The Israelites were "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea" when they reached the Sea of Reeds. Pressing from the rear was Pharaoh's army. Lying before them was an impassable barrier of water. The Israelites complained bitterly to Moses that he had not done them any favor by liberating them from slavery. They assailed him with a sarcastic comment.
"Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, 'Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness'?"
Moses replied to this petulant outburst by telling the Israelites to quiet down and wait for God to work out a rescue plan.
According to a rabbinical commentary, the Israelites still divided themselves into four factions, each advocating a different course of action. One faction yielded to despair, crying, "All is lost! Drowning in the sea is the only way out." The second was willing to return to slavery. If the Egyptians would permit them to live, they would give up their freedom for creature comforts.
The third group, paralyzed by anger, resorted to a protest: "Why did you let this happen to us? You got us in this mess. You get us out." The fourth faction spoke up: "We will not lose hope. We will not return to slavery. We will not be mired in our anger. With faith in God we will go forward."
God, hearing the counsel of the fourth faction, told Moses to split the sea with his rod and tell the Israelites to go forward. The situation called for immediate action -- not for being downcast, not for rehashing the past, not for complaining. "Moses, tell the people to get their feet wet."
According to a midrash, the waters did not divide right away, yet the Israelites kept advancing. It came up to their ankles, their knees, their thighs. They walked farther. The water came up to their stomachs, their chests, their necks. When the water reached their noses, then God "drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split."
The point of this midrash is that the rescue of the Israelites was not just through the miraculous action of God; the people themselves were involved in the process of their own deliverance.
The four factions of the Israelites resemble the different states of mind in one individual when facing a crisis. The first three factions represent reactions. Confronted with an obstacle in life, a person can become depressed, lose any hope of solving the problem and die a spiritual death (faction one). The person can entertain the thought that reverting to a particular place in life will bring back the security of a former time (faction two). The person could lose a sense of direction and wish for a higher power to lift him out of the impasse (faction three).
The fourth state of mind leads to action. The person realizes that standing still or going backward is not a solution. With circumstances as they are, the person is willing to take a risk; it is the only way that offers a new life.
Judaism believes in a partnership between God and humans. Miracles do not just happen. We might say that God creates the possibilities, but we have to transform those possibilities into realities. God's work on earth must be performed by our actions. This idea is expressed in an old epigram: If a farmer prays to God for a good crop, let him not forget to spread fertilizer over the field.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is chaplain of the Glendale Uptown Home.