Each year, when we reach Parashat B'shalach, I try to imagine how frightening it must have been for our ancestors to reach the Red Sea and to know that the Egyptian army was closing in on them. Was freedom only an illusion? They must have thought it was a mistake to believe that they could escape from the great Egyptian military power. How foolish they had been to believe Moses who spoke for an invisible God!
We read in Exodus 14:10-12:
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened the Israelites cried out to the Eternal. And they said to Moses, "Was it for the 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 that 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?' "
What was Moses thinking with the Reed Sea in front of them and Pharaoh's army behind them? As a good leader he tried to reassure them.
"But Moses said to the people, Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Eternal will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Eternal will battle for you; you hold your peace!" (Exodus 14:13-14).
God's response is somewhat enigmatic.
"Then the Eternal One said to Moses, 'Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.' " (Exodus 14:15-16).
God seems to be saying do not pray – or perhaps do not whine – just act to save this people. God seems angry that Moses is either lacking in faith or perhaps, more importantly, wisdom. Has Moses learned nothing? As much as God has been present in this Torah portion, and as much as God has seemed to control the situation, the real lesson is that God cannot accomplish God's purpose without human beings. God relies on us to do what is necessary. With all of the power that God demonstrates in this Torah portion, why does God need Moses? The answer seems to be that God requires human initiative.
Judaism, as I understand it, is a religion of activism, not quietism. God does not right the wrongs of society but requires that we do it. If we read the Tanach as Jack Miles did in his book, God: A Biography, we discover that God becomes increasingly remote (see God: A Biography [New York: Random House, 1995], p. 358). God appears less as the one who pulls the puppets strings and more like parents, who have educated their children and now no longer try to control them. This is both exciting and frightening.
God, in effect, says to us study and learn the lessons I have taught you – they are enshrined in the sacred books, the great works of human genius, and the lessons of history. If you assiduously apply yourself with humility and with an understanding that what you do makes a difference, you will know how to act. You must be careful, but do not be frightened.
In our portion, God seems to be instructing Moses to tell the people that before a miracle can happen they must put their feet in the water. No miracles are possible without our willingness to act. The Rabbis understood this very clearly, and therefore they created a midrash on this passage that says when Moses lifted his staff and commanded the sea to split, nothing happened. This, of course, defies the plain sense of the text, which says:
"Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Eternal drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right, and on their left" (Exodus 14:21-22).
The Midrash (B'midbar Rabbah 13:9) continues, stating that the tribes were arguing over who should go first, and only when Nachshon jumped into the water did the sea split. Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), has been interpreted to mean that God will perform miracles for us and save us and save the world, but I believe this is both too simple and misleading a reading. The text says that God's power comes not from miracles produced from on High, but from acts of courage, justice, and compassion below. We are God's sh'lichim (representatives) on the plain of history. If we prefer, we are malachim (angels, divine messengers) who connect earth and heaven, and transform the world. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us: "Ordinary people are messengers of the Most High" (Honey from the Rock, [Woodstock Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, anniversary ed., 2005], p.74). We have the power to change the course of the world. Small actions have transformative power. Every moment is an opportunity for a miracle – we need only be ready to initiate it.
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.