Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – We don’t require the magical mystery of a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza production of The Ten Commandments or the dramatic pyrotechnics of the Steven Spielberg depiction of the splitting of the Red (Reed) Sea to marvel in astonishment as the massive waves pugnaciously and punitively buffet and plummet the doomed Egyptians into an icy cold watery grave, then those same waves majestically stand strong and supportive of the marching tribes of Israel, enabling them to find succor and salvation on the dry land between their embracing, protective womb-walls of freedom and security. Israel saw and believed the power of the sight of a supernatural miracle! Now this may well be in consonance with the poetic imagery sung by Moses and the Children of Israel at the time of the splitting of the Red Sea, but it is decidedly not the picture given by the biblical text itself: “Moses extended his hand over the sea, and the Lord caused the sea to progress with a powerful easterly wind all that night and He turned the sea into dry, damp land, and the waters split [receded]. And so the Children of Israel came into the midst of the sea into dry land [just as the tide was going out]” (Ex.14:21, 22).
The Bible continues to record that just at this moment, the Egyptians dived into the receding waters in hot pursuit of the Hebrews: “Egypt pursued and came after them—every horse of Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen—into the midst of the sea” (ibid. 14:23). But the water was receding, and the land beneath was obviously wet. The chariot wheels of the Egyptian horsemen got stuck in the mud and most came off. The great asset of the Egyptian army suddenly became a game-changing liability; the Egyptians were then busy trying to put together their chariots with their severed wheels mired in the mud.
As they see the Hebrews escaping into the “dry land,” they panic, shouting: “I had better flee before Israel, because the Lord is doing battle on their side against Egypt.” By this time the high tide returns; the Egyptians running in the opposite direction to the Hebrews flee right into the menacing waters, which completely cover the horsemen, their chariots and the severed wheels, causing every remnant of Egypt to be drowned. From an Israelite perspective, the waters which receded from them but toppled and drowned their Egyptian enemies had truly served as a wall of protection to the right of them and to the left of them (ibid. 14:23-29). And it is at this point that the Israelites—who have just seen the tides working in their favor to such a magnificent extent—declare their faith in the Lord and in Moses, His servant. Is this not strange? Would they not have been better served had they declared their faith in the natural order of things, in science and oceanography? You will certainly remember the famous contest initiated by Elijah the Prophet during the first commonwealth in the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel between the prophet of the Lord and the prophets of the idol Baal. Each had an altar and a sacrificial bull atop Mount Carmel; whichever sacrifice would be accepted by God—with a fire descending from heaven consuming the sacrifice—would be the representative of the true God. As he fire descends upon Elijah’s sacrifice, all 600,000 people in attendance cry out: “The Lord He is our God.” This is obviously a magnificent miraculous triumph for Elijah (I Kings 18).
In the very next chapter, Elijah goes into the wilderness and begs God to take his soul ‘for I am no better than my forefathers” (ibid. 19:5). The Lord then sends him to Horeb, Mount Sinai, where He first sends him a great and powerful wind, “but the Lord is not in the wind”; after the wind came an earthquake; after the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord is not in the fire; and after the fire a thin silent voice” (ibid. 19:12)—and apparently therein was to be found the Lord. What could this possibly mean? Allow me a modern-day midrash: Elijah left Mount Carmel in ecstasy; he had “proven” God by means of a supernatural miracle, a fire coming down from heaven and consuming his sacrifice. He was up all that night; after all, 600,000 people had witnessed the miracle—all the former Baal followers would be coming to synagogue the next morning, would be standing on line for the daf yomi class, would be switching their children to religious schools. He had to organize rooms, educators, books and supplies! But, alas, the next morning arrived and there were hardly any additional students. The prophet is dismayed and disillusioned. He has no encore to suggest; he failed even after the miraculous fire from heaven.
God explains: It’s not the supernatural extravaganzas, the miraculous events, which bring people to God. After the Six Day War, which was truly a miracle in our time, there was still no mad rush from the Diaspora to come on aliya. Even after God Himself revealed Himself at Sinai, the Hebrews still worshiped the Golden Calf not six weeks after the event.
Indeed, God Himself will always be silent. He operates through human beings, through nature, through science, through the life force and the compassionate goodness with which the world pulsates and which each of us must search for and discover. “Where is God?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe. He is all around us and even within us. We must search for Him and let Him in! If you but believe in him you will see Him. Just allow your eyes to see the return of God to Zion.