The Sacred Silence


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:10 p.m. (Thu.); 7:11 p.m. (Fri.)
Torah: Ex. 13:17-15:26 (Fri.); Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 (Sat.);  Numbers 28:19-25 (both)
Haftorah: II Samuel 22:1-51 (Fri.);
Isaiah 10:32-12:6 (Sat.)
Havdalah: 8:13 p.m.

The last day of Passover is dedicated to the splitting of the Reed Sea (mistakenly translated as the Red Sea), one of the most dramatic and cataclysmic events in biblical history. The Israelites left Egypt and believe they are “home free.” However, Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them. The Israelites, with the Egyptians behind them and the Reed Sea in front of them, panic. They cry out to Moses, “Are there then no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the desert?” [Exodus 14:11]. Moses exhorts them not to fear but rather to watch for Divine salvation. “The Lord will do battle for you and you shall be silent” [Ex. 14:14].

Is this the religious message of the Exodus, to stand quietly by in times of danger, simply waiting for God to save us? Is such silence on our part consistent with Jewish history, especially in these decades following the Shoah?  Where would we be today had we not attempted to take our destiny into our own hands and fight battle after battle for the Jewish state?

Indeed, the chasidic interpreters turned the verse on its head by providing an alternate interpretation: “The Lord will provide you with bread,” the Hebrew yilachem can mean to do battle but can also mean to provide bread (from the Hebrew lechem); most wars are, after all, fought for bread or material gain, “but you must plow,” the Hebrew heresh can either mean to be silent or to plow. Although this reading of the verse would seem to be the very antithesis of its meaning in context, it is nevertheless the true meaning of this most dramatic miracle.

Yes, Moses expected God to act and counseled the Israelites to silently await God’s miracle. But that is not the message that God conveys to Moses in the very next verse: “And God said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me?  Speak to the Children of Israel and let them move forward’” [Ex.14:15]. God is ready to make a miracle, but not before the Israelites prove themselves by putting their lives on the line. It is only after “the Children of Israel have entered into the midst of the sea,” despite its inherent dangers, that the waters will miraculously part and the Israelites will find themselves “on dry land” [Ex.14:16]. Rashi says in God’s name, “This is not the time to engage in lengthy prayer when the Israelites are in such deep trouble.” When the going gets tough, tough people get going; from God’s point of view, prayer must be coupled with action. From this perspective, the chasidim may be literally wrong but conceptually right.

There is yet another interpretation of Moses’ statement that God will do battle and they remain silent. Perhaps Moses understood very well that although the ultimate victor in Israel’s battles is the Almighty Himself [Ex.15:3], nevertheless, God does not fight alone. He battles alongside the Israelites, but the Israelites themselves must wage the war. They were frightened to take on the seven nations of Canaan during their first forty years in the desert, so God did not make war either. It was only in the case of Amalek, and then later in the time of Joshua, that Israel fought — and then God fought with them and led them to victory.

However, every war is a tragedy because the fallout of every war is the cruel and untimely death of the best and brightest of our people. Yes, we won the wars against Amalek, just as we won the wars in conquest of Israel 4,000 years ago; we also won our recent wars of self-defense enabling us to come home after 2,000 years of exile and establish Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem. But despite these miraculous victories, we suffered unspeakable losses of so many.

In 1952 I was privileged to pray in the Beth Moses Hospital, which had been taken over by the Klozenberger chasidim who had survived the Holocaust. That particular Shabbat was the first Shabbat circumcision the chasidim had experienced since leaving Europe. The Klozenberger rebbe, who suffered the loss of his wife and 13 children, rose to speak: “And I see that you are rooted in your blood (damayich) and I say to you, by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live.” This verse of the prophet Ezekiel is intoned at every Jewish circumcision, explaining that the price for our eternity is the necessity that we shed blood on behalf of our God, our faith and our ideals.

However, I would give the verse an alternate interpretation. The Hebrew word dam is usually translated as blood; but the root “d-m” can also mean silence, as in “vayidom Aharon,” and Aaron was silent, when his two sons died a tragic and untimely death. I believe Ezekiel was telling us that when Jews suffer, and even when they seem to suffer needlessly, tragically, but still remain silent, refusing to cry out against God, we express with that silence the profound inner strength which justifies our eternal life.

Perhaps this is what Moses was saying to us: yes, God will wage battle for you, and some very good Israelites will tragically die in battle, but you must still remain silent in terms of your relationship to God. It is by the faith of that silence that you will live eternally and ultimately redeem the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.