[Picture: hard labor in Egypt. The copyright holder in this photo has not been found. Therefore, the use is made under section 27A of the Copyright Law. The main rights holder, please contact: [email protected]]
[For articles in Hebrew on Passover, click here] [For articles on the “Sabbath of Beshalach" in Hebrew, click here]
Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.
Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem.
He is the rabbi of Congregation Shalom Bayit in Bend, Oregon.
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For more than three millennia Jewish tradition has called upon us to imagine ourselves daily as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. Now, imagine for a moment that you were one of the liberated slaves (or of the multitudes of oppressed non-Hebrews who joined them as well). Six days ago, you left Egypt in a monumental and dramatic exit (exodus), but now, on the seventh day, you find yourself again between the hammer and the anvil. Pharaoh's whole army is closing in on you against the turbulent waters of the Sea of Reed.
[Picture: On the seventh day, you find yourself again between the hammer and the anvil. Pharaoh's whole army is closing in on you against the turbulent waters of the Sea of Reed... The copyright holder in this photo has not been found. Therefore, the use is made under section 27A of the Copyright Law. The main rights holder, please contact: [email protected]]
It seems like all hope is gone -- there's nothing that anyone can do to escape either drowning in the sea (with no boats, rafts, or even a bridge to take you across), or be captured and taken back to slavery. Absent these two options you could put up a heroic fight -- after all, ''the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt'' (Exodus 13:18), but ultimately be felled in battle against Egypt's superior military force. Hemmed in by the Pharaoh's state-of-the-art chariots on one side and the raging sea on the other side, four factions are immediately formed.
The first group wept: ''Woe to us, for we are doomed; the only thing left for us to do is to jump into the sea, drown quickly and be done with our misery.'' Spokespersons of the second faction called out: ''Let us peacefully submit ourselves again to slavery. It is better to live even as a slave then to be dead in freedom''. Leaders of the third group said: ''Let's protest to God and petition for divine help.'' The fourth faction called out: ''We will neither plunge into the sea and die, nor will we return to slavery in Egypt. We will pray for God's protection but take action at the same time; indeed, let us 'go forward' (14:15) into the sea en route to the Promised Land.''
[Picture: "Woe to us, for we are doomed..." The image is a screenshot from a video were improved: Pillar of Fire - The Ten Commandments 1956]
To be sure, when Moses merely called upon Heaven for help God chastised him: ''Why do you cry out to Me? [Rather], speak to the Children of Israel, and let-them-march-forward!'' In a nutshell, this is not a time for prayer but a time for self-action that no one can or would take but you. And God continued: ''And you -- hold your staff high, stretch out your hand over the sea and split it, so that the Children of Israel may come through the midst of the sea upon the dry-land'' (vs. 15-16). Why did God need Moses to take this symbolic action when God was going to split the sea anyway? In a nutshell, to manifest that human action is indispensable in shaping one's fate; while God gives you the oars, it is still incumbent on you to use them yourself and row away from the menacing rocks. And so it was, as Jewish lore tells us. Led by Nachshon, the chief of the fourth section, the leader of the tribe of Judah began to advance into the sea.
''The Red (or Reed) sea'', writes Pnina Galpaz-Feller in Exodus -- Reality or Illusion, is wide and deep, it's difficult to cross it by foot, and it's inconceivable that a strong east wind would dry it out. The Bible [that refers 10 times elsewhere to the splitting of the sea] points out that the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reed, a water body where reed grew. The Red Sea is salty, and reed can only grow in non-salty water --- [Rather,] the Sea of Reed that the Israelites crossed was a line of lakes that were separated by hills... with the Israelites crossing as it seems in the passage between the Great Bitter lake and the Small Bitter lake'' (to the east of the Land of Goshen, and north of the Red Sea); thus, as the Torah notes: 'and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left'' (14:22).
[Picture: ''Why do you cry out to Me? [Rather], speak to the Children of Israel, and let-them-march-forward!''... St-Takla.org]
With Nachshon at the helm and his followers right behind the water came up to their ankles, then to their knees, and then to their thighs. Still they kept on treading in deep waters, which came now to their chests and necks. It was only then that God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind, and the waters were divided. And the rest is (biblical) history.
The Bible tells us that ''there's nothing new under the sun''; indeed, we can see that the dilemmas that confronted the Israelites on the shores of the sea (according to this folkloric source) are not dissimilar to the dilemmas some, if not many of us, confront as well at least once in a lifetime -- whether facing a health, marital, career, parental, or another personal dilemma of quo vadis ("Whither goest thou?). At times many of us face hard circumstances that seem insoluble.
Some, like those Israelites who preferred to drown in the sea, chuck it all and opt out of living even as they continue to exist; their wick is spent.
Others opt to remain enslaved for life to their pitiable condition or addiction and do not attempt to change it. Others still continue to cry out to God in lamentation and hope for a heavenly miracle, not of their own doing. Nachshon of the tribe of Judah took action on his own, even as he continued to trust that God might help those who help themselves. In doing so he continued in the tradition of Abram who rescued his captive nephew, Lot, in a daring nightly raid, thus blazing the trail for the Maccabees and the Zionists to do alike by coming themselves to their own rescue.
Friedrich Nietzche, A German intellectual of the 19th Century (See picture on the left), might have summed up the Nachshon mindset saying: ''The one who has for what to live will be able to bear almost any condition of how [to go forward]'' ....
[picture on the left: Friedrich Nietzche. The image is in the public domain]