19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
You should not face war as you come out of Egypt, God says to Moshe and the Israelites, because that might spook you into going back. So you won’t go by the sea route. Instead, the newly freed nation finds itself crunched between 600 war chariots descending upon them and the deep blue sea. So much for not facing war.
And while we are talking about war, our parsha ends with a real battle, the Israelites’ first, between them and Amalek. Where is God’s plan to avoid war? And why are the Israelites so sanguine about this battle? No talk about going back to Egypt…
In other words, what happens between the beginning of our parsha and the end? And while we’re at it, what is Moshe’s problem?
Rabbi Sachs points out that God’s plan seems to have had two antithetical purposes. One was to give the Israelites the courage to go on and the other was to prove to the Egyptians, once again for the last time, that the God of Israel is greater than anything they had ever encountered before.
Giving the people courage means not discouraging them by war, at least for a while. Proving God’s omnipotence means having the Egyptians scare the bejeebees out of the Israelites so that He can whump the Egyptians once again.
God’s desire to show His greatness seems to overcome any fear of upsetting the people. In any case, the Israelites really have no option of going back. Pharaoh isn’t going to stop his army to discuss possible terms of surrender and return to slavery. He is out for blood, for having been duped, for having lost all the first-borns in the country. Someone has to pay, and the Israelites are the most immediate and convenient target.
At the same time, a small discrepancy in the text calls for explanation. With the Egyptian army thundering in, Moshe speaks to the people and says, Don’t fear. Stand by and see God’s salvation. The Egypt you see today – you’ll never see again. God will fight for you, and you will remain silent.
In the next sentence God says to Moshe, What are you crying out to ME for? Where is Moshe crying out? Was it just implied or inferred? Did it happen before? Rabbi Avi Weinstein cites the Seforno, who reads it as meaning that Moses was praying to God because he was afraid the people would not follow his instructions and that he would not be able to get THEM to do THEIR PART in the miracle. So, Moshe was crying to God, asking for guidance on how to handle the people.
God’s answer, the Sforno intimates, is to tell Moshe: You gotta know the territory. You gotta know your clients. These are slaves at heart, something you never experienced. You’ve got to learn to differentiate between their crying from fear and their crying for rebellion.
In other words, they are not complaining now because they really want to go back to Egypt. They’re just scared out of their wits! Just because you, Moshe, have this rapport with God doesn’t mean the people have the same confidence.
And indeed, we see that in the parsha God shows Moshe a clear distinction between complaints that are valid and those that are unacceptable. No water to drink? Here, take. They need water. The same with food. You gotta eat, even if it is manna.
But luxuries? Lots of meat? No way. That’s pure spoiled. That’s dredging up claims about a situation that never existed and you, people, need to be taught a lesson about lying and rebelling.
It’s something Moshe has difficulty grasping. He probably understands why the people complain each time but that doesn’t make him more tolerant of them.
Something clicks, though, during this period, at least among the Israelites. Perhaps surviving the direst situation imaginable – the Egyptian army or the Reed sea – gave them courage, especially seeing the destruction of the Egyptians. Perhaps walking in the desert gave them heart. Believe it or not, walking to nowhere in particular can be exhilarating if you compare it to making bricks and building…whatever you’re told to. This early in their trek, the people could probably enjoy the experience of a few days in the country, or desert.
This may also explain why the people were able to stand up against Amalek at the end of the parsha. They had gained some self-confidence after all. Or perhaps they were really angry. Amalek did not fight like the Egyptian army, face to face. They came from behind. They picked off the weak and the ill and killed them, for no visible material gain. They were like bullies in Egypt, except that here the people felt they had a chance to get back at them.
Today, we watch as our enemies take turns. One front calms down and another flares up. We watch as plans for some sort of truce, peace or coexistence float like explosive balloons into our sphere and then self-destruct on impact with reality.
Today we have confidence – in our right to be here and our ability to defend ourselves. We also complain a lot, but that’s just to let everyone know that we are who we have always been.