Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Beshalah 5763/ January 18, 2003

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.
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Parashat Beshalah 5763/ January 18, 2003

Human Initiative or Divine Intervention?

Professor Dov Schwartz
Department of General and Jewish Philosophy

The experience of the Israelites, encamped on the shores of the Red Sea, was far from easy. Behind them they could see the Egyptian chariots and army approaching and ahead of them their way was halted by the waves of the sea. As if this test of faith were not enough, the Lord placed an additional trial before them: "And I will stiffen the hearts of the Egyptians so that they go in after them" (Ex. 14:17). In other words, they not only had to press forward and enter the tempest against all reason, but the Egyptians would continue to chase after them into the parted sea.

Even the greatest of leaders, Moses, seems to have lost his composure when faced with this difficult situation and began praying to the Lord, since he figured that any other reaction would be of no avail (as Nahmanides interpreted, "For he did not know what to do"). The Lord's response, one could go so far as to say, came in a tone of rebuke: "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward" (v. 15). G-d demanded that Moses cease praying and take action at once; prayer was not a substitute for decisive leadership.

Scripture depicts this difficult moment in the following words: "The angel of G-d, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them" (Ex. 14:19). Traditional commentators saw in this text a relaxation of the tension: the cloud, coming to their assistance, shifted "to cast darkness on Egypt" (Rashi). Others, however, find in this verse an indication that even greater pressure was placed on the Israelites to take matters into their own hands: "The sea would not recede before the angel of G-d, but before a human being who puts his trust in the Lord" (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch). The angel of G-d and the cloud disappeared to the rear because they could not serve as protection and assurance in the face of the cruel sea. The fate of the Israelites at that moment depended on Moses' decision, with nothing interceding between him and the danger ahead: would he trust in G-d and do something, or would he continue to stand there, crying out in prayer? According to R. Hirsch, in the most trying moments that a person or a nation face, the crucial decision is placed in the hands of mortals. It is as if, at that critical moment, G-d withdrew into His own narrow space, and the initiative lay entirely on the shoulders of a human being.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reflects a prevalent approach in Jewish sources - human initiative is an essential and decisive component in a person's future. G-d leaves much latitude for human initiative and does not predetermine human choices. In Islam the orthodox view, by way of comparison, sided against human initiative and free choice. In the early days of this religion, in the confrontation between Khalif Ali and Khalif Othman, the majority were inclined to believe that Allah would decree who was the true believer and who should be rejected from the community of believers. The leader who suggested that arbitration take the place of bloody battle between the rivals came under sharp criticism since the dominant view was that G-d, and not human initiative, would determine the outcome.

In the Jewish world there was no clear decision regarding the question of human initiative; most thinkers who dealt with this question came out on the side of free will and the efficacy of human initiative. Only a few thinkers, such as Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, tended to view free will as somewhat curtailed in the face of G-d's omnipotence.

The example which we cited from our Parasha is but one illustration of this tension, for all of Scripture contains this blend of Divine intervention and human initiative, which can be found in every event that takes place on the face of the earth. Where does intervention from on high end and initiative from below begin? A concrete example is provided by the theological argument about the place of Zionism in the religious person's world. Zionist ideology placed man's fate, and essentially his redemption, in his own hands. The religious camp was divided on this question, some holding that such an ideology contradicts the element of Divine involvement (the non-Zionist Orthodox approach). Others held that this ideology actually represents a blending of Divine direction of history on one hand, and of human initiative on the other (the approach of religious Zionism). It is interesting to note that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in whose commentary we saw the importance of human initiative to the point that the Almighty recalled, as it were, the Angel of the Lord and the pillar of cloud, did not join the active endeavor to settle the land of Israel, nor did he subscribe to that ideology.

In conclusion, the events described in this week's reading reveal a modicum of the complex world-view of modern Orthodoxy, which is still seeking its way.