Parshat BeShalach

Rabbi Bernie Fox

Overcoming Doubts

And Israel saw the mighty hand that Hashem had performed in Egypt.  The nation feared Hashem.  And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant.  (Sefer Shemot 14:31)

The Jewish people responded to the drowning of the Egyptians with praise and thanksgiving

The first portion of Parshat BeShalach discusses the miracle of the Reed Sea.  Bnai Yisrael emerged from Egypt.  The nation began its journey to the Land of Israel.  However, Paroh and the Egyptians reconsidered their decision to release the Jews from bondage.  Paroh rallied his armies and they pursued Bnai Yisrael. The Jews were soon trapped on the shore of the Reed Sea.  The waters of the sea were before them; Paroh and his armies were approaching.  Bnai Yisrael entered the sea and Hashem parted its waters.  They traveled along a path in the midst of the sea.  The Egyptians entered the sea in pursuit of their prey.  The waters of the sea collapsed upon them.  Paroh and his mighty armies were instantly destroyed by the onrushing waters of the sea.  

Moshe and Bnai Yisrael observed the destruction of their nemesis and recited a song of praise to Hashem.  This song – Az Yashir – extolls Hashem’s omnipotence and His destruction of Paroh and his mighty armies.  

Only at this point did the Jews recite these praises acknowledging Hashem’s omnipotence.  They had observed His terrible plagues and the submission of Paroh and the Egyptians to the will of Hashem.  They had departed from Egypt without opposition and left behind a defeated and completely vanquished nation.  Why did they not extoll Hashem’s greatness when they departed as a free people from Egypt?

The above passage introduces Az Yashir.  It addresses this issue.  The passage explains that only now – after observing the death of Paroh and his armies – did the people believe in Hashem and Moshe.  

This explanation is difficult to understand.  Apparently, until they observed the drowning of the Egyptians, the people were plagued by lingering doubts.  They had doubts regarding Hashem and they were uncertain of Moshe’s authenticity as His prophet.  Now, these doubts were resolved and replaced by certainties.  How did the miracle of the Reed Sea bring about this transformation?  Why was this event able to resolve uncertainties that persisted even after they had observed all of the wonders that took place in Egypt?

There are a number of factors that contributed to the impact of the miracle of the Reed Sea.  We will discuss one of these.  This factor is identified and discussed by Rav Aharon Soloveitchik Zt”l. 

Therefore, say to Bnai Yisrael:  I am Hashem.  I will take you forth from under the burdens of Egypt.  I will save (hatzalah) you from their servitude.  I will redeem you with an outstretch arm and with great works.  (Sefer Shemot 6:6)

And Hashem saved (yeshuah), on that day, Israel from the hand of the Egypt.  And Israel saw Egypt die upon the shore of the sea.  (Sefer Shemot 14:30)

My strength and my praise derive from G-d and He has been my salvation (yeshuah).  (Sefer Shemot 15:2)

Two Hebrew terms describe salvation

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the path to understanding this issue begins with an analysis of the terms used by the Torah to describe salvation.  The Hebrew language includes a number of words for salvation or rescue.  Two of those used in the narrative of the redemption from Egypt are hatzalah and yeshuah.  In the opening portion of Parshat VaEyra, Hashem tells Moshe that He will soon redeem the Jewish people from Egypt.  In the first passage above, Hashem describes various aspects of the redemption.  In this description Hashem uses the term hatzalah.  In our parasha, the Torah describes the rescue of the Jewish people at the Reed Sea.  Here, the term yeshuah is used.  

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the Torah’s choice of terms is revealing.  Hatzalah is used to describe the rescue of a passive individual.  In speaking to Moshe, Hashem was describing the rescue of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt through the plagues.  In this process, the Jewish people would be completely passive.  They would not be required to participate in their redemption.  In fact, the Torah describes Paroh and the Egyptians chasing Bnai Yisrael from Egypt.

The term yeshuah is used to describe the rescuer acting in unison with the rescued to bring about the rescue.  This is the term used in the second two passages above.  These passages describe the rescue of the Jewish people at the Reed Sea.  The use of this term indicates that Bnai Yisrael were not passive participants in the events at the Reed Sea.  How did Bnai Yisrael participate in their own rescue?

And Bnai Yisrael came into the sea upon dry land.  The water was for them a wall to their right and their left.  (Sefer Shemot 14:23)

The Jewish people were required to act on their own initiative

The Tosefta describes the events immediately preceding the parting of the sea’s waters. The Egyptians were to the back of Bnai Yisrael and the sea barred their path forward.  Moshe told them to proceed into the waters.  The tribes began to debate who should lead the nation into the sea.  The tribe of Yehudah detached itself from this deliberation and proceeded into the waters.  The midrash adds that the sea parted only after the people waded into it and its waters had reached their noses.

These comments suggest an obvious question.  Where was Moshe?  Why was Moshe not leading his people into the sea just as he led them out of Egypt?  Apparently, the miracle of the Reed Sea were to occur in response to the initiative of the Jewish people.  This miracle was intended to be a yeshuah and not a hatzalah.  Moshe could not lead them into the sea.  They were required to move forward on their own.  

Let us now return to our initial question.  Why only at this point did the people completely believe in Hashem and Moshe?  Why did the plagues and miracles they observed in Egypt leave them with unresolved doubts?

Doubts derive from various sources

The answer is that doubt and ambivalence does not always derive from a deficiency in the evidence supporting a belief.  In other words, even when the evidence of a truth is overwhelming, doubt can persist.  In order to overcome this ambivalence, one must make the decision to embrace the truth proven by the evidence and to move forward on that basis.  

Rav Aharon explains that this dynamic is demonstrated by this account.  The plagues and wonders the nation observed in Egypt conclusively demonstrated Hashem’s omnipotence and Moshe’s authenticity as His prophet.  The residual doubts were not the result of an insufficiency of evidence.  The doubts reflected an internal conflict; a hesitancy to move forward and embrace the new truths that had been firmly established in Egypt.  These doubts were not resolved by new overpowering evidence that emerged at the Reed Sea.  Doubt was replaced by conviction because the people discovered within themselves the courage to embrace and act on these beliefs.  Once they acted, doubt and uncertainly were brushed aside.

Developing conviction through action

Rav Aharon’s insight has important practical implications.   First, we must acknowledge that his perspective is novel.  We assume that action proceeds from and follows belief and conviction.  In other words, we assume that when we are completely convinced of a truth we will act upon it.  If we are struggling to move forward, we assume that our motivation is undermined by doubt.  Rav Aharon is arguing that sometimes conviction proceeds from action.  Our doubts are not the result of a deficiency in the evidence; they are based upon our resistance to embracing a challenging truth. 

Let’s consider an example.  An acquaintance who became observant relatively late in life shared his story with me.  He explained that many years ago, he and a friend sought out a rabbi in their community to study with them.  They entered into their relationship with this rabbi only after establishing an understanding.  The rabbi would study with them but not promote observance or any change in their lifestyles.  The rabbi accepted the unusual arrangement.    The rabbi and two friends studied together for many years.  Occasionally, the rabbi would test whether there was any flexibility in the initial understanding.  On each of these occasions, his study-partners assured him that they remained determined to not adopt observance or alter their lifestyles.  

One day the rabbi asked his partners a question.  “If you could observe a mitzvah without significantly altering your lifestyle, would you adopt that observance?”  My acquaintance responded that he would consider it.  The rabbi asked him whether he would consider shaving in the morning with an electric shaver.  My acquaintance responded that he believed he could adopt that practice.  He began to shave with an electric shaver.  That little change was the first step in gradually implementing other changes.  

No new evidence was provided to my acquaintance that finally won him over to the wisdom of the Torah.  The barrier between him and observance was not authentic doubt reflecting a deficiency in the evidence of the Torah’s wisdom.  His internal resistances were undermining his advancement.  Once he discovered – with the help of his rabbi/mentor – a path of action, his ambivalence was conquered.  

We each should take a few moments to consider Rav Aharon’s insight and this example.  How often has this dynamic hindered us and prevented us from advancing and growing?

In short, once we have evaluated an issue and made a determination of the truth, we sometimes need to force ourselves to act on this determination.  Only through moving forward will we overcome our resistances and the ambivalence they produce.