Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Time for Silence in the Face of Injustice?: Parashat B'Shalach

          We live in an era of outrage, much of it justified.  Just this morning alone, I felt my blood pressure rise as I read more about children being poisoned by their governor in Flint, Michigan, trillions of dollars wasted on unjustifiable military expenditures, and the ten-year anniversary of Ilan Halimi's torture and murder in France.  I could go on, as most of us could.  The world is full of legitimate injustices, and we are also bombarded with messages from the media intended to outrage us and click on the next article.  Even if we focus on the legitimate and clear evil in the world, how could we ever condone or encourage others to remain silent as we face these daunting realities?  
        This week's portion, Parashat B'Shalach, commands the children of Israel to do just that.  As the Israelites flee Pharaoh and the Egyptians, they are told to stand still, watch, and be quiet!  They are commanded to witness God's salvation, to stand still and silent while God fights on their behalf:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה' אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד עוֹלָם. ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן (שמות יד: יג-יד).

Exodus 14:13 - Moses said to the people, Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity. 14 The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent!

How do we square Moses' instructions with a tradition that teaches us to pursue justice and rebuke those who who bring sin upon themselves and the community? Doctor Yair Barkai of Bar-Ilan University culls a variety of exegetical sources that shed light on what might have motivated Moses' instructions to the Israelites.

He first brings a famous midrash that deals with these verses from the Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael:

(מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח, פרשה ב):
ארבע כתות נעשו ישראל על הים, אחת אומרת ליפול אל הים ואחת אומרת לשוב למצרים ואחת אומרת לעשות מלחמה כנגדן ואחת אומרת נצווח כנגדן. זאת שאמרה ליפול אל הים נאמר להם: " הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה'", זו שאמרה נשוב למצרים נאמר להם: "כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם ", זו שאמרה נעשה מלחמה כנגדן נאמר להם: "ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם", זו שאמרה נצווח כנגדן נאמר להם: "וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן ". "ה' ילחם לכם", לא לשעה זו בלבד ילחם לכם אלא לעולם ילחם כנגדן של אויביכם.
There were four types of Israelites on the ocean shore: One type said "we'll fall in the ocean," another said, "we shall return to Egypt," one said, "we will make war upon the Egyptians," and the others said, "we will cry out against them."  To the first group, Moses responded, "Stand resolute and watch God's redemption," to the second group he said, "you will never again see the Egyptians," to the next group he said, "God will fight for you!" and to the last group he said, "you will be silent!" "God will fight for you", not only in this hour alone, but God will fight for you against your enemies for all eternity. (Mikhilta B'Shalach, Parashah Bet)
According to the midrash, each part of the verse was directed toward a different type of Israelite.  The ones inclined to cry out were told to be quiet.  According to two commentators, these Israelites were told to stay mum because they were not fit to fight or cry out.  Ibn Ezra said that the Israelites could confront the Egyptians in word or deed because the Egypt/Egyptians "had not left them."  Both physically and spiritually, Egypt had not left the Israelites, and they still engaged with Egypt and its leaders as their lords and masters.  Until they had physically left Egypt and spiritually cleansed themselves of the internalized inferiority that they Egyptian masters had instilled in them, they weren't the right agents to confront Egyptian evil. 
      Rabbeinu B'chai (Spain 1255-1340) provides another potential reason.  If the Israelites had cried out after a lifetime of worshipping the same idols as the Egyptians, God might be less sympathetic to the claims of the Israelites.  In essence, the Israelites were not so holy and pure themselves, and their cries would highlight their own sin and hypocrisy more than elicit God's righteous indignation on their behalf.  Better to keep their mouths shut and let God do God's thing for God's own reasons.
    Finally, Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, in opposition to the previous two commentators, posits that the silence of the Israelites should not to be interpreted negatively.  Rather, they should show faith in God's saving power by not crying out.  The ultimate act of faith is to stay silent.  This idea builds off a saying of R. Meir in the aforementioned midrash, "If God will fight for you when you are silent, how much the more God will do for you if you sing God's praises!"  When we cry out or criticize, even with the best of intentions, we may be communicating to others that we don't have full faith in their power to act.  
      So, what do we learn from these texts?  Should we always stay silent and simply wait for God's rescue?  Absolutely not.  We learn in our tradition that it is forbidden for us to rely upon miracles. Rather, we can take direction from the words of Ecclesiasties, "there is a time for silence and a time for speaking out."  The Israelites will have to fight against Amalek, an evil even greater than the Egyptians, not so soon in the future. There will be plenty of time for crying and fighting.  There will be numerous battles for the Israelites and their children to fight.  However, as they stood at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, they didn't have the strength, centeredness, mindset, or credibility to be fighters in this battle.  In order to weather and survive the long journey ahead, our ancestors needed to know how to pick their battles, and be willing to rely on God when they didn't have the strength or the skills to succeed on their own.  No person or people has the power to fight every battle effectively every time.  This parashah teaches us that we should have the wisdom to know when to rest, and to always have the allies -- Divine and human -- who can cry and fight for us when we don't have the power or positioning to be our own best advocates.
Shabbat Shalom!