“Stand Fast and See the Salvation of the L-RD”
It is written, “Pharaoh approached. 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? …Is this not the statement that we made to you in Egypt, saying: “Let us be and we will serve Egypt?” ’ 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’ ” (Exodus 14:10-13).
The Midrash reports that the Children of Israel saw the angel of the Egyptians pursuing them from above (Shemot Rabba 21:5), and so they cried out. Moses said to them, “Stand fast and see the salvation of the L-RD” (Exodus 14:13). However a little further on it is written, “Why do you cry to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth” (v.15).
Since it is difficult to be satisfied with the literal meaning of these verses, we shall try to expand on them a little:
1. After having seen the angel of the Egyptians pursuing them, the Children of Israel followed the ways of their ancestors and cried out, addressing their prayers to G-d. Afterwards they complained to Moses, “Were there no graves in Egypt?” This is an obvious sign of a lack of faith in G-d, and it was contrary to the prayer that they had just uttered (see the explanation of the Ramban, who cites Yalkut Shimoni 233, according to which the Children of Israel were divided into four groups before they crossed the sea).
2. Why were the Children of Israel suddenly overtaken with fear? Was Hashem’s hand too weak to save them after having performed all the miracles in Egypt? In addition, why did Moses not get angry with them because of their lack of faith in G-d?
3. Since G-d told Moses, “Why do you cry to Me,” this means that he had prayed for the Children of Israel (Mechilta, Beshalach; see Rashi). According to the verse, however, it was only the Children of Israel who prayed to Hashem for deliverance. The author of Divrei Chaim asks, “Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, object to Moses’ prayers, since we know that He ‘longs to hear the prayer of the righteous’ (Yebamot 64a)?” Why did He object to the common prayers of Moses and the Children of Israel when their enemies pursued them?
The Children of Israel knew that, because of the Torah they were destined to receive on Mount Sinai, they would be liberated from Egypt (see Exodus 3:12; Shemot Rabba 3:4). This is why they removed all traces of pride from themselves and submitted to G-d, taking “the dough before it could become leavened” (Exodus 12:34), an allusion to the elimination of leaven, a symbol of pride. At their departure from Egypt, they consequently reached extraordinary spiritual levels, so great that Hashem, as we saw, gave them the additional commandments of the blood of circumcision and that of the Passover sacrifice (Mechilta, Shemot 5:18).
However when the Children of Israel saw that the angel of the Egyptians continued to pursue them all the way to the Sea of Reeds, their fear increased. This is because they believed that Hashem had performed miracles for them because the forces of evil had disappeared only on Egyptian territory, whereas near the sea, “united by a single heart,” the Egyptians followed them with 600 royal chariots while other lightly armed troops pursued them on foot. They understood that this misfortune bore down on them because of their deficiencies in Torah, which is called zot (Avodah Zarah 2b). Speaking to Moses, the Children of Israel said: If you had given us the Torah before our departure from Egypt, it would have protected us from the Egyptians. Mah zot: What have you done to us? You clearly see that we lack zot (the Torah). They added, “Halo zeh hadavar [Is this not the statement] that we made to you in Egypt” (Exodus 14:12). We know that the term zeh alludes to the Torah, as it is written: “Take this [zeh] book of the Torah ” (Deuteronomy 31:26). The word halo also alludes to the Torah, as it is written, “And these [Ve’eileh – eileh being formed by the same letters as halo] are the ordinances that you shall place before them” (Exodus 21:1). If the Children of Israel had received the Torah and carried out the commandments while in Egypt, they would have been protected.
“It would have been even better had we remained as slaves until we learned the Torah,” they explained to Moses. “Through intensive study we could have broken the forces of evil, which would not have been able to pursue us, and why should we die in the desert without the Torah?”
Such was the greatness of the Children of Israel, which is why Moses was not upset at them, for he understood that their faith in G-d had not diminished. He also reassured them by saying, “Hityatzvu [Stand fast] and see the salvation of the L-RD,” embodying the concept of “Vayityatzvu [And they stood] at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). Moses explained to them: The Torah that you will soon receive on Mount Sinai will protect you. Therefore stay here, strengthen yourselves and calmly confront the evil inclination, the angel of the Egyptians that has come to weaken your faith. Re’eu [look]: Because of the godly fear [yirah, a term similar to re’eu] that fills your heart, deliverance will soon come.
We may now understand why Moses added the word hayom (“today”) in the verse, which otherwise seems unnecessary. Moses understood the despair of the Children of Israel, who had not yet received the Torah (in front of the mountain, despite their evil inclination that is compared to a mountain – Sukkah 52a). He invited them to actively prepare to receive it, explaining that they would attain it “today,” meaning the third day, the day on which “the L-RD shall descend in the sight of the entire people on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:11). It was the Torah that would protect them and enable them to witness Hashem’s salvation.