Traveling in Tanzania on safari, my husband pointed excitedly to a gazelle bending down in the tall grass. After a moment, I realized why he was so excited – the gazelle was standing over a wet, furry ball: a baby gazelle. Newborn gazelles are on their feet within a few days, but this calf was only hours old, still wet with amniotic fluid, and not yet able to stand on its spindly legs. The mother stood over her tiny treasure, nestling the baby in the grass. Enchanted, we watched the sweet scene for a few minutes. It was right out of a picture book.
But suddenly to our surprise, the mother stood up – and contrary to all expectations of maternal instinct – leapt away, bounding off across the grass.
We were horrified. The mother continued running until she was halfway across the savannah. "Was there something wrong with the baby?" we asked our safari guide. "Did she abandon it because it is sick and will not survive?"
No, our guide reassured us, the newborn gazelle was healthy. "The mother is moving away as way of protecting him," he explained. "By himself, the calf is very well camouflaged in the grass. Predators will have a hard time seeing him. But if the mother were to stand next to him, they would see her, and then would be more likely to notice the defenseless baby next to her. This way, any predators will see her, not the calf, and she can distract them should they come too close to where the calf is hiding."
Sure enough, we looked at the mother in the distance. She was not eating, not moving, but standing sentry, protecting by keeping her distance.
In this week's Torah portion, B'shalach, our ancestors experience a similar moment of protection that must have seemed at first like a moment of abandonment.
The Israelites, newly escaped from Egypt, not yet across the Red Sea, have been led by God's Presence. As the Torah describes: "The Eternal went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, . . . the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people" (Exodus 13:21-22). All is well. The Israelites are journeying on their way defiantly, with no concern for the Pharaoh who had so long held them captive (see Rashbam on Exodus 14:8).
But then, in that infamous twist of the plot, Pharaoh has a change of heart, and he orders his army to chase down his freed slaves. When the Israelites catch sight of Pharaoh's chariots approaching, they are terrified. Surely, they will die here in the desert. Behind them is the approaching Egyptian army, in front of them, the sea. "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?!" they exclaim to Moses (Exodus 14:11).
Part of their terror must have come from the fact that just as their enemy is approaching, just as they are trapped between chariots and the sea, their protector seems to have abandoned them. God commands them to "go forward" (Exodus 14:15), but God is no longer leading the way. The pillar that represents God's Presence has moved; it is no longer in front of the Israelites (Exodus 14:19).1 Suddenly, just when they are at their most vulnerable, they also feel utterly alone.
Fear must have seized the Israelites' hearts in that instant, and with good reason. The Rabbis discussed how the fate of the Israelites seemed to hang in the balance when the pillar left the front of the camp. Would they be saved or would they be destroyed by the Egyptian army? In M'chilta D'Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai we read:
R. Natan asked R. Shimon b. Yohai, "Why in every instance is it written in Scripture 'angel of the Lord' but here it is written 'angel of God?' " He said to him [in response], "[The word] 'God' in every instance means only 'judge.' For at that moment the Israelites were [being judged] whether they would win or lose to the Egyptians."2
The midrash observes that the Torah uses various names for God in these passages: When the pillars of cloud and fire precede the people in Exodus 13:21, God is called the Eternal (YHVH). When the pillar of cloud moved behind them in Exodus 14:19, God is called Elohim which, Rabbi Shimon notes, is a name of God associated with the divine quality of judgment. By switching to this Divine Name, he suggests, the Torah, is hinting at a moment of judgment.
In that moment, it may have seemed to the frightened Israelites that time froze – but only for a moment. Soon, God's plan becomes apparent; the pillar has not disappeared, but has placed itself behind the Israelite camp, acting as a buffer to protect the Israelites from the Egyptian army. God has not abandoned them, but is protecting them from the rear.
In our own lives, I wonder if we always have the courage and the foresight to care for those we love in this way. Sleep training a baby means letting him cry and not being able to soothe him. Helping a teenager become a safe driver means letting her take the wheel, even when we're not in the passenger seat next to her: helping her become an adult means sometimes allowing her to fail. But these are rules that we can more easily apply to other people's children, I think, even when we know them to be true.
As for the baby gazelle, the miracle of evolutionary instinct will enable him to stand up on his own legs in a couple days while his mother watches from a safe distance. When we have to take a leap of faith alone, sometimes that's when miracles happen.
"Go forward!" God commands, and we do, even though we are terrified. "Go forward," God commands, and we do, even though there is no one leading the way. "Go forward!" God commands – and when we do, the sea splits before us.
See the commentary of Abraham Ibn Ezra on Exodus 14:19 for an explanation of the order of the events in the narrative.
W. David Nelson, trans. and annot., Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, Beshallah 24:2 (Philadelphia: JPS, 2006), p. 104