In one of the most famous and incredible scenes in Jewish and perhaps world history, this week’s Parsha features the spellbinding drama of the splitting of the sea. As the Jews leave Egypt after God has revealed Himself unquestioningly through the ten plagues, climaxing in His descent into Egypt to kill every first born male, the Egyptians chase after them. Bnei Yisrael find themselves standing on the edge of the vast Yam Suf, seemingly unable to go forward and definitively unable to turn back. Turning to Moshe in despair, they complain (14:11-12), “Why did you take us out of Egypt to die now?? It would have been better for us not to leave Egypt than to die now in the wilderness!” Moshe responds with equal vehemence (14:14), “Hashem will fight for you and you will stand silently.”
In the aftermath of all the open miracles that the Jews just witnessed, it is particularly striking that their first thoughts upon being faced with the unmoving Yam Suf are so deeply catastrophic. While it may be understandable for the Jews to be curious, perhaps even a bit worried, about how God will get them out of the daunting rock-and-hard-place situation in which they appear to be stuck, it seems rather extreme for them to genuinely believe that after everything God has done for them to take them out of Egypt, He has done so only to let them die on the outskirts of the kingdom.
I was Zocheh this week to hear words of wisdom from Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, who shared an incredible idea that can help us to uncover the deep wisdom inherent in this incident.
Throughout Jewish history, God has purposely decreased the overt apparentness of His presence in the world. Following Creation and speaking directly to the Avos and Moshe, the undeniable Divine Intervention of the plagues in Egypt, the Man in the desert, and the gift of prophecy, God begins to hide Himself in the world as times goes on. Prophecy disappears, a series of seeming coincidences over a decade retroactively reveal God’s Hand in the Purim story, and, some years later, one last miracle in the form of a jug of oil burns brightly in the world before history darkens God’s light for the next 3000 years. Today, finding God in our lives requires unique and purposeful effort.
What is the point of all the revealed miracles of generations passed if today God is almost impossible to see with the naked eye?
Mr. Charlie Harary tells over a powerful metaphor for inspiration that mirrors this question exactly. When you are in a storm, the sky dark, rain streaming down all around, blurring your vision, the road impossible to see, a flash of lightning across the sky is a valuable source of light, illuminating your way temporarily, allowing you to see where your next steps lie. Like lightning, inspiration fades, and it is up to us to capture that light, memorize the feel of it, and utilize it to guide us even once darkness has consumed us once again.
When God takes the Jewish people out of Egypt with the fanfare and undeniable miracles of the plagues, they are absolutely powerless to do anything but believe in Him, to trust in Him completely, for His omnipotence and power is absolutely undeniable. In such a state, there is no choice for connection, no opting in to a real and lasting relationship. This cannot be the foundation upon which is built Judaism as it is meant to be. Rather, G-d challenges us to think, to consider, to question – can it be that the God who brought us to this point through such stupendously open miracles would leave us here on the edge of the sea to die? By bringing the Jews face to face with the Yam Suf, with the Egyptian army coming ever closer, God gives us the opportunity to close our eyes to the darkness and remember the flash of lightning, the undeniable evidence of His existence and protection, and to utilize that inspiration to guide our way forward.
Why is this so difficult?
Catastrophic thinking is one of the most common thinking traps or forms of distorted thinking in which human beings engaged. Made more well known by Dr. Aaron Beck and colleagues, catastrophic thinking occurs when anxiety and fear completely hijack you and warp your sense of reality, causing you to abandon all logic and think the worst of a situation. It seems that, on a national level, the Jewish people stood on the Yam Suf overcome by fear, and completely disregarding all they had just experienced and witnessed.
As children, we begin to explore the world by walking solely with the support of our parents, literally holding on for dear life as we take our first steps. While the thrill of exploration is quite wonderful, we must let go and be let go of in order to actually make our way in the world. And yet, when a parent lets go of his child’s hand and encourages him to walk, the child looks around, bewildered, betrayed, with a look that says, “how could you leave me hanging like this, to fall on my diaper-clad bottom, abandoned and bereft?!” The drama is amusing, but it is also very real. In order to grow and go forth in the world, we must take what we have experienced, the trust and potential and perfection we’ve seen, and lean on that as we make our way forward, perhaps unsteadily, alone. We must learn to challenge catastrophic thoughts and snap ourselves back into reality.
Challenging catastrophic thinking requires both knowledge and belief. Knowledge is about reassuring yourself that just as you walked holding on to your parent’s hands, you can walk on your own, and will be caught if you fall. Knowledge is remembering that you have witnessed miracles, and logically concluding that if God brought you to it, He’ll bring you through it. Belief, however, begets action. To act with faith is to act, as Nachshon ben Aminadav did, as if the lightning is still illuminating your path, to launch oneself into life despite discomfort, walking into the sea until it was up to his neck, recalling every step of the way how God has revealed Himself in the past, knowing He will come through once again. It is one thing to appreciate the lightning in the storm and see the path lit up, but to actually grope blindly in the dark and bang into walls trying to follow what you know is there - to jump into the water neck deep - to walk like you did when you were held even when you’re stumbling, that is faith.
In many ways, your entire life is a dark and twisting maze, a Chok, a Mitzvah you do not and cannot understand. There will be and are moments in your life in which God’s love is so brightly illuminated that you feel held, enveloped, irrefutable evidence of His presence all around you. And there are probably more moments of confusion, of panic, of questioning, “did You really just bring me all this way for THIS?” Each step of the way, remember those moments of clarity. God did not bring you to the water’s edge for you to drown, but it may first feel as though you might before the sea splits. Move forward; God will pave the way.