Finally, finally - after generations of slavery and hardship, after being mistreated as strangers in a strange land for too many years, the Israelites are set free. Parshat Beshalach is known best for its description of the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds after it is miraculously parted by God. On the other side, the Israelites - led by Moses and Miriam - spontaneously break into song, praising God through the words of Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea. Beshalach is primarily a portion of praise and celebration. Yes there are also the last two sections which describe the process by which B’nei Yisrael complain to Moses about their difficulties and God and Moses provide them with what is missing… but there will be plenty of time to talk about their famous kvetching in later portions.
The typical association of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is as the very last hurdle on the Israelites path from slavery to freedom. We tell the story each year around our Passover tables. But, what is frequently overlooked, is that this crossing was not a foregone conclusion at any point. Every moment leading up to the Israelites taking this final, miraculous step towards freedom was fraught with danger and the potential that perhaps Israel’s emancipation would not come to pass.
Let’s set the scene leading up to the parting of the sea. In the wake of the tenth and most terrible plague, the slaying of the first-born, Pharaoh finally relents and sets the Israelites free. Fearing a change of heart, because Pharaoh had demonstrated this trait several times previously, the Israelites gathered their belongings quickly and set out on their journey led by a pillar of cloud and fire provided by God. Very shortly after they left, Pharoah and his court did, in fact, change their minds. A great army was sent after the Israelites to bring them back to Egypt, to slavery.
The Israelites, camped by the sea, suddenly are overtaken by the army of Egypt and fear quickly fills the camp. As it is written, “greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to GOD.” (Exodus 14:10) While their fear was directed towards God, they turned an entirely different emotion towards Moses: “And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Exodus 14:11-12) The Israelites, frightened to their very core, turn in desperate anger towards Moses. ‘We told you this would happen,’ they are in essence saying, ‘we knew you were leading us to our deaths.’
I try to imagine the noise of the horses and chariots approaching, alongside the shouts and the screams of thousands of frightened Israelites as the soldiers close in on them. These were incredibly fraught moments, full of noise, action, and emotion. In this moment of highest tension and fear, Moses tries to console and encourage his people. He responds in the face of their fearful rebukes: “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance that GOD will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. GOD will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Exodus 14:13-14) While they have all been witnesses to God’s wonders in Egypt, the Israelites still have not internalized the message that the God of their ancestors has answered their cries, has come to their aid, and will fulfill the promises made to their forefathers and renewed to Moses. All the while Moses desperately is trying to hold them together, to keep chaos and disaster from befalling the Israelite camp.
If I put myself in Moses’s shoes and think about what I would need in that moment, I would very much look to God and hope that just as wonders were done for us through Moses’ hand in Egypt, that this would be another moment for divine intervention and deliverance. Instead, God responds in, to my mind, the least encouraging way possible in those terrifying moments. Moses has just finished admonishing the Israelites, reminding them that God will come to their aid when God responds: Then GOD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward…” (Exodus 14:15)
Why do you cry out to me?! That is what God has to offer to Moses as the Israelites are trapped between the chariots of Pharaoh on one side, and the sea on the other? What other recourse do Moses and the Israelites have in that moment? I truly love this verse because, on its surface, it gives the impression that God, just as Moses and Israelites, is caught up in a moment of terror and uncertainty. A first reading gives the impression that, just for a moment, things have not played out entirely according to God’s plan and the Creator of all Things is taken aback.
But, and this for me, friends, is the magic of the Torah, the first reading often does not give us a deeper insight into what God is trying to impress upon us in any given moment. Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, President of Hebrew College, explains beautifully what God was trying to tell Moses through his surprising rebuke:
"God’s response is fascinating. What, precisely, is the nature of the rebuke? I would like to suggest that Moses has misunderstood what the people need; he has misunderstood the relational imperative of the moment. The people’s cry demands not his piety, but his presence. God will indeed part the seas for the children of Israel to pass through. Moses is right about that. Where he is wrong, God’s response suggests, is in his intuition about what the people need to hear. It is as if God is saying: I’ll take care of the sea, Moses. You take care of the people. Tell them to go forward–in other words, don’t tell them that you have faith in Me, tell them that you have faith in them!"
Moses receives, in seven words, a masterclass in leadership. God reminds Moses that yes, God will take care of the wonders, of the miracles, of parting the sea and then closing it once again to stop Pharaoh's army. All of the seemingly impossible, that is God’s domain. But what Moses failed to do in this moment of highest tension was to be present for those who were leading, for failing to see and understand their needs when the moment most demanded it. They do not need Moses to call out to God, they need Moses to be there for them.
Leadership can come in many forms. Much of what is demanded of a certain leader depends on the context in which she or he is called on to lead. But there are a few basic expectations of leaders. One of the most significant we learn here in our Torah portion by the Sea of Reeds: believing in the people you lead.
If this is the model of leadership that the Torah suggests and that I tend to agree is what a leader should strive to be, I look around my Israeli reality and feel incredibly deflated. I look at the elected leaders of this nation and see men (because there are so few women in positions of authority) who do not believe in us, the citizens of this nation. Even in the midst of a terrible war and its myriad consequences, the level of cynicism in their choices is so opaque. Even now they are using their positions to divide rather than unite. The people of this nation have answered the call of the hour - there will be books written about the incredible efforts that everyday citizens have undertaken to provide for their fellow Israelis. People from all walks of life, all ethnic backgrounds, all socioeconomic levels have done truly incredible things on behalf of the nation. And the leadership has not changed even one bit. They continue to prioritize their own political power and that of the narrow publics who elected them. They do not see us, their citizens. They make it very clear, day after day, that they do not believe in us. The clearest way in which they show this is that the entire public is so hungry for some sort of vision, a plan that maps out a road of how we will move forward from these terrible weeks and months. Yet all we get from the leadership is silence.
Once again the Jewish People finds itself trapped between armies beside a raging sea, crying out for our leaders to see us, to believe in us. The great difference between us and the Israelites of yore is that we have the power to change leadership and to choose who fills those roles. Let us pray that we have the wisdom and the strength to demand a different type of leader, one who brings vision for and faith in his people to fore every single day.