By Rabbi Mordechai Harris
In Parashat B’Shalach, we find the Israelites with their backs to the sea and the Egyptians closing in. They cry out in fear and Moshe responds to the people’s cries: “Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of the Lord that God will perform for you today; […] The Lord shall do battle for you and you shall remain silent.” In other words: There’s no reason to be afraid, God’s got it covered, just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
As much as we often want God to just make everything better, God doesn’t support Moshe’s idea. “Why do you cry out to ME? Speak to the Children of Israel and let THEM journey forth!” In other words: Don’t look at me, YOU do something about it! “And you (Moshe), you lift up your staff and stretch out your arm over the sea and split it.”
God was the power that bent nature during the miraculous splitting of the sea, but God was not the catalyst. Moshe first had to stretch out his hand before any movement of the waters would take place. No wonder the Israelites who witnessed the miracle had faith both in God and in Moses, God’s servant — Vayaminu baHashem u’v’Moshe avdo.
Within Rabbinic literature, three acts are described as being “Kashin k’krias Yam Suf” — as difficult for God as the splitting of the sea: providing a person with livelihood and food (Pesachim 118a), matchmaking (Sota 2a/Sanhedrin 22a) and keeping a person’s body functioning in a proper healthy manner. But what makes these tasks “difficult” for God?
The common challenge to these goals is that God cannot unilaterally act to produce God’s desired outcomes without sacrificing the free-will that defines humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. A person generally cannot sustain a livelihood if they refuse to work. Two people will never find each other and build a healthy married home together if they refuse to make the effort to date and bridge their worlds. One cannot expect to remain healthy if one is unwilling to eat a proper diet and maintain a healthy lifestyle. God can, and does, desire all these blessings for us, but God needs us to bring those blessings to fruition.
The splitting of the sea was difficult for God, not because the act of parting the waters was a challenge to God’s abilities, but because for this special moment in our national history to serve its purpose, God needed people to step up and act, to demonstrate faith and to take initiative. God couldn’t act unilaterally, but rather required another (Nachshon in the famous Midrash) to participate in bringing about the desired outcome.
If Seder night is when we declare: “God and not an angel. God and not a seraph. God and not an agent. God, in God’s glory and by God’s-self” took us out of Egypt (where even Moshe is conspicuously absent), our parashah (and Shvi’i shel Pesach, the seventh day of Passover) calls upon us to recognize the role of individuals as partners with God.
This means helping God provide sustenance for us through a willingness to work hard for our livelihood, helping God ensure our matches are made in heaven by working diligently to maintain shalom bayit (peace in the home) and empowering God to continue to shower us with the blessing of health by watching what we eat and working to maintain our physical well-being. It also means “being Nachshon,” stepping forward and taking initiative in this world.
Redemption for our people, and for the world at large, will not just happen because we pray for it. Rather, we must each play our role in bringing it to fruition with God’s help. May we all merit to sing the song of our final redemption, when we will be able to have faith not just in God, but in our leadership and in ourselves, God’s servants.
Rabbi Mordechai Harris is the chief impact officer and rabbi-in-residence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. He also currently serves as the president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.