The last day of Passover (or days outside Israel) is different from Hol Hamoed – the intermediate days – that precede it in that it is a yom tov, a holiday like the first day/s when work is forbidden. The last day marks one of the most wondrous events in history, a foundational event when the Jewish nation was being created: the parting of the Red Sea.
The nation that only several days earlier had the yoke of slavery removed and was liberated, started its journey and was immediately faced with a dead end. They stopped at the edge of the sea while the Egyptian army’s elite units were closing in on them from behind. The despair was real. There was no escape.
The verses that describe the event express the confusion and panic felt by the nation.
“Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! The Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses: ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert?’” (Exodus 14:10-12)
Before reading further, we notice the variety of voices. On the one hand, there is a cry and plea to God. On the other hand, there is despair mixed with bitter sarcasm.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a biblical commentator and kabbalist in 13th-century Spain) explained that there were different groups in the nation who reacted to the hardship in different ways. There were those who called out to God in an emotional prayer and others who despaired and preferred to return to slavery in Egypt.
In contrast, the biblical translator Onkelos (a second-century convert to Judaism) preferred to explain that the same people both called out to God and complained at the same time. It was a cry accompanied by despair. In any case, it is clear that the situation made them flustered.
Just a few days earlier, the nation had been liberated from Egypt after a series of plagues with which God had punished the Egyptians. Now it seemed that God had abandoned His nation and that the Egyptian army was about to destroy the newly released slaves.
At that moment, Moses showed courageous leadership and deep confidence. His reaction was solid and restrained.
“Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation.... The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)
When we continue reading, however, we come upon something difficult to explain.
“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 difficulty in interpreting this stems from the fact that Moses had not cried out to God at all; the nation had. Moses had responded calmly and confidently. Why did God tell Moses to stop crying out to Him when Moses hadn’t cried out to begin with?
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (a leader of the hassidic movement in 18th-century Ukraine) told his students something that can settle this issue: “Know! It is possible to scream extremely loudly in a ‘small still voice’ without anyone hearing a thing.” (Sichot HaRaN/Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom, 16)
When a person is in dire distress – and who among us has not found ourselves in such distress? – there are different voices within him that respond to the situation. The voice of prayer and pleas can mix in with the voice of desperation and sarcasm. Sometimes there is an internal cry that is not overtly expressed. The person feels that his entire being is crying out so loudly that words cannot contain his feelings.
That moment when God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me?” teaches us something about the power of Moses’ cry; a cry that was not expressed verbally and did not conflict with the confidence he exhibited to the nation.
From within this maelstrom of emotions – the verbal prayer, the bitter despair and silent scream – God’s voice is heard with a surprising command: “Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel!”
Indeed, sometimes we find ourselves in an unbearable situation with no apparent way out. The Torah teaches us that at that moment we must focus on action, on moving forward. This is the moment when we are called upon to take responsibility, stand up and act. Go forward even if it seems hopeless. When the children of Israel did that and stepped into the sea – the sea split and they were able to cross. This is the power of action stemming from faith.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.