Parasha: Hol Hamoed Pessah: The sound of silence

After the intermediate days of Passover, the last day of the festival is dedicated to the splitting of the Red Sea, one of the most cataclysmic events in biblical history.

parting red sea 88 (photo credit: )
parting red sea 88
(photo credit: )
"The Lord will do battle for you and you shall be silent" - (Exodus 14:14). After the intermediate days of Passover (hol hamoed Pessah), the last day of the festival is dedicated to the splitting of the Red Sea, one of the most cataclysmic events in biblical history. The Israelites have left Egypt and believe they are "home free," but the Egyptians change their mind and give chase. The freed slaves - with the Egyptians behind them and the Reed Sea in front - panic, and in their fear cry out to Moses: "Are there then no graves in Egypt, that you have taken us out to die in the desert?!" (Exodus 14:11). Moses attempts to comfort the people, exhorting them not to fear but rather to watch for Divine salvation: "The Lord will do battle for you, and you shall be silent" (Exodus 14:14). But is this indeed the message of the Exodus? Does the Almighty expect us to stand quietly by in times of danger, simply waiting for Him to pluck us from the flames? Is such silence consistent with Jewish history, and especially with the six decades following the Holocaust? Where would the Jews be today had we not fought battle after battle for the Jewish state? Indeed, the classic Hassidic interpreters have turned the verse we've just cited on its head by providing an alternate interpretation: "The Lord will provide you with bread (the Hebrew yilahem can mean to do battle, but can also mean to provide bread, from the Hebrew lehem; most wars are, after all, fought over bread or other material gain), but you must plow (heresh can mean either to be silent or to plow)." This reading is the true meaning of this dramatic miracle. Yes, Moses expected God to act, and counseled the Israelites to silently await the manifestation of His hand. But that is not the message that God conveys in the next verse: "And God said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them move forward'" (Exodus 14:15). God is ready to allow a miracle, but not before the Israelites prove themselves by putting their lives on the line; before God does anything, the Israelites must jump into the raging sea. It is only after "the children of Israel have entered into the midst of the sea" - despite its inherent dangers - that the waters will miraculously part and the Israelites will find themselves "on dry land" (Exodus 14:16). Rashi even goes as far as saying in God's name: "This is not the time to engage in long prayer." From God's point of view, prayer must be coupled with action. I believe there is yet another interpretation of Moses' statement that God will do battle while the people remain silent. Perhaps Moses understood very well that although the ultimate victor is the Almighty - "The Lord is a Being of battle, the Lord is His name" (Exodus 15:3) - God battles alongside the Israelites; the Israelites must wage the war themselves. The Jews were later afraid to take on the seven nations already inhabiting Canaan, so God did not make war either. It was only in the case of Amalek and then later in the time of Joshua that Israel fought - and then God fought with them and led them to victory. However, every war is a tragedy, because the fallout is the cruel and untimely death of the best and brightest. Yes, we won the wars against Amalek, just as we won the wars in conquest of Israel 4,000 years ago. We also won our recent wars of self-defense after 2,000 years of exile. But despite these miraculous victories, we suffered unspeakable losses. In 1952 I was privileged to pray in the Beth Moses Hospital, which had been taken over by those Kloizenberger Hassidim who had survived the Holocaust. That was the first Sabbath circumcision the Hassidim had experienced since arriving in America. The Rebbe, who himself had suffered the loss of his wife and 13 children, rose to speak. "'And I see that you are rooted in your blood (damayich) and I say to you, by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live.' This verse of the Prophet Ezekiel is intoned at every Jewish circumcision, explaining to us that the price for our eternity is that we shed blood on behalf of our God, our faith and our ideals. However, I would give the verse an alternate interpretation. The Hebrew word dam is usually translated as blood; but the root d-m can also mean silence, as in vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent, when his two righteous sons died a tragic and untimely death. I believe the prophet Ezekiel was telling us that when Jews suffer, and even seem to suffer needlessly, tragically and absurdly, but remain silent and refuse to cry out against God, we express with that silence the profound inner strength which justifies our eternal life. "I see that you are rooted in your silence, and I say to you that because of that silence do you live.'" Perhaps this is what Moses was saying to the people: yes, the Lord will wage battle for you, but some very good Israelites will die in battle. Nonetheless, you must remain silent in terms of your relationship to God. It is the roar of that silence that will enable you to live eternally and redeem the world. Shabbat shalom and hag sameah. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.