Bnei Yisrael, left Egypt “Beyad Ramah” – no longer as slaves of Pharoah, but as worshippers of the Almighty G-d, King of Kings. With heads high, they marched out of the land of their exile, led by a column of cloud by day, and by a pillar of fire by night.
The Egyptian people dealing with the aftermath of the “smiting of the first born”, were only too glad to see the back of Moshe and his followers. Yet this immediate reaction was soon to be followed by immense regret. Pharoah, after three days, decided to take chase, and return the Bnei Yisrael to their “rightful” place.
Thus, within a week of redemption, that same people – who had walked out of Egypt “Beyad Ramah” found itself cornered, with Pharoah and his mighty army behind them, and the Yam Tzuf in front of them, there was nowhere to turn.
In Shemot (14:10), we are told, that when Bnei Yisrael saw the might of the Egyptian army heading towards them, with seemingly nowhere to turn, they: “were very fearful”, yet the verse goes on to tell us that they: “Cried out to Hashem”.
Rashi informs us that they “grasped” the craft of their ancestors. Just as in times of trouble, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, turned to Hashem for help, so Am Yisrael, in their hour of need turned towards Hashem, that He save them from the Egyptian onslaught.
However, in the very next verse, we are told that the people rallied against Moshe: “Were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness? Why did you bring us out of Egypt?”
Rashi understands the verse in its most plain meaning. The people were on the verge of revolution.
Within two verses, according to Rashi, the people go from praying to G-d for salvation, to revolution against the entire concept of redemption. How can it be that in verse ten Bnei Yisrael behaved like Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov, yet in verse eleven they despairingly wish that they had never left Egypt in the first place?
The Ramban, at the beginning of his comments to this verse, refers us to the Mechilta. The Mechilta tells us that there were four factions within Bnei Yisrael, before the splitting of the sea. One faction wanted to jump into the water – a suicidal attempt, another wanted to return to Egypt. One wanted to fight the Egyptians, whilst the other wanted to sit and pray.
The Ramban suggests: That in verse ten we are hearing the words of the faction whose reaction was to pray for salvation. These people followed the example of their forefathers. However, verse eleven refers us to another faction whose sole wish was to return to Mitzrayim, they showed much regret at having left in the first place.
The Abarbanel, strongly disagrees with this first solution suggested by the Ramban. If one reads the verses carefully, there is a clear implication that whoever is speaking in verse ten is also speaking in verse eleven. Therefore, if there were factions, as stated by the Mechilta, their existence cannot be derived from our two verses.
Alternatively, the Abarbanel comments: That we can interpret the first verse differently to Rashi. Instead of understanding that verse ten describes the people crying out to Hashem in prayer, it could well mean that the people were crying out to Hashem in dissatisfaction. Having made their point clearly to Hashem, they then turn on Moshe in verse eleven. Thus there is no contradiction between the two verses. We are talking of the same faction and their behavior is entirely consistent.
Yet how did Rashi understand the turn of events? The Ramban’s answer is a possible solution, but the consequent comments of the Abarbanel seem to reduce the feasibility of there being two factions referred to in these two verses. Rashi clearly does not accept the solution provided by the Abarbanel.
To my mind, we are talking of the same people in verse ten and verse eleven. If so, how can they be praying to G-d in one verse, and cursing Moshe in the next? The answer is clear:
Am Yisrael have just left Egypt, Yet even though it takes a matter of minutes to leave Mitzrayim physically, it will take much more time for them to leave spiritually. The cultures and beliefs of the country from which they have just left, are an integral part of who they are, it will take more than a few days to replace the paganism of Egypt with the Derech Hashem. To coin a phrase: “They have left Egypt, but Egypt has not yet left them”.
Am Yisrael are at the beginning of the path that leads to Derech Hashem, they are going in the right direction, but they are very unsure of themselves. Initially, therefore, when they find themselves in this terrible predicament – the might of the Egyptian army on the one side, and Yam Tzuf on the other, they turn to Hashem. However, when there is no immediate response, despair sets in. All their reservations seem to be coming true. Who promised them all the wonders of the world? Moshe. Thus, due to despair and lack of real commitment, immediately after having turned to G-d, that same people turn away, sure that G-d was not listening, or that He was, but did not care.
These ideas are reflected by the final words of the Ramban on this verse. “When they saw that their prayer was left unanswered, it gave the evil inclination the opening that it needed.”
We are told by David Hamelech (Tehilim 24): “Who will go up to the mountain of Hashem, and who will stay there”. Am Yisrael had already accomplished an enormous amount. To offer the Korban Pessach in front of the Egyptians was an absolute act of belief, to follow Hashem into the wilderness was an incredible statement of trust. To turn to Hashem at a moment of danger, is in itself a level of spirituality to be envied. Nevertheless, having ascended the mountain of Hashem, the real challenge is to stay there. Verse ten relates to the fact that as a people, within a week of our exodus, we were turning directly to Hashem, verse eleven however, reminds us that this level may be hard to attain, but it is even harder to retain.
This idea is in fact alluded to in the comments of Rashi himself. In verse ten he comments that: “They grasped” the craft of their ancestors. They had not yet “acquired” the craft. They had not yet internalized the concept of prayer, and the real relationship between the people and their G-d.
We find ourselves at the beginning of a long road that will have many ups and downs. We cannot expect more from our people, just one week after the exodus, having been in Mitzrayim for over two hundred years.
Judaism cannot be attained over night. To ascend takes enormous effort, but to stay is even harder.
I would like to finish, with those final words of the Ramban”. “When they saw that their prayer was left unanswered, it gave the evil inclination the opening that it needed.”
This week I find myself with incredibly mixed feelings:
On the one hand, election-day in Israel, is for me, almost like a festival. For centuries Jews dreamed of returning home, and I have merited, not only to return home, but to work in the Old City of Yerushalayim.
On this day, when I go to vote, I fulfil the dream of millions of Jews over hundreds of years – because voting in a Jewish country for a Jewish leader is the surest sign of independence that one could wish for, and a real indicator of the fact that the ultimate redemption is truly on the way. True, we have not reached absolute redemption, the State has a long way to go before it is run in accordance with Torat Hashem, but it is the closest we have been to the real thing in two thousand years.
Yet , so much is in the balance. I for one have never really known Israel without Yerushalayim. The issues are so enormous that one feels that the fait of the entire Jewish people around the world is in your hands.
However, in truth, you must all know, that everyone of you has the ability to vote, wherever you may be, whatever you may be doing. Yerushalayim is not simply a geographical region, it is a spiritual reflection of Am Yisrael. If we are truly worthy, then we will not only have Yerushalayim, but also the Bet HaMikdash, irrelevant of who is the Prime Minister of Israel. If, G-d forbid, we are unworthy, then we will not have Yerushalayim as our Capital.
Our real vote is in the way we behave as Jews, in the way we pray, in the way we believe. If we are true in those areas, then this redemption will be complete sooner rather than later. We can effect the reality by our religious behavior. This is the right to vote that every single living Jew, all over the world has. The voting takes place, every day of the week, every hour and every minute.
We, therefore turn to Hashem, just as Bnei Yisrael did at Yam Tzuf. We seem to be cornered, but if we are truly strong in our belief, Hashem will answer us, as he did Bnei Yisrael.
Yet we must always remember the words of the Ramban,: “When they saw that their prayer was left unanswered, it gave the evil inclination the opening that it needed.”
If our prayer is true it will not remain unanswered, matters might not develop exactly as we wish them to, but the redemption will surely come – just as it did then. Bayamim hahem bazman hazeh!
“Hityatsevu ureu et yeshuat Hashem”