If You Were There, How Would You React?
This week’s פרשה, בשלח , opens with God telling Moshe and בני ישראל the plan to finally get Pharaoh and the Egyptians to recognize God. בני ישראל are to appear lost in the wilderness. Pharaoh and his army will then pursue them in hopes of returning them to slavery in Egypt. Then the Torah says, “… and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am Hashem.” (Shemot 14: 1-4) Moshe tells the people and the plan is put in motion.
Caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place,” the Torah describes the reaction of the people when the confrontation with Pharaoh and his army becomes a reality. The Torah says, “… the people were frightened, the Children of Israel cried out to Hashem. They said to Moshe, ‘were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?!’” (Shemot 14: 10-11)
Reading this account, we are struck by the reaction of the nation. After all, hadn’t these people witnessed the 10 plagues in Egypt and the great signs which Moshe did before them when he first returned to Egypt? Furthermore, the Torah at the outset of this פרשה makes clear the people agreed to this diversionary plan. How could they suddenly complain and question Moshe’s motives? We think to ourselves, if we were there, we wouldn’t have reacted that way.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachmonides, the Ramban, deals with this issue in his commentary on Chumash. He begins his analysis of this event by explaining the two different terms employed to describe the nation. One term is the familiar “Children of Israel,” the other is just “the people.” He posits there were in fact two different prevailing attitudes on the part of the people. These conflicting attitudes broke the nation into two distinct groups.
The Ramban tells us that the group that cried out to Hashem had the correct response. They had the proper response to being in a life and death situation. They were truly deserving of salvation. This part of the nation is referred to by the expression “Children of Israel.” The group that complained to Moshe had an inappropriate response, reflecting a serious internal flaw. They are simply called “the people.” Although intended to be the final demonstration to the Egyptians of God’s existence and His relation to man, this event also revealed the inner workings of each individual of Israel. The dire situation now facing the nation brought out the underlying nature of each individual’s attachment to Moshe.
The people that cried out to Hashem were properly attached to Moshe. True, he was the greatest prophet and had done spectacular things. But they understood that Moshe was able to bring about the miraculous events in Egypt only because of his unique relationship to God. In his Laws of Chametz and Matzah, Maimonides makes this point when he says, “… at the Pesach Seder we are to discuss the signs and wonders brought about by Moshe our teacher.” Only for Moshe would God redeem the nation in that spectacular fashion.
A thinker, someone properly attached to Moshe, would never forget that Moshe, as great as he was, was still only a human being. Hence, Moshe was limited. It would be the farthest thing for such a person to complain to Moshe. When a person has exhausted all that can rationally be done to remedy the situation, the only thing left to do is to cry out to Hashem in prayer. Perhaps changing yourself through prayer will result in a favorable outcome. The Ramban ruled that when a calamity is about to strike, the entire nation of Israel is biblically obligated to pray. Such a situation is beyond man’s control. Only through God’s intervention will the nation be saved.
In contrast to this response is the behavior of blame and condemnation. The dire situation rightly brought out fear in the people, but it also showed that the people were attached to Moshe in a childish way. Moshe was, in their minds, a superman. The pending confrontation with the Egyptian military broke their fantasy. That realization, however, brought out their shortcomings. Rather than admit their own intellectual/emotional error, that they relied solely on Moshe, many people there did what many do in other stressful situations, lash out at the other person.
This reaction toward the other person stems from our childhood. Every child at one point in h/her psychological development views their parents as invincible, capable of performing super-human feats. This image remains with us into our adult life. It is set in the deep recesses of our unconscious. Under severe pressure we may fall back, regress and resort to this feeling. We have all experienced the letdown, disappointment or feeling of anger, when the other person didn’t deliver as we thought they should. Accusations and mean-spirited words start to fly.
This challenge, relating to the true source of the universe while not giving into our childish fantasies, is one we face in our own lives. Over estimation of a physician by a patient to provide a curative treatment for a serious illness is one example. Not being supported by your friend at a crucial business meeting is another. This feeling or need to endow another person in this way is so powerful and pervasive that our Torah scholars introduced the prayer בריך שמה דמרא עלמא. Before we take out the Torah to read we say, “…Not in any man do I put my trust, nor upon any angel do I rely. Only on the God of heaven Who is the God of truth…”
The opening event from פרשת בשלח is one we don’t consider as talking to us about how we react to the trials we face in today’s world. No. There is a very important, perhaps painful lesson, to be learned that does apply to us as well. Yes, we are dependent creatures and need the help and assistance from others. But don’t make the mistake and allow that feeling to cause you to lose sight of reality. Study and learn both how the external world works and how the internal world of the human psyche operates. Then we can have the mature and proper relationship to our fellow men and the Creator of the universe.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan