In Exodus 14:10-14, the Children of Israel see the Egyptians bearing down on them as they stand at the banks of the Sea of Reeds. The people panic and blame Moses for their plight, saying, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us taking us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11-12).
Moses responds that the people should have no fear. God will protect them (Exodus 14:13-14).
At this point, God speaks to Moses, saying, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15). The rabbis interpret Moses’ response to the Children of Israel as a prayer to which God responded that there is a time for prayer and a time for action. This was the time for action. In the words of the Midrash,
God said to Moses: “There is at time to shorten prayers, there is a time to draw them out. My children are in dire distress, The sea has fenced them in, and the enemy is pursuing. So, how can you stand there and multiply prayers?! Tell the children of Israel to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15) (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)
In rabbinic literature, there are conflicting traditions as to how the Israelites respond to Moses’ command to go forward. The rabbis never perceived a need to resolve these conflicting views. They taught that a text can have many meanings and teach many lessons.
One interpretation is that everyone argued about who would have the honor of going in the water first. After much contention, the tribe of Benjamin succeeded in entering the water before the other tribes; according to this tradition, God rewarded them by having the temple built in their territory (B. Sotah 36B-37A). The story also explains why a member of the tribe of Benjamin, Saul, was chosen to be the first king of Israel.
A more familiar and contradictory tradition is another etiological account written to explain why the tribe of Judah became the dominant tribe and the only one that ultimately survived. It helps us understand, once again, why we have taken the name Jews. The text reads,
Each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon ben Amminadab (chieftain of the tribe of Judah) and descended first into the sea. (B. Sotah 37A)
A third view, and my favorite interpretation, contends that God did not part the waters until the Israelites as a group showed their faith in God’s power. The Midrash states that the sea was divided only after Israel had stepped into it and the waters had reached their noses. Only then did it become dry land (Shemot Rabbah 21:10).
Here, the rabbis teach us all an important religious lesson. The deliverance from Egypt was not accomplished only because of God’s will and God’s miracles. Our salvation was a covenantal partnership requiring not only God’s power, but Israel’s faith as well. From a biblical perspective, God simply parted the sea. From the rabbinic perspective of this Midrash, however, the Israelites as a group demonstrated their worthiness for redemption by wading into the water up to their noses before the sea parted.
Jewish tradition does not question the validity of God’s actions in drowning the Egyptian pursuers. Still, while we rejoice in our freedom, we take no delight in the destruction of our enemy. The Talmud states,
When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them, saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea. How can you sing praises in My presence?!” (B. Sanhedrin 39B)
At the Seder meal that celebrates Passover, participants traditionally remove a drop of wine from their cups as each of the ten plagues against Egypt is recited. Wine is a symbol of joy in Jewish practice. By taking wine out of our cups, we diminish our joy in recognition of the suffering of our enemies.
An important figure in modern Jewish history expressed a similar sentiment. Israel’s troops were not fully prepared for the Egyptian invasion, which was launched on Yom Kippur in 1973. Even though Israel managed to thwart the military challenge, there was no rejoicing in the Jewish state. There was instead a lingering feeling of sadness because of all the casualties suffered on both sides. In the aftermath of Israel’s victory, Prime Minister Golda Meir spoke in a manner reminiscent of the Talmudic passage above when she said, “You know, the Arabs’ greatest sin is not making war against Israel and killing her sons. We can forgive them for that. Their greatest sin is that they made us kill them” [Margaret Davidson, The Golda Meir Story, rev. ed. (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981, p. 206)].