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Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is one of Judaism’s essential and fundamental practices.

Through prayer, we commune with the Creator, affirming our connection, dependency, and gratitude to the Source of all life.

The theurgy of prayer – the metaphysics of how prayer works and what it does – is complex, and in all likelihood, fundamentally unknowable. It’s not obvious how you’d test whether or not prayer works, because the universe is self-evidently a much bigger place than your personal wish list.

What we do know is that at all times and all places throughout our history, the Jewish People have always turned to God in prayer for health, success, and salvation. It is almost universally understood that prayer plays a prominent role in the efforts and energy we must expend to get the outcomes we want – as well as the ones we don’t. 

The crescendo of the Exodus came with the decisive miracle at the Red Sea. The ocean parted, giving the desperate Jewish People safe passage, while simultaneously obliterating their great tormentors in one fell swoop. The Splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most captivating and magical moments in the entire Torah, and prayer plays a prominent role in the build-up:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם  נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־ה – As Pharaoh drew near, the Jewish People caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Jewish People cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

But surprisingly, and quite unlike how we might expect, this prayer is not well received:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Why are you crying out to Me!? Tell the Jewish People to get going!!” (14:15)

With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and everything they own. They have no boats and cannot swim to safety; just over the horizon, there is a hostile force in hot pursuit. By any reasonable standards, they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so they cry out to God for help; we can have no doubt that their fears and tears were deeply real.

What’s more, our sages imagine Heavenly gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are accepted or denied based on factors like circumstances, quality, and timing. The Neila prayer on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to evoke a sense of urgency – quickly squeeze in your final prayers, because the gates are closing! The Gemara concludes that regardless, the gate of tears is always open; presumably, because tears are heartfelt and sincere, and the pain that generates tearful prayers loads them with a potency that Heaven cannot refuse.

If crying to God for help is what you are supposed to do, why did God get annoyed at their prayer?

The imagery of gates in Heaven is powerful and compelling, but it appears to have a fatal flaw. The metaphor doesn’t work for a gate of tears because a gate that never closes is no gate at all!

The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate, because not all tears are equal; some tears are indeed turned away. The gate is shut to crocodile tears – superficial sorrow that is insincere, like when people attempt to use grief to excuse inaction.

In the story of Pinchas, Balak and Bilam successfully schemed to compromise the Jewish People by sending the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men; most young men found the temptation impossible to resist, sparking a devastating plague.

But the Midianite women were not successful at drawing in everyone; some of them were strong enough to resist, and, unsure what to do, they went to the holiest man, their leader Moshe, at the most sacred spot they knew, the Mishkan, to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

These people of moral fiber cried and prayed for help, but that didn’t save the day.

R’ Moshe Sherer highlights how the Torah explicitly credits Pinchas’s assassination of the provocateurs for stopping the plague, and not anyone’s prayers – וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה / הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי.

When something is wrong and we respond only with thoughts and prayers, they are crocodile tears, lip service, pearl-clutching, and window dressing. The pain and tears may be real, but prayers don’t help if your approach to problem-solving is fundamentally broken.

As much as there may be stories of people praying for magical solutions that materialize out of thin air with no human input, the Torah dismisses the notion of thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action.

At the Red Sea, God urges Moshe to have his people quickly get a move on. The Midrash expands this discussion; God rebuked Moshe that it was an inappropriate moment for lengthy prayers – there was danger close, and it was time for decisive action.

Rashi suggests that God was annoyed at the people’s prayer at the sea because they seized their ancestral craft – תָּפְשׂוּ אֻמָּנוּת אֲבוֹתָם. The Maharal explains that prayer isn’t craftsmanship, like carpentry or plumbing. Prayer is supposed to be heartfelt and soulful! But they cried out to God as the last resort of their ancestors; a weak effort that betrayed deep fear and insecurity and the cynical despair of helplessness, that all was lost. It was an inferior, or at least suboptimal prayer, an immature prayer that betrayed a lack of belief, both in God and in themselves, that there was nothing they could do! 

Only they were wrong to think that there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be equally wrong for thinking prayer could ever work in a vacuum.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, they should have believed enough in their prayer to stop praying and get moving, but they were frozen and paralyzed. 

In sharp contrast, our ancestor Yakov prepared to reunite with Esau years after wronging him and meticulously prepared for their meeting. He prepared for peace by sending waves of lavish gifts to Esau; prepared for battle and victory, arming his young family and training them; prepared for defeat and death, dividing his family in two, in the hope that the second camp might escape without Esau ever knowing they existed; and then finally, he prays that God be with him and that his family survives.

As R’ Noach Weinberg highlights, Yakov prepares for peace, victory, and death; which is to say that he did no less than everything possible to prepare for all eventualities before prayer, even though God had already promised to be with him and that his children would inherit the land and his legacy. 

Maybe that’s what our efforts have to look like to give our prayers a hook to latch on to – even when God promises.

God didn’t want their prayers at the Red Sea, because it wasn’t time to pray; it was time to act! But they couldn’t, because they had given up, and were totally consumed with fear. Perhaps that lends enduring power to the legacy of Nachson ben Aminadav, whom the Midrash heralds for clambering into the water when he could not yet know what would happen, because just maybe there was one last thing to try before giving up, finding room for a ray of hope amid the clouds of despair – a hope that drove action.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the biggest challenge to our faith and belief is time; that we give up prematurely.

By wading into the water, Nachshon showed people who thought they had reached the outer limit of what they could do and revealed to them that the boundary was just a little further than they’d thought. They’d stopped at the shore, but he boldly and bravely stepped into the impossible and waded up to his neck, without waiting for instructions, leading by example in the face of uncertainty, the quality of his tribe, Yehuda. And when he did that, he sparked salvation, upending the entire natural order, and the ocean split for all.

Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation at why they cry out – they are parked on the beach, crying; but what exactly do they expect God to do with that?! We can almost hear God begging for something to work with – tell them to get up and get going!

To be sure, we should not judge our ancestors too harshly for being afraid. The fight, flight, or freeze response is hardcoded into our DNA and predates human consciousness; people do tend to freeze when their families are about to get massacred.

But God speaks through them to us, and we should ask ourselves if our own prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go unanswered. We need to audit our lives, soul searching about whether we truly mean our prayers. Does the way you spend your life align with what you claim to want? Does what you pay attention to and devote time to reflect that? We should wonder if God might give us a similarly terrifying answer about what we’re asking God to work with.

If you’re crying crocodile tears, you shouldn’t be surprised that your prayers don’t seem to be working; you may need to confront the reality that your prayers are wildly mediocre.

You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t be meaningful if you don’t give your partner attention. That’s the way the world works; if you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed.

You need to animate your life with action and hope, like our ancestor Yakov, like our hero Pinchas, and invoke the incredible bravery of Nachshon. God desperately wants to shower us with blessings, but we need to build the vessels that will contain those blessings or they have no place to land.

The future is concealed and uncertain; what lies ahead is shrouded in the darkness of the unknowable. But we can illuminate it with bold and decisive actions that brighten each step along the way. And with each step, certainly pray to meet with good fortune and success.

If there’s something you’ve been praying on for a while, stop being a soldier and think like a general – strategize for a moment. Every person who wants something different from their performance than what they’re getting is doing something to perpetuate poor outcomes. Bluntly consider what you could be doing better to make it happen, and do those things.

Miracles do happen, but they start with your level of effort and dedication toward your dreams. Thoughts and prayers are not a substitute for action.

You must believe in a positive outcome enough to invest real effort into making it a reality.

Amalek Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah has lots of laws. Some are fun and easy to understand, like Shabbos, and some are fun and challenging to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are not only difficult to understand but leave us with a sense of moral unease as well.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

On the back of the miraculous Exodus and escape at the Red Sea, the Jewish People were exhausted and weary when a band of raiders called Amalek attacked the stragglers in the group.

Seeing as the Jewish People are the protagonists and our ancestors, we understand that Amalek is the antagonist. But of all the adversaries of Jewish history, Amalek has a unique distinction, sitting in a class of its own. From the earliest Jewish writings, Amalek is the code word for everything that is wrong with the world ideologically.

The story of the Land of Israel is a story of conquest. In many stories, the inhabitants recognize the geopolitical risk and act accordingly, such as Balak, Sichon, and Og. But that’s not how the Torah tells the story of Amalek, who attack not out of self-defense, but because they could, and with great dishonor, by targeting weak stragglers.

By most counts, there are no less than three separate duties incumbent on all Jews as it pertains to Amalek: to remember that Amalek attacked the Jewish People just as they left Egypt; not to forget what they did; and the big one, to eradicate the memory of Amalek from the world.

These laws are serious and are part of the rare category of mitzvos that apply to all people at all times under all circumstances. 

But isn’t it a little unsettling? 

It sounds uncomfortably like a mitzvah to commit genocide, the moral argument against which is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment “do not kill” from God’s voice at Sinai, even more so having suffered a genocide in living memory. Although some people have no trouble understanding it that way, you’re in good company if you find difficulty in a commandment to kill Amalek today.

Long ago, the Gemara dismissed the notion of practicing the straightforward interpretation, pointing to a story in the Prophets where the Assyrian king Sennacherib forcibly displaced and resettled the entire Middle East, eliminating distinct bloodlines of racial descent.

While this elegantly eliminates the problem in a practical sense – there is no problem because the law can no longer apply – the moral issue remains open.

Over centuries, a substantial number of prominent halachic authorities have clarified that the status of Amalek is not racial; that although a tribe called Amalek attacked the Jewish People and formed the context for the law, the law is not and never was an instruction to commit genocide against those people. While the Gemara says that Amalek can never join the Jewish People, it also says that descendants of Amalek taught Torah in Israel, suggesting that their women, or children of women who married out, could lose their identity as Amalek. If Amalek isn’t a race, then there is no law to kill such a particular of people, and there is no moral dilemma.

R’ Chaim Brisker explains that Amalek is not a particular group of humans; it is a conceptual category. It’s an attitude and ideology that transcends any specific race or individual and persists forever, an archetype of evil that we must fundamentally stand against and be on alert for. Writers through the ages have labeled enemies or opposition as Amalek, which, although often lazy, correctly categorizes and formalizes this eternal struggle.

 The perpetrators of the original crime are all dead, and modern society does not believe in the heritability of guilt. But the offense isn’t simply that they physically attacked the Jewish People; as Rashi explains, it’s that they cooled us off along the way while we were weary – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ.

As the Netziv points out, it would be self-defeating and tautological to have an eternal command to destroy something’s memory; the Torah makes that impossible simply by mentioning it.

The Kedushas Levi goes further and suggests that the legacy of Amalek lies in the heart of every person.

We might stop to wonder if perhaps the ideology of Amalek is all around us in the social Darwinist culture we have built ourselves, which is, at its core, a simple application of survival of the fittest behavior.

Sure, the malignant form of Amalek looks like a Haman or a Hitler. But the benign form is all around us, in ourselves and in others. It’s not any particular humans we need to overcome, but their attitude and ideology. The fight against Amalek does not end even though the nation is long gone; its legacy remains, and it’s the legacy that poses a threat.

A Chassidic aphorism observes that Amalek is numerically equivalent to doubt – עמלק / ספק.

In our day-to-day lives, that looks like when you consider doing something bold or different, and someone, perhaps even yourself, pokes holes or second-guesses the new initiative. “I want to try this new idea, but maybe I shouldn’t? What if it’s the wrong choice? Maybe I don’t deserve it?” Or perhaps, “Why start or support that project—aren’t there far more important ones?”

The attack in Rephidim only happens opportunistically when people were caught off guard – רְפִידִים / רפיון ידים.

Anthropologists and psychologists have long observed the phenomenon of crab mentality in some groups. The metaphor derives from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when they are trapped in a bucket – any individual crab could easily escape, but the others will undermine its efforts, ensuring the group’s collective demise. In some groups, members will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others, whether out of envy, resentment, spite, or competitive feeling, to halt their progress. The wrong circles have powerful inertia that draws members towards conformity and mediocrity in a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop.

Letting feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence persist is called impostor syndrome. You can baselessly hold back from doing things that could transform your life because you’re not ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

As the Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, eliminate doubt – הִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק.

If it sounds pithy or trite, just know that that’s quite literally Amalek’s great crime – trying to hold the Jewish People back just as they were beginning to break through, discouraging them just as they were getting started and finding their feet – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ.

It’s not apologetics or mental gymnastics; it neatly fits the words and is something we recognize all around us.

Haters rarely hate you; far more often, they hate themselves because you’re showing them a reflection of what they wish they could be, and they don’t like feeling inadequate.

Shine bright and soar, and forget about the people who tried to hold you back.

Onward

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s stories have captured the awe of audiences for three millennia, and rightly so. 

The Torahs tell us of astonishing moments like The Binding of Isaac, the ultimate test of human commitment with the future in the balance, where Avraham lifts a knife to his son’s neck only for an angel to interrupt him, salvation averting tragedy through transparently divine intervention at the very last.

The Torah tells us of the harrowing crossing at the Red Sea, where the defenseless Jewish People desperately fled their oppressors, with the most advanced and formidable army in the world in hot pursuit. In a defining moment that upends the entire natural order of our universe, Moshe holds out his staff, and God parts the waters for the Jewish People to walk across the dry ocean floor. The Egyptian army attempts to follow, but once Moshe’s people have crossed safely, the sea suddenly reverts back to it’s normal state, and the Egyptians are drowned. 

The Torah tells us of the theophany at Sinai, where the people gathered at a mountain enveloped in cloud and smoke, quaking, with fire and lightning flashing overhead, amid the sound of booming thunder and shofar blasts; and then the Jewish People hear the voice of God through the uproar.

These are some of the defining stories of our history and exhibit the dizzying heights of the supernatural. They showcase what is fundamentally magical about the Torah.

But despite the power of these moments to captivate us, the Torah doesn’t indulge us by dwelling on them even a little. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, the Binding of Isaac is behind us, the Red Sea is old news, Sinai is history, and it’s time to move onward:

וַיָּשׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו – Avraham returned to his stewards, and they got up and left together… (22:19)

וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף, וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל-מִדְבַּר-שׁוּר; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת-יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא-מָצְאוּ מָיִם – Moshe and the Children of Israel set out from the Red Sea. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. (15:22)

רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – You have stayed long enough at this mountain. (1:6)

We have these distinctly unique stories of the Divine manifested in our universe, and then the Torah just moves briskly onward – וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ / וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף / רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם.

The Torah does not dwell in the magical moments, and the starkness of the almost dismissive continuity is jarring; and there is a vital lesson here. It suggests that even after the greatest of heights, the most momentous achievements, and the most incredible successes, the Torah simply notes that once you get there, you can’t stay long, and before you know it, it’s time to continue the journey and move onward.

Onward is an interesting word – positive and proactive, meaning going further rather than coming to an end or halt; moving in a forward direction. As the Izhbitzer explains, part of growth is moving on and walking away from the place you once stood. We can’t stay because the moment is gone – it’s gone in time, irretrievably behind us, and it’s our responsibility to realize that distance in mental and physical space too.

It’s true to life as well; the world will not dwell in your magical moments. Whether you ace the test, get the girl, close the deal, buy the house, sell the business, have the baby, or whatever the great achievement is; it’s still Tuesday, you’re still you, you still have deadlines, you still have to get into better shape, your siblings still get on your nerves, and your credit card bill is still due. And so, by necessity, there comes a time to move onward.

In the boring and dull moments, we may well find ourselves thirsty with nothing to drink. But this, too, as the Izhbitzer teaches, is part of the process of growth. Eventually, those bitter waters can transform into a sweet oasis, and what appeared to be downtime is integrated into the journey forward.

Even the Golden Calf story has redeeming elements; apart from the important teaching that using iconography to worship the One God is still idolatry, it decisively demonstrates God’s predisposition for forgiveness and paves the way to the Mishkan and all the resultant forms of interacting with the Divine.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that what got you to where you are will fuel you on to further heights; that energy does not simply overflow into everything else. Success is not final, and failure is not fatal; the proper response to both is the same – onward.

This lesson is challenging enough, but the Izhbitzer takes us further and forewarns us that what follows the heights of success is rarely smooth and straightforward lulls and plateaus of accumulation and consolidation to catch our breath; we can often expect an inverse experience in short order. All too often, great heights are followed by sharp declines and drawdowns, troughs and valleys; Avraham gets home to find his wife has died; the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea is directly followed by the people’s complaints about the local water being too bitter, and the people worship a Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai itself.

Quite arguably, a failure to move on was the mistake at the heart of the debacle of the scouting mission to Israel – the spies just wanted to stay put in the safety of God’s embrace in the desert. They weren’t wrong; the road ahead was fraught with danger! But that’s not how the world works; stagnation is not God’s design for us or the universe – life must change, move, and evolve. Staying put and stagnating is what’s unnatural.

The Torah is a guide to life – תורת חיים – and one of the defining features of living things is motility – they move independently. We shouldn’t be so shocked by the ebbs and flows of life itself, moving and changing, with concomitant ups and downs. When living things don’t move, they quickly atrophy, stagnate, wither, and before long, they die. Living things must move and push to grow healthy and strong. You can fall down and run out of breath plenty of times along the way, but that’s part of it, so long as you, eventually, get back up and keep moving onward.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, if you look at stock market performance over a century, the zoomed-out time frame looks like a smooth and steady incline; and yet, when you zoom in to years, months, weeks, days, and hours, the amount of choppiness and volatility increases. On an extended time frame, each individual part matters less. The bouncing highs and lows blend into a smooth line that only goes one way – onwards and upwards. 

The past is not gone or forgotten; it forms the basis and foundations of today.

Although we can’t dwell in the moments of achievement, perhaps there is a part we can carry in our hearts and minds.

And as we go, it comes with us, ever onward.

Face the Facts

3 minute read
Straightforward

When something big and life-changing happens, you might think it’s obvious that you notice and act accordingly. But that’s not always the case.

As far as big and life-changing happenings go, the Revelation at Sinai ought to be up there. God came down to Earth to give humans the Torah! We might expect the beginning of humanity’s journey with the Torah to be full of eager excitement, or perhaps at least a somber sense of purpose and responsibility. But that’s not what happens.

The very first excursion away from Sinai winds up in catastrophe; the people bitterly complain about their miserable life in the desert. They seem to have forgotten all about the genocide and slavery, and this is a fine example of the slave mentality they could never seem to shake. They fondly reminisce about the good old days of Egypt, when they enjoyed abundant fish, cucumbers, garlic, onion, leeks, and juicy melons. Now they’re stuck eating manna from Heaven, fed daily by no less than God Himself, but after experiencing the culinary delights Egypt had to offer, this was bland and boring. They clamor for more enjoyable food and demand some tasty meat, and subsequently, a plague ensues with many casualties.

While the story unfolds in its way, Rashi suggests that it was the manner of their departure from Sinai that cultivated their craving for meat:

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה’ דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים – They marched from the mountain of God a distance of three days…. (10:33)

Our Sages compare their attitude to a child running out of school; that they couldn’t wait to put God’s mountain behind them, figuratively as well as literally. What if God imposed even more laws?! As the Ramban notes, it’s not just they traveled a physical distance; it’s that they traveled away mentally and spiritually from the mountain and all it meant – ‘וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה.

The Chasam Sofer notes that the causation must work both ways; if a poor attitude had fueled their craving for meat, then intuitively, the inverse lesson must be true too, that if they had solemnly carried the Torah and lived up to their responsibilities, then they never could have contemplated that God’s cuisine was lousy!

But instead, they ran from destiny.

Rather than act like people who had witnessed Sinai, they acted like people who had not, simple folk with simple wants and needs, because who doesn’t enjoy a good steak now and then?

But as the story shows, that shouldn’t be what satisfies us; that shouldn’t be the thing we crave and desire first and foremost. Did they want fresh meat because that’s just what humans like, or was it the result of their unwillingness to face the fact of Sinai and rise to its challenge? They might have believed the former, but our Sages believe the latter.

Our Sages labeled their mentality as childish; a child lacks the discipline, experience, maturity, and wisdom to do the hard things they need to but don’t want to. A child is not yet ready to grapple with life’s challenges.

Only they weren’t children.

While we can knowingly sigh at such an obvious error, the Torah is a mirror that tells us who we are, that God can speak to humans, and we will run away. Destiny can call, with the highest and most sacred purpose the universe has to offer, and we will procrastinate with all kinds of creative escapism, avoiding responsibility by indulging ourselves with trivial nonsense.

Consider for just a moment what you might be avoiding, failing to recognize, or running away from. At its core, avoidance is an emotion management problem. That feeling you get when there is something you keep kicking down the road? That’s a signal.

Something big happened to them, and they ignored it and tried to leave it behind. But life comes at you one way or another, so you’ve got to take it all with you and incorporate it into your being. The stakes are too high – we can’t afford to be childish, and we can’t run from who we are.

There are lots of big and scary things we have to do, and we must cultivate the maturity to rise to the challenge.

As Kierkegaard said, face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.

The Universal and the Particular

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus story is long and complex, with many different stages. The Ten Plagues took place over the course of a year or so, but it wouldn’t have been any less cool or impressive to rescue the Jewish People in the space of a day. The theatre of a long and drawn-out Ten Plagues is deliberate then, rather than miraculously magic the Jewish People out or flatten Egypt instantly.

Why did God take His time saving the Jewish People?

If the goal is to save the Jewish People, then the question is a great question; God should have done it as quickly and efficiently as possible!

The story plainly states that saving the Jewish People was not God’s only priority, that God had other goals as well. Among others, the Torah states that as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God, Egypt must come to understand this as well – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה. Beyond simple comeuppance or karma, more than punishment or vengeance for centuries of oppression, God deems it independently necessary for Egypt to recognize the One God.

When the vanquished Egyptian army drifted in the waves of the Red Sea, the Jews celebrated, and the Midrash imagines how the angels in Heaven attempted to applaud the great salvation as well, but God would not tolerate it- “Shall angels sing while My creations drown?!”

Quite obviously, God’s analysis fundamentally differs from ours – כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם.

The conclusion of the book of Jonah carries a similar sentiment, where God admonishes Jonah for caring about his narrow corner of the world without caring for a metropolis full of people and animals simply because they aren’t his countrymen:

וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ־בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע בֵּין־יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה – “Should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who don’t yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?!”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that one of our liturgy’s sharpest prayers about Gentiles, the request at the Seder for God to pour out His wrath on them over our exile – שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם – is qualified with the caveat of those who do not recognize God – אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ. 

From its earliest moments and consistently throughout, God’s goal has never been to save the Jewish People to the exclusion of greater humanity. The Torah’s utopian vision for the world has consistently been a universal one where all humans recognize God – בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּים / וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָׂר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ / וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ.

While the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers have certainly taken outreach to its furthest conceivable limits, it is worth dwelling on the principle. The Torah is not a pathway to personal joy and reward just for Jews; the Gemara and the Rambam emphatically affirm that Gentiles go to the same places we do when we die.

God doesn’t whisk the Jewish People out of Egypt and into freedom in an instant because that is not what God wants from our universe.

We would do well to remember that as much as our people have a sacred mission, the rest of the world matters and serves God’s purposes too, just in a different way.

You are Worthy

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus is an orienting event for the Jewish People, a founding moment in our history, with a daily duty to recall it. It’s the first thing God has to say to humans at Sinai; God introduces Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and an astounding amount of our daily blessings, mitzvos, and prayers commemorate the Exodus – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is ubiquitous to the extent we could miss the point entirely.

What do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that govern the systems built upon them.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite. 

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!” The Haggadah admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!

When even Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is often framed as a point of pride, but the point would seem to be that apart from these narrow and limited practices, they were otherwise indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other conceivable way!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s strong outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, whenever God is characterized with strength, it indicates God doing something that is undeserved. God does not require more incremental strength to move a grape than a galaxy; but God can force compassion to overwhelm what justice requires – גּוֹאֵל וחָזָק אָתָּה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whatever they have done and whoever they have become. Our God initiates the great Exodus before the Jewish People ever take a single step of their own to be better – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

Take this lesson to heart; it’s one of the vanishingly few that the Torah specifically asks us to remember at all times – לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.

And it’s clear why.

You don’t need to remember the simple historical events of the Exodus; you have to remind yourself that every single last human is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

This Cannot Be How It Ends

3 minute read
Straightforward

As the Exodus reaches its crescendo, the Jews are cornered. They make it to the shores of the ocean, wading in the reeds, the open sea in front of them, a cloud of the onrushing Egyptian army on the horizon. Trapped, the people despair.

Yet before God talks to Moshe, Moshe already knows how to proceed:

אַל-תִּירָאוּ–הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת ה’, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם – “Do not be afraid! Stand and wait, and you’ll see God’s salvation…” (14:13)

At this juncture, the Torah does not record a discussion where God preps Moshe or gives him a heads up about what to to do. Moshe seems to know what to do based solely on his intuition.

But how could he know?

After the Jewish People are saved, they sing the Song of the Sea. Curiously, the Torah separately records how Miriam led a separate rendition of gratitude, and the Jewish women follow her. It’s curious because it seems to indicate that the Song of the Sea was not enough, that her activity was something separate, over and above what everyone else did, and it’s curious because the Torah identifies her in a highly unusual way:

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם … – Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aron, took an instrument in her hand, and led the women with instruments and dancing. And she sang to them… (15:21)

She needs no introduction; we know exactly who she is. The specific identifications, the prophetess, sister of Ahron, are odd – הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן. She was also sister to Moshe, and what of her capacity as a prophetess? וַתַּעַן לָהֶם suggests she was responding – but to what?

Sensitive to these irregularities, Rashi suggests that the Torah is alluding to the prophecy she channeled when she was Ahron’s sister, and not yet Moshe’s; the prophecy of Moshe’s birth.

In the months preceding Moshe’s birth, already foreseen by Pharaoh, he launched a campaign of infanticide against Jewish boys. The Midrash records how Amram and Yocheved, the Jewish leadership of that time, had separated, so as not to suffer this terrible fate. Miriam experienced this prophecy and persuaded them to get back together by saying that they were worse than the decree itself, as they were preventing the birth of girls too.

When Yocheved fell pregnant, the Egyptian government kept tabs on her – but Moshe was born early. When he was born, the Torah describes his appearance as brilliant – וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא – which the Midrash suggests is the same brilliance as the light of Creation – כִּי-טוֹב  – and the entire house shone.

But in spite of such an auspicious sign, the moment came where she could hide him no longer – וְלֹא-יָכְלָה עוֹד, הַצְּפִינוֹ. After three more months, which would have been a full-term pregnancy, the Egyptians came for her to inspect the child she was due to give birth to. She knew she had to abandon the child prophesied by her daughter. She placed the boy into a basket and placed him in the river. The Torah implies she could not bear to watch – and who could? What chances would one give a child in a box in a crocodile infested river, in the Egyptian heat, with an army looking for him no less:

וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק, לְדֵעָה, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ – Miriam stood and waited from afar, to know what would be of him…(2:4)

The emphasis is on Miriam; Miriam stayed when Yocheved could not. She had not experienced a new prophecy, and she was only a child herself. Perhaps, holding on to her prophecy, one thought guided her, that this cannot be how it ends. And she was vindicated!

The daughter of the Jewish People’s oppressors showed up, which would ordinarily be the absolute worst thing that could happen, but in a stunning reversal, she displays compassion for the boy and takes him in; ultimate victory seized from the clutches of total defeat.

As R’ David Fohrman explains, years later, Moshe knew what to tell the Jews at the shore of the Red Sea, because this had happened before; it was the same story!

Jew cornered by Egyptian among the reeds, at the water’s lips, all hope fading. So this could not be how it ends! Moshe had been in this exact situation before; so he understood to tell them to watch what happens.

Once they were safe, so many years after her prophecy, Moshe had finally saved their people, and it is Miriam’s celebration more than anyone else’s because this is the ultimate fulfillment of her prophecy – the promised child has saved their people from Egypt for good.

You probably haven’t experienced prophecy of salvation. But all the same, in the bleak moments that look like all is lost, you can invoke the power of Miriam, and hold on just a little longer.

This cannot be how it ends.

Faith And Salvation

2 minute read
Straightforward

As the newly liberated Jews flee Egypt, their former captors gave chase:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל ה – Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and Egyptians were pursuing them. They were terrified, and they cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

Although the Torah clearly intends to mean that he drew near i.e. that he and his army approached, it doesn’t actually say that at all. It says הקריב – a word used for sacrifices, meaning “he brought near”. The Medrash says that Pharaoh was indeed מקריב – what he “brought near” was the Jews, closer to Hashem.

Why does the Torah attribute such credit Pharoah and what is it he did which deserved such high recognition?

There is a Midrash that teaches that prior to the Jews leaving Egypt, there was a debate in Heaven as to whether they should be allowed to leave. The prosecution and defense, the Kategor and Sanegor, would keep going in circles; “The Egyptians worship idols,” was countered with “So do the Jews!” – no redeeming quality could be found in the Jews favour.

The decisive factor in allowing their departure to occur was the faith placed in Hashem through deciding to follow Moshe.

Egypt recognised that their departure would be a massive loss and pursued them. Suddenly, the Jews faith evaporated:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם – They said to Moshe, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you have done by taking us out of Egypt!?” (14:11)

Their attachment to Moshe was severed, their faith gone. They cried out to Hashem but didn’t mean it – the entire episode demonstrates a lack of belief in God’s providence.

Moshe prays for assistance, and Hashem replies: מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי – What are you crying out to me for? Now is a time for action! This is וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב – Pharaoh brought the Jews close to Hashem; but to the exclusion of Moshe from the equation. It is no praise at all.

So Hashem responds:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – The Lord said to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go!”. (14:15)

Their salvation was not going to be based on Moshe’s prayers, or theirs, as that wasn’t the problem.

Moshe’s authority had to be re-established, so Hashem gave him the solution: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעו – their salvation would be as it was on leaving Egypt – through displaying faith their leader.

As the Pasuk says upon their entering the Red Sea: וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ – They believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe. (14:31).

Appreciating Nature

2 minute read
Straightforward

The splitting of the Red Sea is rightly lauded as one of the most incredible miracles of all time. Each element is incredible; the magnitude of the miracle; the upending of the entire natural order; in just the nick of time; helping them not only escape, but vanquishing the entire enemy force; in one fell swoop, all come together for one of the most memorable stories in our pantheon.

The miracle itself had two distinct components, where Moshe activated parting of the waters, and then again when he deactivated them and restored their natural state:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה אֶת יָדְךָ עַל הַיָּם וְיָשֻׁבוּ הַמַּיִם עַל מִצְרַיִם עַל רִכְבּוֹ וְעַל פָּרָשָׁיו – Hashem said to Moshe; “Stretch your hand over the sea, and the water will crash back onto the Egyptians, their chariots, and their horseriders.” (14:26)

We’re talking about miracles here, so we’re deep in the uncharted realm of speculation. But in a sense, we might think it quite logical to require Moshe to do something to activate the miracle to split the waters. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Moshe would have to do something to end the miracle and restore the natural order. We might reasonably expect that once the last straggler made it to safety, the miracle was no longer necessary, and it would return to its default natural state.

But God required Moshe to activate the return of the natural order as well. Why didn’t the miracle end by itself?

R’ Shimshon Pinkus observes that this suggests an essential lesson, that from God’s vantage point, nature and miracle are the same, and there is no default condition; that Moshe wasn’t deactivating a miracle, merely activating another miracle, that natural order we take for granted.

If it sounds a little overly credulous, Jewish tradition has endorsed our cosmic wonder at natural phenomena for centuries, with blessings over the waxing moon, first blossoms of spring, the configuration of the starry expanse, and the sweet smell of flowers, down to the food we eat, the healthy body, and something as simple as going to the bathroom.

Don’t take any of it for granted.