Because of the inclement weather last Shabbos we had a more intimate crowd and so I shared a Dvar Torah that had been brewing in my head instead and set aside the sermon I had prepared in order to share it with you this Shabbos. It begins as follows: Woody Allen in addressing a Harvard graduation said, “You have entered a crossroads of life. Down one road is despondency and despair…down the other road is total annihilation. I sure hope you make the right choice.”
It’s funny because it’s true that we have all felt like that at times. All of us experience circumstances in which we see no way out—stuck between a rock and a hard place—feeling huge burdens, waves of despair. Well, that’s the story in a nutshell of last week’s Torah reading when the Jewish people found themselves at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army rapidly closing in on them from behind. Only days before they were celebrating their freedom but now emotions are reversed and they find themselves in dire straits. Let’s examine how Gd delivered them and how we can trust Gd to deliver us when we feel up against it all as well.
First let me share a word about the Red Sea. It’s not really red but the mountains surrounding it have a red tint and it’s not, at 1st glance, crossable. It’s over 1200 miles long and a mile deep. If the water were to be totally drained, it would still be impossible to cross this chasm which is as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. Ron Wyatt, a well-known archeologist, about 20 years ago, found what many think is the exact spot the crossing occurred. It’s at Nuweiba where there’s an underwater land bridge not too far below the surface that gently slopes at a 6-degree angle and later gradually rises to meet the other side. Until the Arabs removed them, there were ancient pillars on either side of the shore at this land bridge marking the spot of the Crossing of the Red Sea—we have pictures of them taken as recently as 50 years ago. It is believed from the inscription on one of these pillars that they were placed there by King Solomon to mark the spot of the crossing. In addition, scuba divers have actually found ancient gold chariot wheels on the land bridge that are an exact match for the wheels on a gold chariot found in one of the pyramids. So the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea is not as farfetched as some would imagine.
To understand the message of the story it’s important to look at how the Jews got trapped there. This wasn’t a military blunder. It was, incredibly enough, Gd’s design. Gd could have led the Jews on a more direct route to the Promised Land by the Mediterranean coast. The direct route from Egypt to Israel is about 350 miles—about the same distance from Atlanta to Jacksonville, FL. Even a large group of 2-3 million people could walk that in 6 to 8 weeks. But Gd cautioned if they went the short route they would encounter the Philistines, who were a warring people, and the Children of Israel weren’t ready for battle.
But perhaps the more important reason Gd took them on this indirect route was so He could lure Pharaoh to chase after them and set up a final encounter that would test and strengthen their faith and demonstrate forever His love for them. The Jews needed to understand that Gd had not delivered them from slavery just to abandon them in the desert. He was still there, still protecting them and would always be.
The plan was simple: Place the Jews in such a predicament that it would be impossible for them to escape without Gd’s intervention. Gd’s plan was to deliver His people in such a way that it would be plain to every one of them that He was the One, true Gd. But of course, the Jews didn’t know Gd’s plan and so they panicked.
They responded like many of us who feel trapped. They tried to find a scape goat—someone to blame for their problems—and so they distorted and glamorized their past. They said accusingly to Moses (Ex. 14:11-12): “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? What have you done to us?” A few days later when faced with a crisis of a lack of food they said (Ex. 16:3): “in the land of Egypt we sat by the pot of meat, when we ate bread till we were full.”
It’s remarkable; they weren’t a week out of Egypt and they developed amnesia. Did they really want to stay and serve the Egyptians? Did the Egyptians ever give them meat and bread to eat till they were full? They had cried out to Gd to save them and now that they were free…as soon as the pressure of difficult circumstances came upon them they distorted and glamorized their past. They basically said, “We didn’t have it so bad in Egypt. We didn’t want to leave in the first place!”
Have you ever noticed how people who feel trapped or wronged distort the past? Someone is involved in an extra-marital affair might say, “You know, I was married for 20 years and I never was happy.” Really?? Never?? I was once so exasperated with my kids for their frequent fighting I said, “I don’t know why you kids can’t get along? My brother and I never fought.” My parents were there at the time and they just burst out laughing. F.D.R. once said, “Nothing is so responsible for the good old days as a bad memory.” Blaming someone else never really helps.
What should we do then when we feel trapped? It helps to understand that Gd has a plan for your life and that you will be tested from time to time. It is especially when we feel trapped that we need to keep this in mind and not resort to desperate behavior. Instead, hold your head up, and like Nachshon, move ahead as best you can.
Who was Nachshon? On the banks of the Red Sea, when the people complained to Moses for bringing them into the desert to die, Gd said to Moses (Ex.14:15): “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak unto the Children of Israel and let them go forward!” But the Jews were immobilized by their fear. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) tells us that one man, Nachshon, went forward as commanded by Gd until the water was up to his neck and then it began to recede and the people followed. When the people made it safely to the other side they sang with Moses the Song of the Sea in grateful praise to Gd.
But the euphoria of crossing the Red Sea didn’t last very long. The people soon complained that the water they found was bitter to drink. Gd then showed Moses a bitter tree to put into the water to make it sweet. The message, in short, was that sometimes the addition of a little bitterness can actually sweeten life—like a bitter pill that brings healing. Very soon they arrived at Eylim (Ex.15:27) where there were 12 springs of fresh water. It appears that the people complained bitterly not realizing that right around the corner was their salvation all along! How could they think Gd would have brought them to the desert to die without water? As Rashi explains: “12 springs of water, corresponding to the 12 tribes, were already prepared for them.”
My friends, when it seems like you’re up against a brick wall—seemingly caught between a rock and a hard place—understand that Gd is trying to show you something. Don’t panic. Be open to receive the message of your circumstances and move forward as best you can—even if the waters come up to your chin. You may not experience a miracle like the crossing of the Red Sea, but wait and see what Gd has in store for you just around the corner. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis