Parashat Beshalah 5771, MLK weekend (on silence and action)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar
[Long Pause]

There are different kinds of silence: Suspenseful silence; humbled silence; calm silence; struck dumb silence; pregnant pause; stealthy silence; and not forgetting… the awkward silence.

And we have silences to choose between in our parasha:

The Israelites are unsurprisingly worked up, because on the one side is the fast-approaching Egyptian army, and on the other, the impassable Red Sea. Moshe tells them not to worry, because God will save them. He then finishes his address to the Israelites with this somewhat jarring verse:

יְהוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִשׁוּן
Hashem will fight for you, and you – you should be quiet. (Ex. 14:14)

Taharishun – you should be quiet?

That’s strange.

Moshe began, in the previous pasuk, with “al tirau” – don’t be afraid. That makes sense. But why “be quiet”? Why shouldn’t they talk amongst themselves while waiting for God to step in?

Ibn Ezra# clarifies for us that “being quiet” is in contra-position to what came earlier when the Israelites “cried out to God”. They need not cry out, should not cry out – because God will come and save them.

This points to a particular kind of silence: the silence of a spectator. The instruction that Moshe gave them between “don’t worry” and “be quiet” was actually “re’u see”: the Israelites were to be a polite audience, to shut up and just watch as God demonstrated God’s redemptive power. God will intervene in the world and perform the quintessential miracle for them, parting the sea. This is no human matter, says Moshe; as we are reminded at the Pesah seder, this is not just the finger of God, this is the hand of God!

This kind of silence – quiescence – troubles me. It is not our place, Moshe seems to be saying, to do anything to save ourselves, even just crying out to God is beyond our responsibility. This sounds suspiciously like a pious Jew in an old joke – the one who wouldn’t accept rescue from the flood waters when it came in the form of people in a boat or helicopter because he was waiting for God to save him, or the one who couldn’t understand why God didn’t make him win the lottery, when he hadn’t met God halfway by buying a ticket. These foils are not only foolish, but theologically mistaken – doesn’t God require an active partner?

But, luckily, there is another silence, and I think a very different one, in the next pasuk. After Moshe speaks to the people, God addresses Moshe:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה מַה-תִּצְעַק אֵלָי
God said to Moshe: Why are you crying out to me? (Ex. 14:15)

In the paragraph break between these verses, after telling the others not to cry out, Moshe started crying out to God?! He seemed to be convinced that God was taking care of matters, so what was he saying? It seems to me that Moshe must have been pre-emptively thanking God, declaring his loyalty and faith.

Why, then, does God tell him to stop? Rashi brings two midrashim to explain this request:

We are taught that Moshe was standing and praying. God said to him: (as I’m sure many of us said or thought on certain occasions) “Lo eit ata lehearikh betefila! This is not the time to be taking so long with your davening! Israel is in trouble!”

This is not the time for prayer; this is the time for action! The silence that Moshe had called for was the wrong kind of silence. Quiescence – inaction – is precisely what we must not do in such a situation! Who, then, can show us the right silence?

In the Talmud, this midrash is found alongside the story of Nahshon ben Aminadav,  who – before the waters had parted, it seems – went down into the water whilst everyone else was afraid to move from where they stood.  The other Israelites say “Ain ani yored layam tehila – I’m not going down into the sea first”. Nahshon says nothing, but leaps into the water. #

This is a different silence altogether: the silence of a determined person who knows that there is no time to demur, to remonstrate, or even to pray. Jumping right in will say it all.

In the telling of our first midrash here in the Talmud, Moshe only stops praying when God tells him that Nahshon and his followers are drowning in the sea, and he’d better get a move on and raise his staff to part the waters.

If Moshe there corresponds to the pious fool in that joke, who didn’t realise that he was meant to just step onto the boat that God had sent, Rashi’s second midrash takes it even further. God is saying:

?!מה תצעק אלי עלי? הדבר תלוי ולא עליך
Why are you crying out to Me? Does it depend on Me rather than on you?!

This midrash implies that the rescue of the Israelites from this dangerous situation is not really dependent on God, when it comes down to it – hand of God or no hand of God; it is ultimately “on you”.

Combining the midrashim, it seems that the parting of the waters and the escape of the Israelites from the approaching Egyptian troops was all a chain reaction from the brave steps of Nahshon and his fellows. God may have provided some of the mechanism, but the impetus and root cause was human action.

In the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate silence a lot more. Perhaps this is what happens when you live in Manhattan! Silence helps me relax, clear my mind. But perhaps what we actually need more of is not the silence of escaping the City; escaping the blare of angry partisans and the shrill voices decrying and blaming. Rather, it is the silence of Nahshon: deciding on a course of action, and seeing it through. Nahshon’s silent activism inspired those who saw him to do the same, and even changed the course of history, all without preaching or pamphleteering.

On this weekend, Americans remember the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King. He is remembered for his preaching, and rightly so, but the movement he led was made up of countless quiet Nahshons. Who conducted sit-ins. Who refused to move to the back of the bus. Who marched in their hundreds of thousands.

Reflecting on taking part in the Civil Rights protest in Selma alongside Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Elsewhere, he explicitly remarked on the impropriety of prayer whilst African-Americans remained without equal rights. Heschel was a passionate believer in prayer, but he too realised that sometimes you must say “this is not the time to stand around and recite words”.

Whether we find the noise deafening, or just recognise that it may not be the moment for another speech – let us try to be silent … in a way that counts.


Shabbat Shalom