Between the Lines—Beshallah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

 

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח - מס' דויהי פרשה ב

 

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.

 

Mekhilta, Beshallah, chapter 3
The Israelites at the Sea of Reeds 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 against them" was told: "hold your peace!"

 

What a wonderful feature of being human, that we are so different that even our shared experiences produce in us such a wide range of possible emotions. Despair, regret, aggression, complaint—the midrash imagines that different people, standing at the shore of the Sea of Reeds with Pharoah's army closing in from behind, felt each in different measure.

Moses's response, the midrash imagines, addresses each of the emotions felt in that moment: "Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!" (Exod. 14:13–14). Each person there felt addressed by some piece of this mini-pep talk; each group felt as if Moses understood and was speaking directly to them. Moses was able, in two short sentences, to speak to the diverse needs of those in his newly forming community.

Too often we walk through life judgmental of the way others respond to their circumstances. "If I were in his shoes . . . ," we think, and go on to imagine how we might do things differently, better. The midrash invites us to consider that the variety of our responses is okay; in fact, it is part of our foundational story. From here, the Lord says to Moses, "Tell the Israelites to go forward!" If we grant ourselves and one another what Moses granted the Israelites—compassionate acceptance of whatever our emotions may be—then perhaps we will inspire one another to move forward with our own paths to freedom, as our ancestors did so long ago.