The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Nisan 14, 5771/April 18, 2011

"The Egyptians chased after them and overtook them encamped by the sea every horse of Pharaoh's chariots, his horsemen, and his force.... "
(Exodus 14:9)

On Sunday night-Monday we celebrate the seventh and final day of Passover. It was on this day that Israel crossed the Sea of Reeds, effectively completing their exodus from Egypt and the pursuing Egyptian army. The Sea of Reeds was the nation's first great test outside of the land of Egypt. Man was created with the capacity to choose, to make decisions, and so it was that when G-d commanded every household of Israel to take a lamb on the 10th day of Nisan and to slaughter it on the 14th, the people chose to do so, despite the overwhelming danger of so provocative an act. They understood the commandment to be a necessary component of G-d's promise of liberation, and were willing to take a chance, ultimately exhibiting their faith in G-d.

The untenable circumstance that Israel found itself seven days later, however, while perched on the western bank of the Sea of Reeds was something else altogether. First of all, G-d had already fulfilled His promise - the nation had escaped Egypt. Surviving the Egyptian army was not necessarily part of the same promise. Second of all, unlike the Exodus of the night of the 15th of Nisan, G-d provided the people with no instructions. They were on their own, left, it would seem, to their own devices.

With the Egyptian army, the world's largest and most powerful army at their back, and an impassible expanse of sea between themselves and their only escape route, the fleeing bondsmen and women had to come up with a plan. Midrash tells us that four separate proposals were put forward. They could raise their hands in surrender, and passively allow themselves to be be returned to Egypt by the Egyptian army. They could commit mass suicide. They could take up arms against the Egyptians. They could march into the sea.

The situation Israel found itself in, and the choices they had to grapple with would be repeated many times throughout Israel's ensuing history. From the Second Temple Israelite holdouts against the Roman legions at Masada, to the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, to the Warsaw ghetto uprising of World War II, Israel has had to wrestle with impossibly tragic and desperate situations time and time again. The situation at the Sea of Reeds was no less fraught with danger, and the four plans put forward were certainly born out of desperation.

To simply surrender to the will of the Egyptians contained its own logic. Hopefully, Pharaoh would gladly take back his labor force, and for purely selfish reasons of economic expediency, spare their lives. But there was no guarantee. After all the havoc the Israelite G-d wreaked on Egypt, Pharaoh might just as easily annihilate Israel out of vengeance. Certainly even those he spared would be living under conditions measurably harsher than before. But at the very least, some might be spared.

Committing mass suicide would mark the end of the nation, but at least they would be taking their own lives as free men. They would die with their dignity.

Fighting back against the vastly more powerful Egyptian army would be every bit as certain as suicide, but at least they might succeed in taking a few Egyptians with them. Hardly a promising scenario, but better to fall at the hands of the enemy than by your own sword. And wouldn't this action display the greatest integrity vis a vis the covenant they had entered into with G-d?

Each proposal was desperate, but none of them was panic-ridden. Each was well conceived, each contained its own logic, and each with a cool and level head understood the ramifications. What other options could they come up with? What would you have proposed?

In light of the impossibility of all these courses of action, the fourth option, that of walking directly into the sea, was less crazy than originally perceived. It was, after all, their only potential escape route. While its result was nearly certain, it was no more certain and no more horrific than the obvious consequences of any of the other plans. And it did contain one element sorely lacking in all of the other schemes: hope. The sea, unlike the Egyptians, had no vendetta with Israel, no score to settle. It was ominous, to be sure, but not hostile. And at least it was pointing in the right direction - away from Egypt and toward the land of Israel.

We will never know for certain what compelled Israel to "take the plunge" and to choose the sea over slavery, or warfare, or suicide, but if we understand Israel at that moment in time, as not being a nation divided and at odds with itself over what to do next, but as a united nation, rationally weighing the chooses that were before it, and making its decision as one people, we may be able to make the same right choice next time we, as a nation, find ourselves, G-d forbid, in so hostile an environment. It is true that one popular Midrash describes Nachshon as making up his own mind and walking into the sea much to the shock of his brethren. But another Midrash suggests that Israel together walked as one man into the sea.

If we understand the dark and inscrutable sea as being a metaphor for the mystery of faith itself, than we can begin to understand why Midrash tells us that it wasn't until Nachshon's heart was submerged, and fear was no longer a factor; that it wasn't until Nachshon's entire body was submerged, and his own physical needs and desires were no longer a consideration; and that it wasn't until the water had reached his nostrils, the very nostrils through which G-d breathed life into man, that the great and terrifying unknown of the very next step melted away, and by virtue of faith in G-d, the path to freedom opened up before Israel.

And it was their very lack of faith that sealed the fate of the Egyptians, burying them at the bottom of the sea.

The faith that G-d requires of us is not a blind faith, but a faith which emanates from the intellectual and decision making capacities that G-d has endowed us with. Man was created with the ability to choose freely. It was this freedom of choice which Adam, the first man, exercised incorrectly, leading man away from G-d. Conversely, it is the perfection of choice, of making the right choice, that manifests itself in faith in G-d, concluding symbolically our seven day holiday of Passover - the Festival of Freedom!

There is no TEMPLE TALK this week, due to the Passover holiday. Temple Talk with Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven will return next Tuesday.