Only Faith in G-d Leads to Redemption
It is written, “The Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold – Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened. The Children of Israel cried out to the L-RD. They said to Moses, ‘Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? What is this that you have done to us, to take us out of Egypt? Is this not the statement that we made to you in Egypt, saying, “Let us be and we will serve Egypt?” For it is better that we should serve Egypt than that we should die in the Wilderness.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of the L-RD that He will perform for you today. For as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again! The L-RD shall do battle for you, and you shall remain silent’ ” (Exodus 14:10-14).
Several questions need to be addressed:
1. How could the Children of Israel talk in such a way to Moses? What caused this sudden deterioration in their behavior (Ismah Israel)?
2. Why were they overcome by panic? They had, after all, witnessed great miracles in a harsh country that was ruled by a cruel king (Rashi, Exodus 13:10), and from which no slave could escape (Mechilta, Yitro). Had they lost faith and no longer believed in Hashem’s deliverance?
3. Furthermore, why did Moses begin to beseech Hashem? Was he not certain that Hashem was going to liberate the Children of Israel? Who then told him to pray for them? Did Hashem not interrupt him during his prayer?
4. Hashem punished the Children of Israel each time they complained to, or irritated Him. Yet here we see that Hashem did not even mention their sin. On the contrary, He performed miracles for them. Why?
The author of Ismah Israel replies by citing the Kedushat Halevi, who himself cites the Rambam: “Why should you awaken, or stir up love, until it pleases?” (Song of Songs 8:4). In other words, as soon as we feel an awakening above (meaning, as soon as we feel overtaken by a love and fear of G-d), we should make a vessel to receive it. We should perform a mitzvah in order to continue to be imbued with these holy feelings. The author concludes that we should do this because, as we know, this sudden awakening is the spiritual light sent to a person from the celestial spheres above. It is called Neshama (soul), and it is appropriate to clothe it with a body (the mitzvah we perform), so that it can firmly preserved.
During the plague of darkness, the Children of Israel who survived experienced a great outpouring of love for Hashem, and they began to fear Him with all their heart. So that this awakening above could continue in them, G-d gave them two additional mitzvot: The blood of circumcision, and that of the Passover sacrifice. Thus the Children of Israel were not afraid of the Egyptians, and they did not hesitate to acquire lambs (which the Egyptians idolized) and bring them to the door of their homes and then slaughter them (Zohar III:251a). This occurred because they loved and feared only Hashem, and without these additional mitzvot, their enthusiasm would have dissipated. It was this awakening that allowed them to follow the path made by Hashem in the desert, in a land not sown (Jeremiah 2:2), devoid of all provisions other than matzah (Exodus 12:39).
A man should therefore advance “from strength to strength” (Psalms 84:8). This awakening should encourage him to perform a mitzvah, which always generates ever-new enthusiasm, and which in turn brings about the performance of another mitzvah, as it is written: “One mitzvah brings about another” (Perkei Avoth 4:2).
The fact that the Children of Israel respected Shabbat while in Egypt (Shemot Rabba 1:32), a mitzvah that is considered as equal to all the rest of the mitzvot in the Torah (Yerushalmi Berachot 1:5), indicates that their enthusiasm was indeed very great. In fact, they continued to observe other mitzvot besides Shabbat so that they could have a vessel capable of containing their enthusiasm, their faith, and their fear of G-d.
Hashem told our forefather Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt, but He promised that they would leave from there with great wealth, meaning that they would remain virtuous even while in exile and despite their prosperity. These were the riches that Abraham appreciated. As for Moses, even though sharing the spoils of Egypt was a great mitzvah, he preferred to perform an even greater one – that of finding the remains of Joseph, as it its written: “The wise of heart will seize mitzvot” (Proverbs 10:8).
The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 20:2) recounts something very surprising: Pharaoh, that cruel king who hated the Children of Israel so much – and whom they completely plundered of all wealth – accompanied the Children of Israel when they left Egypt. Such was the reward of the mitzvot that they performed, and which infused them with ever-new enthusiasm. Even when they did not perform mitzvot, they recited prayers (as at the Sea of Reeds, for example). That is the way a man should act, for mitzvot (ones that we cannot perform) can be replaced by prayer.
As we have seen, before their passage through the Sea of Reeds the Children of Israel felt a tremendous love for G-d and greatly feared Him. Their enthusiasm to serve Him did not stop growing. Yet if so, why were they frightened by the Egyptians pursuing them, and why did they begin to cry out to Hashem? One should not pray to Hashem only during times of trouble and distress; a man should constantly pray to Hashem, both in times of peace and joy as well as during moments of suffering (G-d forbid). If a prayer is not answered, it is perhaps because Hashem keeps this prayerful request in keeping for more difficult times. Hence we should continue to retain our faith in Him.
Hashem takes great pleasure in the prayers of the Tzaddikim, and He complicates their lives in order that they cry out to Him, call upon His Name, and ask Him for help. Nevertheless, we should realize that a true Tzaddik does not wait until misfortune comes before addressing his prayers to Hashem. According to the Talmud, when the Tzaddik (as well as the Jewish people) is in distress, the Divine Presence shares in this suffering and cries, “My head hurts! My arm hurts!” (Hagigah 15b).
At their departure from Egypt, the Children of Israel were to organize themselves in their new life. After all the miracles that they had witnessed, the love they felt for G-d and their faith in Him took on a new dimension. Hence they began to laud Hashem and to sing His praises for all things. All the same, they should have known that prayers are not always granted. A prayer is often at the mercy of a man’s slightest fault, which risks ruining everything. Even if it is written, “I am with him in distress” (Psalms 91:15), Hashem sometimes seems to distance Himself from a man, as it is written: “Though I would cry out and plead, He shut out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). A man should nevertheless maintain his faith and demonstrate resolve.
Such, however, was not the behavior of the Children of Israel. They revolted against the attributes of G-d. They acted “like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward” (Perkei Avoth 1:3). Their love and fear of G-d was self-serving and they revolted against Moses, saying: “Were there no graves in Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). Their prayer was not answered, and their love and faith in G-d decreased.
As for Hashem, He wanted to teach the Children of Israel that their prayers are not always answered. It is necessary, therefore, that we demonstrate perseverance and never give up hope. We should not wait until adversity to pray. Prayer should be a constant, daily practice, and if it is not answered, let us be vigilant, above all, to not revolt against Him. We must continue to perform mitzvot and believe in G-d. Despite all the mitzvot that the Children of Israel performed in Egypt, Pharaoh pursued and wanted to kill them. If they had prayed regularly, they would not have known such distress. Far from being afraid by the Egyptians, they would have had faith in G-d’s help and could have awaited a miracle.
We see from here the importance of prayer, which awakens man from his lethargy and reconnects him to his Father in Heaven.
Let us not act, therefore, like those who believe in G-d only during good times and revolt against Him when adversity strikes. Let us also not imitate those who exhibit their faith only when they are tried, for it is only then that they begin to pray and perform mitzvot and good deeds. A man should be firm in his faith, during good times as well as during adversity (G-d forbid), for “is it not from the mouth of the Most High that evil and good emanate?” (Lamentations 3:38). When we are assailed by all sorts of difficulties and undergo trials, let us study Torah and pray. That will strengthen our faith.
Such is what Hashem said to Moses, namely: “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth” (Exodus 14:15). It is precisely during times of adversity that it is fitting to strengthen one’s faith in G-d, to fear Him, and to begin diligently studying Torah, without rebelling against Him. “ ‘Why these cries?’ Hashem continued. ‘Why do you only cry out to Me in times of distress? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth. Let them constantly believe in Me, even in distress, without relying too much on a miracle’ ” (Pesachim 64b). G-d does not send trials without good reason. “Hityatzivu [wait]! May your faith always be yetzivah [firm]. Pray constantly and Hashem will answer all your desires. Devote yourself to serving G-d without faltering in the least.”
That is what Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, did when he became the first to journey into the waters of the Sea of Reeds. His courage and spirit of sacrifice filled all the Children of Israel with faith, and the waters split before them. It was this same Nachshon who nearly caused a great tragedy for the Jewish people during the rebellion of Korach and his assembly. This is why our Sages teach, “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die” (Perkei Avoth 2:4).