“Why Israel Lost Faith at the Red Sea”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we read of the rescue of the Israelites at the hand of G-d, from their enslavement in Egypt.

After the tenth and final plague–the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh finally relents, and allows the enslaved people of Israel to leave his land. However, when Pharaoh learns that the Israelites had actually fled Egypt, he regrets having released them. He personally harnesses his own chariot, and, in addition to six hundred choice Egyptian chariots, mobilizes all the chariots of Egypt, with officers on them all, to chase after the departed people.

The Egyptians overtake the Israelites at the Red Sea, where they are now encamped. Scripture, in Exodus 14:10, states: “Oo’Pharaoh hik’reev, va’yis’oo v’nay Yisrael eht ay’nay’hem, v’hee’nay Mitz’ra’yim no’say’ah ah’cha’ray’hem, va’yir’oo m’od, v’yitz’ah’koo v’nay Yisrael el Hashem,” and Pharaoh approached, and the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold!–Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened and the Children of Israel cried out to G-d.

Immediately following, in Exodus 14:11, the Torah reports the nature of the peoples’ cry: “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness?…It is better that we should serve Egypt, than we should die in the Wilderness!”

One thing about these Jews, they really knew how to say things in a most hurtful way!

The Ibn Ezra wonders why six hundred thousand men could not stand up and confront the Egyptians. He suggests that because the people of Israel had, from their youth, learned to fear Egypt, they were unable to confront their masters. This explains why the people, who are described in Exodus 14:8, as leaving Egypt, “B’yad rah’mah,” with an upraised and defiant arm, were now so helpless and frightened.

The Ha’amek Davar explains, that as long as the Egyptians troops were far behind and out of sight, the Israelites were not fearful. But now that the people actually saw the Egyptian forces rapidly approaching, they were thoroughly intimidated.

Rashi notes that the Biblical verse in Exodus 14:10, describing the Egyptian forces pursuing the Israelites, uses the Hebrew singular, “no’say’ah,” (traveling). Drawing on this grammatical anomaly, Rashi concludes that the Egyptians pursued the Israelites with “one heart as one man,” united in their enmity and bonded by their hatred of Israel. The commentaries also note that the Biblical text uses the singular, “rechev” in Exodus 14:7 when referring to many Egyptian chariots, and the singular, “sus” in Exodus 14:9, for many Egyptian horses, again underscoring the unity of the Egyptians.

All of this, unfortunately, sounds so contemporary–the enemies of the Jews, who are themselves full of hatred for one another, suddenly unite in their common contempt and hatred for Israel.

The May’am Lo’ez suggests another reason to account for why the Israelites lost their faith so quickly and seemed to have forgotten the miracles and the wonders that G-d had performed in Egypt. The May’am Lo’ez asserts that the Israelites had mistakenly concluded that all the miracles that G-d had performed in Egypt, were not in the people’s merit, but rather, because Pharaoh had offended G-d, by saying (Exodus 5:2), “I do not know who G-d is!” Consequently, Israel believed that they were now bereft of Divine protection. They, therefore, cried out in desperation to Moses, saying, “What did you do to us? Now the Egyptians will come and avenge us for all that we did to them–killing their firstborn and taking their property.

The Midrash maintains, that while the Egyptians were united in their enmity, the Jews on the other hand, could not agree on a common response to the imminent Egyptian attack. One group, certain that the merciful G-d would come to their aid, decided that it was preferable to march forward and jump into the sea, rather than fall into the hands of the Egyptians. A second group, wanted to return to Egypt, saying that it was preferable to remain enslaved, than to die at the hands of the Egyptians. A third group was prepared to battle the enemy at whatever cost. The fourth group suggested that the people of Israel could frighten away the Egyptians with their mighty cries and passionate prayers. Only the truly wicked were brazen enough to say: “Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you took us to the Wilderness?”

The great Baal Shem Tov finds a profound message in the behavior of the ancient Israelites. Often in life, says the Baal Shem Tov, we think that we can escape our problems by running away, only to find that our problems are running after us.

The bottom line is that Jews must always have faith. But, faith alone is not enough. G-d must do what He needs to do, and we, His people, must do what is necessary for us to do.

May you be blessed.

Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees, will be celebrated this year on Friday night and Saturday, January 25th and 26th, 2013. In Israel, it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to celebrate by eating those species of fruit that are specifically identified with the land of Israel.