Rabbi Sholom Kesselman.
The Jewish people, only seven days after leaving Egypt found themselves in an impossible situation. In front of them was the raging sea and behind them was the advancing Egyptian army. Sensing imminent doom and with nowhere to go they panicked. Thankfully Moshe was there to reassure them and his words spoken with confidence and passion succeeded in restoring calm among the Jews.
(Shemos 14:13-14): “Moses said to the people, don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity. The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.”
The Jerusalem Talmud (Tanit 2:5) explains that the Jewish people at this time were divided into four camps, with each camp suggesting a different solution to their predicament. Moshe’s relatively long speech here was, in actuality, a response to each of their arguments.
The first group argued for mass suicide. They said: “We are better off drowning ourselves at sea then allowing ourselves to be recaptured by the Egyptians. To them Moshe’s response was: “Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation” i.e. stand firm and don’t jump into the sea.
The second group argued for surrender. They wanted to give themselves up to Pharaoh to be returned to Egypt. To them Moshe’s response was: “The way you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.” Specifically, we’re not going back and we’ll never see them again.
The third group argued for battle. They wanted to take on Pharaoh’s army and try to defeat them. To them Moshe’s response was: “The Lord will fight for you,” i.e. we are not going to fight them; leave that for G-d to do.
The fourth group argued for prayer. They wanted to pray to G-d for salvation and not attempt anything on their own. To them Moshe’s response was: “But you shall remain silent,” because now is not even the time for prayer.
What then? If none of these strategies were acceptable to Moshe, what did he want the Jews to do? The answer is given in Shemos (14:15.) “Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.” The Jews were supposed keep moving forward. Not as suicide, rather as a continuation along their path towards receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
In truth, all of these four groups had legitimate and strong arguments and all were firmly based on Torah law, as follows:
Group one: G-d had given the Jews a commandment to leave Egypt and its respective slavery. This commandment could not be violated under any circumstances for the following reason. The law that a person should violate a Mitzva rather than be killed was only introduced after Matan Torah; before then, all commandments had to be observed even to the point of death. This group argued that the only way to avoid being returned to Egypt, a violation of G-d’s command, was by killing themselves and so this became necessary from the standpoint of Halacha.
Group two: They were aware of the commandment to leave Egypt and they were in fact not arguing for surrender. G-d had given them another commandment before leaving Egypt and that was to “empty Egypt of all its wealth.” When they saw the Egyptian army approaching they reasoned that G-d was purposely bringing them back to Egypt because they had in fact not completely emptied it of its wealth. They argued that G-d was sending them back to finish the job and after they did, He would once again redeem them.
Group three: They argued that returning to Egypt even for this reason was too risky because the Egyptians at any moment could decide to re-enslave them. The only sensible option therefore was to fight and trust that G-d would help them be victorious.
Group four: They argued that waging war was too risky as well, as there could be some casualties. Instead they figured they should only pray and leave it all in the hands of G-d.
The story of the Jews by the sea is in reality the story of life. Life is about heading towards “Mount Sinai” – Torah and holiness – and all of us are confronted along the way by the “Egyptians – the temptations and challenges of this world. And as it was then, in life too there are four legitimate approaches to dealing with these “Egyptians”.
One – Mesirat Nefesh: Creating the resolve within yourself that come what may, you will never succumb to the temptations of the world. Your commitment to G-d is so strong that you would rather die before going astray.
Two – Tikkun Ha’olam: This approach calls for getting involved with worldly matters for the sake of elevating them and revealing some holy meaning within them. Even though on the surface the world seems to conflict with G-d, in reality all that G-d made, He made for his glory and it just needs someone to go out there and reveal it.
Three – fight: This approach is to battle against anything worldly and secular. It is too dangerous to attempt to reveal G-dliness within the world because a person can easily go astray while doing so, instead we need to treat it as the enemy and fight it.
Four – seclusion: This approach calls for elevating yourself to a high level of connection to G-d, to the point where the world becomes meaningless to you. You become so spiritual and holy, that the world ceases to be a threat and you don’t care for it at all.
But in the end, all of these approaches were not ideal. The ideal system is one that encompasses both extremes. A person needs to be on the highest spiritual level, where the world is totally meaningless to him, while at the same time living within the world and working to reveal G-dliness within it.
This idea was made possible by Matan Torah, when G-d descended into the world and onto Mount Siani. This gave us the ability to be totally G-dly while at the same time descending into the world to elevate it and reveal G-dliness within it.
This is what Moshe was telling them: “The real approach is not any of these four rather to continue on to Matan Torah.”