Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be- Shalah 5770/ January 30, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

“You hold your peace!”

Dr. Yair Barkai

Jerusalem

 

The Israelites left Egypt, having seen the Egyptian people and their king smitten by ten severe plagues that culminated in the slaying of first-borns, which caused “a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead” (Ex. 12:30). They set off into the wilderness feeling secure, the Lord going “before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night” (Ex. 13:21).  Nevertheless, when they saw Pharaoh and his warriors approaching them, they were seized with fear:   “The Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.  Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord” (Ex. 14:10).   The Israelites berated Moses for taking them out of the house of bondage and declared that they preferred a life of slavery over the condition in which they now found themselves.   Moses tried to assuage them:

But Moses said to the people, “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!” (Ex. 14:13-14).

Let us attempt to fathom the deeper meaning of this wonderful expression.  This is how the Sages described the feeling among the people (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Be-Shalah, chapter 2):

The Israelites at the Red Sea 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 of the Lord.”  The one that said:  “Let us return to Egypt,” was told:  “for the Egyptians whom you see today,” etc.  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:   “you hold your peace.”

The Midrash read the two verses (Ex.14:13-14) as if they contained four different answers to four groups of people. "G-d will fight for you" was a positive answer; "You hold your peace" was a criticism leveled at those who simply said, Let us cry out against them.” The Midrash then continues:

The Lord will battle for you.   Not only at this time, but at all times will He fight against your enemies.  R. Meir says:  The Lord will battle for you. If even when you stand there silent, the Lord will fight for you, how much more so when you render praise to Him!  Rabbi says:  The Lord will battle for you and you hold your peace.  Shall G-d perform miracles and mighty deeds for you while you stand silently by?  The Israelites then said to Moses:  Moses, our teacher, what is there for us to do?  And he said to them:  You should be exalting, glorifying and praising, uttering songs of praise, adoration and glorification to Him in whose hands are the fortunes of wars …  At that moment the Israelites opened their mouths and recited the song:  “I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted” (Ex. 16:1).

In Rabbi Meir's view, the verse has to be understood as saying, The Lord will fight for you even if you simply stand by silently. Rabbi (R. Judah the Prince) thought that the entire verse was a rhetorical question: shall the Lord fight for you while you stand idly by?

The people found it hard to remain passive in the face of the danger they beheld approaching them, and Moses’ response "You hold your peace!” was ostensibly incomprehensible.  Why not let the people “cry out against them,” i.e., pray to G-d to deliver them?   Also, the option of fighting against the enemy does not seem at all unreasonable, as Ibn Ezra’s question (in his long commentary) on this verse indicates:

 

Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you – for you will not fight, but only witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.   One wonders how they could see a camp of six hundred thousand pursuing them and not fight for their lives and the lives of their children?  The answer is that the Egyptians had been the Israelites’ masters, and the generation leaving Egypt had learned from its youth to suffer the yoke of Egypt and hence their spirit was lowly; so how could they now fight against their masters?  For the Israelites would have been weak and not skilled at warfare.  After all, notice that Amalek attacked them with a small number of people, and had it not been for Moses’ prayers, Amalek would have overcome the Israelites.   But the Lord, alone, “who performs great deeds” (Job 5:9), and “by Him actions are measured” (I Sam. 2:3), caused all the males who left Egypt to die, for they did not have strength to fight the Canaanites, until successive generations, who had not known exile and who had high spirits, were born in the wilderness.

Ibn Ezra teaches us that even though the Israelites had left Egypt, Egypt had not yet left them but was deeply affecting their consciousness.  Physically leaving the house of bondage did not suffice to imbue the notion of freedom in them.  The people had to undergo an educational process, beginning with the ten plagues that the Egyptians suffered while the Israelites remained unharmed in the land of Goshen, continuing with their wondrous departure from Egypt, with the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea and the other miracles described in this week’s reading, with receiving the Torah and with their wandering in the wilderness for forty years, until at last they could conquer the promised land.  But what did the silence which Moses commanded of the Israelites signify?

In Da’at Mikra, Amos Hakham presents the two standard interpretations of the verse:

Even though I told you, Hityatzvu [= “Stand by”] – which could also mean “prepare for battle” – you will not have to fight, rather the Lord will fight for you.  “You shall hold your peace” – i.e., refrain from fighting.   Another interpretation:   “Hold your peace” means be silent, shout no more.

Rabbenu Bahya (ben Asher Ibn Hlava, 1255-1340, Spain) suggests a different interpretation:

The explanation of “the Lord will battle for you” is as follows:  the plague of the first-born made it evident that the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself was smiting the Egyptians, and yet the Egyptians were still pursuing them, indicating that their intention was not to attack you [the Israelites], rather to attack the Almighty.  That being the case, the battle belonged to the Almighty and you have nothing to do but remain silent.  Or, one could say, “you hold your peace” means you had better remain silent, or G-d might decide to deal with you according to the quality of strict justice, for you have been sinners just like them, worshipping idols and growing your forelocks.

Rabbenu Bahya’s first interpretation views the overthrow Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea as the final stage of the plague of the first-borns, which began in Egypt.   The king and his people had not learned the lesson G-d wished to teach them, so now the final stage would come.   Just as the Almighty performed the plague of first-borns Himself, so too the next stage would be performed by G-d Himself. You must remain passive, as you had during the rest of the plagues.   The second interpretation is a sort of warning to the people:  the fact that thus far you have not been punished by the plagues which were sent against Egypt does not exonerate you; rather it reflects the Almighty’s settling of historical and religious accounts with Egypt.   Therefore, you ought to remain silent, lest you too be called to account.

Rabbi Solomon ha-Cohen of Radomsk (a great hassidic rabbi, died 1866), in his commentary Tiferet Shlomo, follows the general approach of Rabbenu Bahya’s first interpretation, but with a somewhat different emphasis:

The Lord will battle for you… can be explained by the verse, “As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, at a favorable moment” (Ps. 69:14); that is, when a person concentrates his prayers over the anguish of the Divine Presence being in exile – this is precisely the meaning of “may my prayer come to You.”   Then, when a person does this, it is a favorable moment.  For the Almighty wants to be beneficent to His creatures.  So, when the Israelites are in trouble – Heaven forefend – their pain touches the Almighty.  Hence Moses said to them, “The Lord will battle for you.”  The battle is primarily for the honor of the Almighty.   You hold your peace – regarding the pain that touches you, you shall remain silent.  This explains the Almighty’s answer to Moses (Exodus 14:15), “Why do you cry out to Me?” – i.e. regarding something that concerns My honor?   “Tell the Israelites to go forward,” for the Almighty has compassion for the Israelites in their moment of trouble.

The people are to remain silent in the hour of approaching danger and to contemplate the anguish of the Divine Presence being exiled.  When they reach the appropriate level of contemplation, then a “favorable moment” will come, causing the Lord to fight for His honor, that it not be profaned by other nations who come to fight Him.

Rabbi Samuel Bornstein of Sokhachov (d. 24 Tevet 5686 [1826]), author of Shem mi-Shmuel on the Torah and Festivals, in his commentary on the weekly reading (1816) emphasized the educational principle inherent in the command to remain silent:

You hold your peace has to do with trusting in the Lord…  Nahmanides wrote in the beginning of Sefer ha-Emunah ve-ha- Bitahon (Book of Faith and Trust) that trust is above faith, for trusting subsumes having faith, but having faith does not subsume trusting.  Hence, it stands to reason that there is nothing higher than trust, as we say, “For the sake of our forefathers, who put their trust in You,” for the greatest praise and merit that can be ascribed to the patriarchs is their trust in G-d…   So, by the very act of remaining silent and trusting in the Lord’s deliverance, deliverance will come.   That being so, You shall hold your peace is not a negative, rather a positive command, and for this they merited deliverance.

The command to remain silent is not an injunction against the Israelites shouting; rather it expresses the measure of trusting in the Lord’s deliverance, a virtue to which the people should aspire and in which they should school themselves.

Towards the end of the reading the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, but then they are commanded to fight rather than remain silent. In this battle, as in the previous one, the people’s faith and trust in the Lord is strengthened (according to the interpretation of Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 17:8).  Yeshayahu Leibowitz sums up the difference between these two battles in the following words (Sheva Shanim shel Sihot al Parashat ha-Shavua, p. 273):

Also with respect to the idea of the Israelites being saved from their enemies, the era of “The Lord will fight for you; you hold your peace” had come to an end.   Instead we read about the battle against Amalek, which was not limited to that time but rather continues forever, as we are told in the verse, “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages” (Ex. 17:16).

“The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace” applies only to the miracle of splitting the Red Sea.  This happened only once in history, and ever since that event, which symbolized the end of miraculous intervention by G-d in the natural world, we are faced with the world of reality in which a foe with whom we have no connection may suddenly rise up against us and for no reason which we can perceive may force us into battle.  In such an instance the Lord does not fight for Israel, and Israel does not hold its peace; rather, henceforth we must follow what Joshua was commanded:  “Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek” (Ex. 17:9).   As it says in Ecclesiastes, “A time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccl. 3:7-8).