“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of
Israel and let them travel’” (Exodus 14:15)
The climax of the Festival of
Passover, the festival’s seventh day, commemorates the splitting of the Re(e)d
Sea, which teaches one of the most important messages of our Exodus from Egypt.
The Hebrews have been traveling in the desert for three days, distancing
themselves from the Egyptians. God then gives a strange commandment to Moses:
“Speak to the Children of Israel and let them turn back; and camp before the
entrance to the Temples of Horus between the Tower and the Sea in front of the
Idol Master of the North, encamping near the sea.”
Apparently, God wanted
Pharaoh to believe that the Hebrews were lost in the desert, thus tempting him
to pursue them and bring them back to slavery in Egypt. This is precisely what
The Hebrews hear the Egyptian hordes – replete with 600 chariots
– approaching from behind them, in front of them lies the Re(e)d Sea.
Hebrews are in turmoil. They seem to be in an impossible situation, devoid of
any meaningful exit plan. Ibn Ezra argues that they certainly could have
assembled an army of hundreds of thousands, but this possibility did not even
occur to them.
Twice within the first nine verses of this chapter, the
Bible identifies the names of their encampment. They are positioned before “Pi
Hahirot,” which we previously identified with the Temple of Horus, but which
could well be translated as “Freedom Way” or “Bay of Freedom” (the Hebrew word
herut means freedom and is closely allied to hirot, which can also be connected
to the Egyptian god Horus). They face the Idol Master of the North.
Bible may well be telling us that these newly freed slaves are standing on the
cusp of freedom, literally between Egyptian enslavement and Jewish
Idolatry as a political philosophy removes the possibility of
meaningful action from the hands of human beings; all they can do is to attempt
to propitiate the gods by bribing them with petty sacrifices into effectuating
whatever they need. Judaism, on the other hand, sees human beings as God’s
chosen partners within the cosmic drama with a mission being to perfect the
world in the Kingship of God.
The Israelites remain strongly influenced
by Egyptian idolatry. The possibility of waging war against their Egyptian
pursuers doesn’t even enter their minds.
The only thing they can do is
cry out to God in prayer, saying, “Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you
had to take us into the desert to die?” Moses also seems to be insufficiently
imbued with the true message of freedom and the necessity of fighting for it
even unto death. He admonishes the nation not to fear, to stand by and watch the
salvation of the Lord: “God will do battle for you; you must merely be
The second half of this chapter – which is divided into two
equal halves – has God chide Moses for his passive advice: “Why are you crying
out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them move on.” Rashi quotes a
midrash which puts the following words into God’s mouth: “This is not the time
for a lengthy prayer, Israel is in such terrible trouble; speak to the Children
of Israel and let them move on.”
What is God telling them to do? If they
jump into the Re(e)d Sea, they will most likely drown. Our Sages tell us that we
dare not rely on miracles; we must always act to the utmost of our
Clearly, God was asking them to demonstrate by their actions
that they understood the value of freedom, and that they were willing to choose
death over enslavement. For to live the life of a slave without the freedom to
direct one’s own destiny was worse than death itself. God was telling them
through Moses that they must jump into the Re(e)d Sea and thereby publicly
declare, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Our Sages teach us that “One
who comes to purify [himself or others], will be helped from on High.” That is
not necessarily guaranteed – we are not to rely on miracles – but it can happen.
In this case, after the first Israelites jumped into the sea, God miraculously
divided it, enabling the Israelites to cross safely but drowning the pursuing
The Jews were only helped, however, when they demonstrated
that liberty was more important to them than life itself.
fascinating to note that the first proposed seal for the United States of
America – which was suggested by Benjamin Franklin – was a pictorial
representation of the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea, the triumphant Israelites,
the drowning Egyptians, and Moses with his arms outstretched over the waters.
The caption beneath reads “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” This
great and universal message is especially important as the world stands by –
mostly indifferent – to the enslaved peoples in Syria as well as in Iran. The
message of Passover must yet be learned.
The writer is the founder and
chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of