Parshat Beshalach: Holding on to Faith and Unity in Times of Crisis

Rabbi Noam and Daphna Hertig are  Straus-Amiel  shlichim in Zurich, Switzerland, where Rabbi Noam is the head rabbi of Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (ICZ).

WhatsApp Image 2023 01 29 at 09.51.45In this week’s Parashah, the Exodus from Egypt reaches its climax with the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. We are all familiar with the happy ending of the story: the Children of Israel pass through the sea on dry land, while the Egyptian army chasing after them drowns in the receding waters. But let us attempt for a moment to put ourselves in the position of the Israelites before the miracle of the splitting of the sea occurred. 

Only a few days after the joyful exodus from Egypt, the Israelites suddenly found themselves once again in a hopeless situation. Pharaoh and his Egyptian soldiers could be seen on the horizon of the Reed Sea and were quickly closing in on them. Cornered on all sides, they now stood – in the truest sense of the word – in Mitzrayim (from metzar – narrowness), with the choice between the “hammer and the anvil”; that is, either to surrender to the Egyptians, and let themselves be slaughtered by them, or to jump into the sea and commit mass suicide.

Deeply disappointed and frightened, Benei Yisrael cried out to Moshe (Shemot 14:11-12): “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?… For it is better for us to serve Egypt than to die in the wilderness!” To which Moshe replied, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which God will work for you today; …God will battle for you and you – be still!” 

Rabbi Josef Zvi Hertz interpreted this statement of Moshe as follows: “This was no time for giving wild expression to fear, but to wait God’s deliverance in quiet confidence.” Only a few days earlier, after the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the people go – but shortly thereafter, when his mind had changed again, every Israelite was now faced with the dilemma: “Whom do I now obey and trust? My former Egyptian slaveholders, or this God who commands me to wait patiently?” In these moments, the Israelites were presented with a most difficult task: were they indeed prepared to completely free themselves mentally from the Egyptians and, despite the hardship, to overcome their fears and doubts in order to trust in God and Moshe? 

Therefore, the greatest miracle in our parashah was neither the splitting of the sea nor the victory over the Egyptians, but rather the very fact that this humiliated slave nation of Israel, was now united in believing in God and in amassing the courage to follow Him. This faith was indeed the condition for the splitting of the sea that took place afterwards and formed the climax and turning point of the entire Exodus story. 

Accordingly, the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (on Hoshea 519) concludes: – “Through the merit of emunah/faith alone were we redeemed from Egypt”. Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk (in Tiferet Shlomo, Sha’ar Tefila) added to this that likewise the future Messianic Redemption will occur – through the merit of emunah/faith together with achdut/unity – as it is written (in the singular and in the future tense): “Az Yashir Moshe Uvenei Yisrael” – “Then Moshe and the children of Israel will sing” (Shemot 15:1) – united and with one voice. 

A big part of what it means to be a Shaliach/Shlicha (emissary) is to empower the communities we serve, inspire them with purpose and fill them with inner strength and faith in themselves. Especially in times of crisis – as we have experienced in the past as well as in the present – holding on to faith and unity is vital. Once this step is achieved it will be much easier to create a sense of purpose and unity for achieving further milestones. May we all – with God’s help – be successful in fulfilling this important task!

Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (Jewish Community of Zürich, ICZ), is Switzerland’s largest Jewish community of about 2’500 members of various backgrounds and religious practice between orthodox, traditional and secular. The community has a Synagogue built in the city center (1884) as well as other Minyanim, two cemeteries and also runs a community center with a kindergarten, Talmud Tora, Mikva, library and various activities. The rabbinate led by Rav Noam Hertig is responsible for various areas: the prayers, Kashrut, Mikva, Beit Din, halachic questions, life cycle events from birth to funerals, teaching Torah, outreach, pastoral care and interfaith-dialogue. 


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