Silent Faith at the Sea

exodus-reed-seaWhen the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; he took six hundred of his picked chariots, and the rest of the chariots of Egypt, with officers in all of them. The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, boldly, the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses…

Exodus 14:5-15; 15:22-24 (JPS Tanakh)

The miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea is the culmination of the Exodus. One week after the calamitous plague of the First Born, once again Pharaoh is chasing after the Jews to enslave them. As he advances, the Jews are trapped between the sea and the advancing Egyptian army.

Groups of Jews suggest a variety of responses to the impending disaster. God tells Moses to cease praying and travel toward the sea. In a heroic act of faith, Nachshon, prince of the tribe of Judah, throws himself into the sea, and it splits. (Talmud – Sotah 37a)

-Rabbi Dave Rudman
“Chumash Themes #11: Splitting of the Sea”
Commentary on Torah Portion Beshalach

One of the arguments I sometimes hear (though fortunately, not lately) about how Christians are ultimately superior to the ancient Israelites, has to do with faith. Basically, I’ve heard that Christians have an abundance of faith in God through Jesus Christ and the Israelites had none. The “proof” of the latter has to do with the continual grumbling of the Israelites (as I’ve tried to illustrate above) and how it seems to be a characteristic of them for the next forty years. That first generation out of Egypt never seems to get it right. It appears amazing after all, since they witnessed miracles of God that would stagger the senses. They saw the plagues against Egypt. They saw the parting of the Reed Sea. The entire population of Israel directly encountered God at Sinai and received the Torah “as one man.”

How could they not know that God is was with them?

The response to that question is much bigger than I’m able to answer, particularly in a blogging format, but through metaphor, midrash, and a little Chasidic mysticism, I want to use a tiny bit of the Exodus narrative to tell a story about us…about you and me…about people of faith.

When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were the spiritual equivalent of children. Their active participation in the Ten Plagues and the Exodus was negligible. The plagues were accomplished in a completely miraculous way through the agency of Moses and Aaron. The Exodus itself was predicated on the covenant that God promised Abraham to redeem his descendants from slavery. (Genesis 15:13-14)

Therefore, the Jewish people needed to mature and interact with God on their own.

-Rabbi Rudman

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Mark 4:13-20 (ESV)

sower-seedThe full “Parable of the Sower” can be found in Mark 4:1-20 and I find it an interesting parallel to what Rabbi Rudman said about the Children of Israel being “spiritual children” at the point when they’re leaving Egypt. They were a people but not yet a nation. Their bodies had been freed from slavery but not their minds and hearts. They moved forward with joy but were terrified at every setback.

Here’s another way of looking at the choices we make as cited in a more “mystic” source:

A king had lost a costly pearl. He sent his three sons to look for it. The first son was of the opinion that his father did not need him anymore, and he did not return to him. The second son did not think about the pearl at all, he only wanted to be back home with his father. The third son understood that he had been sent out for this purpose: to become completely independent. So he searched for the pearl and found it and brought it to his father.

It is very much like that with humanity. One person is deeply involved in this world. For him it would have been better if he had never been born. Another strives his whole life to get back home to his Source, to his Father; but he is thereby thinking only about himself. Still other men seek after and find the precious pearl. They return the holy sparks of God which have been scattered in the world back to their original Source again. Such men are the true redeemers of mankind.

Paul Philip Levertoff
“Repentance and Redemption”
Religious Ideas of the Chasidim
Chapter 1, Sections 12 and 13
as quoted from Messiah Journal, Issue 112 (Fall 2013/5773), pp 79-80

Now how does all that compare to us?

young-levertoffYou may have been a Christian for so long that you’ve forgotten what it was like to be a brand new believer. You may have initially come to faith as a child within the context of a Christian family, so you may never have encountered God without the support of a church and loved ones, just you and Him alone and unfiltered. Taking the Master’s parable as a model, and given all that I’ve just said, you may have never faced nurturing a new and fragile faith that just about anything could blow away if you let it…like when the Adversary comes to take the word back out of your heart, or when you don’t allow the word to take root, or when you let the problems and worries of the world around you distract you and choke your faith to death. The challenge of letting faith and the word grow in good soil is to protect it long enough to become strong.

I suppose that’s one of the advantages I have in coming to faith later in life, although it comes with many disadvantages as well. Faith is something I’ve had to fight for within myself and it remains a struggle, sometimes between me and God.

Therefore, the Jewish people needed to mature and interact with God on their own. This was the purpose of the second phase of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea. In order to bring the Jews to this degree of independence, God directs them on a specific journey…

-Rabbi Rudman

I frequently refer to a life of faith as a journey taken along a path and I think the metaphor serves quite well. I sometimes feel that the first generation out of Egypt were never meant to enter the Holy Land of Israel, and that the trial of slavery in Egypt was just too much for them to overcome on the journey, even though God was with them.

But what was Egypt to them and why would it have left such an indelible brand on its slaves, at least as certain “mystic” viewpoints in Judaism see it today?

Mitzrayim (Egypt) expresses constriction, limitation. The spiritual Egyptian exile is the animal soul’s restricting and concealing the G-dly soul so severely that the G-dly soul is compressed to the degree that it is diminished and obscured. “Exodus from Egypt” is the removal of the constriction and bounds; i.e. the intellect in the brain illuminates the heart, bringing about fine character traits translated into actual practice.

“Today’s Day”
Sunday, Sh’vat 4, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

They had been slaves all their lives, their parents, their grandparents, and all of their people had been slaves in Egypt for almost as long as their collective memory could recall. I sometimes feel as if they existed to prepare their children to inherit the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But I’ll never know, I suppose. That’s just my imagination. I’ll never know if the journey was for the sake of the children who left Egypt and the children who were the first generation of Israelites born in freedom after several hundred years of enthrallment. The journey had a purpose, but it may not have been the one that we think of when we read of the forty years of wandering.

But what about us? It would be an immense tragedy to try to apply the forty years of wandering and the ultimate death of that first generation as a metaphor of us as individual believers. It would mean that the lives of some Christians who don’t quite make it in their faith are only illustrations for the witnesses to their lives. That sounds unfair to them and maybe I’m being unfair to the first generation to leave Israel as well. I don’t know.

But I do know that the journey has a purpose, even when it doesn’t appear that such a purpose exists. Each miracle, each tragedy, each meal of manna, each harsh encounter with Moab or the Amalakites…all of that shaped and molded the journey and shaped and molded the Israelite faith in the presence and purpose of God who was among them.

It is just the same with our journey as well. In reading and re-reading the Torah cycle each year, we are witnesses to the Israelite journey and as witnesses, we can try to learn the lessons their path is teaching us about our own trip through life. As we see their struggle, it is one of human beings contending with God. Can God save them from the latest calamity or must the Israelites take matters into their own hands and return to Egypt? Can Moses and Aaron be trusted to lead the people, or should Korach and his associates take over?

As far as we’re concerned, when difficulties happen to us, who should we trust and what should we do?

Sometimes you see that things have been taken out of your hands and are following a supernatural order. At this point, just do your best at what you have to do—and stay out of G‑d’s way.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Getting Out of the Way”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

WateringThis doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to act on our own behalf or on the behalf of others as circumstances require, but on the other hand, it doesn’t mean we have license to always drive ourselves into each problem as if God doesn’t exist, either. There is a time to act and a time to let God act and have faith that, even though things seem hard or even impossible, He will prevail.

Moses said to the people, “Do not fear. Stand still, and see the salvation of G-d that He will show you today: for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you shall never see them again. G-d will fight for you, and you shall be silent.”

Exodus 14:13-14

Talmud Yerushalmi – Ta’anit 2:5 explains:

  • One group felt they could not win this battle. So rather than be captured alive, they wanted to commit suicide by casting themselves into the sea. To this, the response was “stand still.”
  • Another group of Jews desired to return to Egypt and surrender. To them, the response was, “the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you shall never see them again.”
  • A third group desired to go to battle. But Moses told them, “God will fight for you.”
  • For those who wanted to pray, Moses said, “Be silent.”

I told you midrash would be involved.

Listen to God and do what you are required, as best as you can comprehend, to address your life as it exists each day because it is faith in God that gives us courage to act. This helps us to mature and interact with God on our own. But remember that it is also faith and courage to “stand still” and to “be silent” and let God take care of you as well.

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