In describing the great anxiety experienced by B’nei Yisrael prior to the miracle of kerias yam suf, the Torah highlights two contradictory responses: first, an expression of heartfelt prayer; second, a critique of Moshe for having brought them out of Egypt to perish in the wilderness. The Ramban explains that the Torah refers to different groups of people. Those with a deep sense of faith cried out genuinely for divine salvation, while the less noble of spirit lashed out at Moshe in bitter condemnation. (See there for additional explanations as well.) However, the ba’alei musar suggest an approach which provides a penetrating insight into the human condition. According to their interpretation, the same people who were initially inspired by sincere faith to cry out to Hashem in prayer quickly lost faith and succumbed to doubt and frustration.
As explained by R. Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichas Mussar 5732 #7), Man is a complex creature filled with competing and conflicting impulses, good and bad, which co-exist side by side locked in constant struggle. At times the nobler parts emerge; at other times the darker side dominates. This is why we all have the capacity both of being empathetic and callous, forgiving and vindictive, altruistic and self-centered. Few people are completely saints or demons.
Nowhere are the two faces of man more strikingly apparent than in the realm of faith. On the one hand, Man has an innate need to believe in G-d. In the recesses of his heart he knows that G-d exists, and he experiences His love, concern and guiding hand. At the same time, Man resents submitting to a higher authority and is tempted to flee from G-d and assert personal autonomy. Consequently, Man may oscillate between deep faith awareness on the one hand and intense religious skepticism on the other, yearning one moment for communion with the Creator and, in the next, doubting His very existence.
The Torah’s account of the Jews’ conflicting reactions at the sea reflects this dialectic within the human spirit. Initially, B’nei Yisrael were seized with the impulse to turn to G-d in prayer which emerged from the inner wellsprings of faith embedded in the human psyche. But their faith did not sustain itself and crumbled moments later.
Like many things in life, emuna is a constant struggle. Even when we feel secure in our faith, we cannot become too complacent or smug – “al taamin be’atzmecha ad yom moscha.” Faith must be nurtured and reinforced for it to be sustained. Otherwise, it can be easily swept away by the cynicism of tomorrow. There are countless ways to strengthen our sense of emuna:
- Contemplating the magnificence of the world around us—the beauty of nature in all of its facets, the mystery of the human body with its incredible intricacies, etc.
- Detecting divine fingerprints in the events of world history, and specifically Jewish history—the survival of Am Yisrael throughout the millennia, the rebirth of the modem state of Israel as a national Jewish homeland, etc;
- Discerning the Ribono Shel Olam in personal history—in individual stories of Divine providence which affect the lives of ordinary people. As the saying goes, “coincidences are G-d’s way of remaining anonymous”. Our challenge is to remove the mask of anonymity from “olam” (hidden) and see everything as an expression of Hashem’s existence which permeates the world.
- Probing the profundity of dvar Hashem by engaging regularly in rigorous Talmud Torah.
- External performance of mitzvos can also reinforce inner faith, as the Sefer HaChinuch teaches “Acharei hapeulos nimshachin halevavos.” Matzah is referred to as “lachma de’mehemnusa”— symbolizing the trust displayed by B’nei Yisrael when they left with mere morsels of matzah and without substantial provisions for their journey into the wilderness, as highlighted in the prophecy given to Yirmiyahu (2:2) “lechtaich acharai bamidbar be’ertz lo zerua’a” and alluded to in Ahava Rabba—“ba’avur avoseinu shebatchu becha.”
In the crisis situation just before of kerias yam suf, Hashem told Moshe to cease praying and instruct B’nei Yisrael to engage in a concrete demonstration of faith—“Vayomer Hashem el Moshe ma titz ‘ak elai daber el b ‘nei Yisroel ve ‘yis ‘au” (Shemos 14:15). This demonstrative act of faith—“taking the plunge”— made the miracle of kerias yam suf possible [See Rashi there].
While we cannot afford to feel overly confident about our level of faith, neither should we ever view it as something beyond our reach and underestimate our ability to summon it at a moment’s notice.
Sforno, commenting on the pasuk “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe ma titz ‘ak elai” (“And Hashem said to Moses why are you crying out to me?”) explains that Moshe was crying because he was unnerved by the people’s biting comments of “hamibli ein kevarim bemitzrayim lekachtanu lamus bamiabar.” Convinced that the people had lost all faith, Moshe feared when the moment of truth would arrive, they would refuse to set foot in the sea. Whereupon Hashem reprimanded Moshe and said: “Moshe, do not cry! There is no cause for concern. You are mistaken in your assessment! Don’t underestimate the faith of the B’nei Yisrael! Though they may not sound like believers, they still believe in their heart of hearts. “Daber el B ‘nei Yisrael ve yisa ‘u” – Instruct them to journey – because I assure you, Moshe, that at the critical moment they will move forward.”
As carriers of the spiritual genes of the Avos, we are ma‘aminim b‘nei ma’aminim. Faith remains something intrinsic to the Jewish psyche. Even when a Jew questions the Ribono Shel Olam, he still remains a believer at heart. While faith may be easily lost, we, as Jews, can readily retrieve it – “Ve’tzadik be’emunaso yichyeh.”
Rabbi Elchanan Adler has served as a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary since 1998, where he occupies the Eva, Morris and Jack Rubin Chair in Rabbinics.