.
A Time to Pray and a Time to Act
There are many lessons to be derived from this passage. Central among them is that prayer alone is not a solution. It is certainly beneficial to pray, but we mustn’t forget to act. And this is what God expects from us in the most difficult of times: not prayers, but actions. For example, the Mishnah (Avot 1:12) teaches us that it isn’t enough to just pray for peace, but we must do as Aaron did and actively pursue peace. This is especially important today, when we are walking in the era of the “footsteps of Mashiach”. The Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes our times in this way:
“In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.”
It sends shivers down one’s spine to read these words, composed over 1500 years ago, that ring so true today: A world of abundance, yet so many hungry mouths. Corrupt government, and no one to stop it. Places of scholarship are places of immorality – a fitting description for most of today’s university campuses – and an increasingly atheist society despising those who fear sin. A world so full of information, yet ironically so full of ignorance and mistruth. A generation that resembles a dog: animalistic, licentious, unashamed. And there is no one to rely upon, save for God.
Years ago, I heard a powerful interpretation of this passage. Unfortunately, I cannot recall in whose name it was cited, but it went something like this: The last phrase in the passage – that there is no one to rely upon except for God – is also part of the list of things signifying the footsteps of Mashiach. In other words, it’s not that the Sages are listing a whole bunch of things wrong with the world, then concluding by saying there is no hope, but rather, the fact that people think there is no hope is also part of the list of things wrong with the world! When we come to the point where we think nothing can be done, and we must only pray to God, that in itself is a failure on our part.
The truth is, there is much to be done, and each person has an unlimited potential to make a difference in the world. If we really do want to usher in the era of Mashiach, we must remember that two thousand years of praying for it has not worked. Just as it was with the Israelites by the Sea, now is not the time to focus on our prayers, it is time to focus on our actions.