5769 - #16



            T.J. Taa’nit 2:51 presents a most interesting portrayal of the dynamics within the Jewish People as they were camped beside Yam Suf, with the Egyptians in pursuit. It seems that the nation was divided into four factions. One advocated just jumping into the Sea. The second argued that the nation should just return to Egypt. The third declared that they should go to war against the Egyptians. The fourth called for the people to simply cry out. The gemara then states that included in Moshe Rabbeinu’s statements prior to the splitting of the Sea were specific retorts to each of the factions and their specific desires. The challenge we face, though, is to understand the exact, inherent nature of each of these factions and the associated need for and purpose of Moshe’s responses.

            The Korban HaEida sees within these four groupings one that consists of totally righteous individuals, one that consists of totally evil individuals and two that reflect intermediary outlooks. He contends that the ones that said to jump into the Sea were the totally righteous ones. They had total faith that God would save them as there is nothing that can prevent God from doing so, whether on the land or in the sea. Moshe’s directive to them, hityatzvu,2 to stand still,3 would therefore have to be understood as a direction to them that there would be no need for them to enter the water, perhaps to demonstrate their faith,4 but that they should simply, and passively, watch their salvation. The problem with this approach, though, is that hityatzvu, in the verse, is preceded by a directive not to fear, al ti’ra’u. It would thus seem that the specific faction to whom the word hityatzvu was directed was a faction that was afraid. Torah Temima, Shemot 14:13, note 6, interestingly, understands the nature of the group who were speaking about jumping into the water in precisely this manner, and thus contrary to the way that the Korban HaEida saw them. To the Torah Temima, they were the ones who had given up, almost resigned to the fact that they would be pushed into the Sea. The fact is that such controversy is found concerning the nature of each of the factions that the gemara introduces. The gemara simply defines each faction by the position that each assumed in regard to the Egyptians pursuing them, yet the exact nature of each group’s advocated undertaking is not clearly identified, nor is the value, reason or thought behind each viewpoint clear.

            A clear example of the confusion that is faced in truly identifying the very nature of each of these factions is found in regard to the group that the gemara describes as calling upon the people to cry. For what exactly was this faction demanding in declaring “let us cry.” Korban HaEida and Torah Temima see this group as promoting crying out to God, as, essentially, calling for prayer.6 Torah Shelaima, Shemot 14:13, Note 81,7 however, presents another understanding of the intention in crying out – to confuse the enemy. He further presents the possibility that these two different objectives in crying out may represent two separate sub-groups within the one larger group described as advocating crying. A group may be described as advocating for a specific action, like jumping into the sea, yet the underlying motivation for this action may be diametrically the opposite – one expressing the greatest faith in God while the other is feeling despair. The gemara may further describe a group pursuant to a broad description of their desired course of action, like crying out, yet two individuals may differ regarding the specific nature of the act that each is promoting and its intended purpose. There were four different factions that were formed within the Jewish People as they found themselves confronting the presence of the Reed Sea with the Egyptian chariots approaching. The fact is, though, that these four groupings may actually represent a myriad of differing, personal, individual responses.

            The fact is, though, that this midrash may actually describing four general and broad types of responses that human beings have in a crisis situation. There is the one who retreats such as those who wished to return to Egypt. There are those who, still, simply wish to go forward such as those who wanted to enter the sea. There are, then, those who wish to stand and fight such as those who wished to wage war against the Egyptians, by the sea. Finally, there are those, believing in the unique human power of speech, who look to communication as the answer, such as those who wished to cry. And, while each general category may actually contain many different motivations and specific behaviours, it was towards these general categories that Moshe Rabbeinu was directing his thoughts – a direction that should actually be a guide, as well, for the Jewish People, into the future, regarding our responses to crisis situations. He, first of all, with the words al ti’ra’u, was telling the nation not to act based upon an emotional response. To stand still is a call to think, to contemplate the situation. God did not free them from Egypt to perish, by the Sea, at the hands of the Egyptians. There are times to consider retreat but this is not one of them, for a retreat should only be considered if it can lead to a future climb. There are times to simply go forward, but this cannot be done without first weighing the situation and determining the process. There are times for talk, and obviously for prayer, but there are also times not for communication – and thus Moshe, in this situation, demanded of them to be quiet. There are times to stand and fight, but there are also times to consider other options including, sometimes, standing by as a Greater Force wages the war for you. In seeing the many different ways that the people responded to the crisis at the Sea and in marking Moshe’s words to them, we see the challenge that we must face in our response to crisis. No one answer of action is always correct. We will not always have the fortune of having a Moshe Rabbeinu give us the answer as directed by God, but we still have to determine what is best.

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 See, also, Mechilta, Shelach 2:13.

3 Shemot 14:13.

4 Other works, I have seen, translate hityatzvu as either stand fast or stand ready. The latter translation is most interesting as it reflects the fact that the nation would have to eventually move, walking through the split sea.

5 Note, of course, is taken of the famous midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7 regarding Nachshon ben Aminadav going into the sea and thereby causing it to split. Responding to this issue, though, is beyond the parameters of this Insight. We can, thus, for our purposes perceive this as a disagreement between midrashim.

6 Still, within the words of these two commentators, there seems to be somewhat of a disagreement in regard to the underlying motivation and value in this advocacy.

7 In quoting the Torah Shelaima, it may be of interest to note that he actually presents viewpoints, within the Torah literature, in regard to the nature, ideology and, even, number of the groups into which the nation was divided at this juncture in history. We will, for the purposes of this Insight, still consider only the division as presented in this Yerushalmi.

8 Effectively, a yerida l’tzorech aliyah.

(c) Nishma, 2009

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