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Taste of Torah: Beshalah

As parashat Beshallah opens, the people of Israel are finally about to leave Egypt, but not before one last moment of crisis. Standing at the foot of the sea, with the Egyptian chariots approaching, the Israelites cry out to Moses.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת ה׳ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת־מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד־עוֹלָם׃ ה׳ יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן׃

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which Adonai will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.

Adonai will battle for you; you hold your peace!”—Exodus 14:13-14

Our sages, however, imagine a scenario in which these uplifting words had much greater impact, more closely attuned to the needs of the people.

ארבע כתות נעשו ישראל על הים, אחת אומרת ליפול אל הים ואחת אומרת לשוב למצרים ואחת אומרת לעשות מלחמה כנגדן ואחת אומרת נצווח כנגדן. זאת שאמרה ליפול אל הים נאמר להם התיצבו וראו את ישועת ה’, זו שאמרה נשוב למצרים נאמר להם כי אשר ראיתם את מצרים, זו שאמרה נעשה מלחמה כנגדן נאמר להם ה’ ילחם לכם, זו שאמרה נצווח כנגדן נאמר להם ואתם תחרישון

The Israelites at the Sea were divided into four groups. One group said: Let us throw ourselves into the sea. One said: Let us return to Egypt. One said: Let us fight them; and one said: Let us cry out against them. The one that said “Let us throw ourselves into the sea,” was told: “Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.” The one that said “Let us return to Egypt” was told “for the Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” The one that said “Let us fight them” was told: “The Lord will battle for you.” The one that said “Let us cry out [in prayer] against them” was told: “hold your peace!”⁠—Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 14:13:2

The rabbis lift up the notion that even in the most defining moments of our people—perhaps especially at those moments—a communal experience is rarely seen and heard in a uniform way. Further, the rabbis break up the verse of Moshe’s response into a series of four phrases, allowing him to truly see the diversity of the people and tend to their individual needs. They put forth a vision of Moshe who understands the human impulse behind each of these reactions, lovingly guiding his people toward a moment of bravery and faith, leading to their redemption.

As we face pivotal crises and turning points in our own lives, the rabbis remind us that the impulses we may feel—wanting to escape, surrender, fight, and even pray for another to take control—are, in fact, human. Through compassionately speaking to and honoring the complexity of their experience, he empowers the people to go forward. May we give ourselves the same permission—honoring the messiness of however we might feel during times of crisis—and, in so doing, be strengthened to take the steps towards personal redemption.