By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
First, a joke: Haredi Jews in Jerusalem in 1967, at the outbreak of the Six Day War, run from their yeshiva crying to the public, “Friends, we can’t rely on miracles! Start zogn Tehillim [reciting Psalms]!”
Next, the very first instance of Jewish humour, in this week’s parashah. Shortly after the death of all Egyptian first-born sons had impelled Pharaoh to relent, releasing the Israelites from slavery, Moses hears this from the people:
‘What? Aren’t there any graves at all in Egypt? You had to schlep us out here, to kick the bucket in the wilderness?’ (Ex. 14:11) The Israelites’ tone is sarcastic and bitter. Their end is impending. Moses is to blame.
The assault continues: ‘Isn’t this exactly what we told you back in Egypt? We said to you: ‘Better we should be enslaved here in Egypt than die in the wilderness.’ (Adding the Yiddish intonations of an old-style Jewish comedian would enhance the reading of those verses, not distort them.)
True, the circumstances were trying. Pharaoh’s army had come so close that the fugitive slaves had caught sight of the advancing troops. They were seized by tremendous fear. How will Moses respond? Will he calm them, reminding them of the miraculous sufferings inflicted on the Egyptians only shortly before, assuring them that another miraculous rescue was at hand? After all, he had already had the scenario sketched out for him: Pharaoh would have a change of heart about their departure. He would pursue them, and then ‘I’, the Lord had said, ‘will gain glory through Pharaoh and through all his force, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.’ The threat to Pharaoh and his troops had been unmistakable.
Sure enough, Moses offers reassurance. ‘Do not be afraid,’ he tells them in tones that outdo Churchill. ‘Take your station and see the Lord’s deliverance that He will do for you today, for as you see the Egyptians today, you shall not see them again for all time. The Lord shall do battle for you, and you, you shall keep still.’ In Moses’ foretelling, this victory will not require any blood, toil, tears, or sweat. Just sit back and watch it all happen.
Precisely then, though, when we are expecting a dramatic scene of divine rescue, the Lord instead pipes up, speaking to Moses in unanticipated impatience and annoyance. Again, Moses has to listen to criticism couched as a question, this time not from below him in the chain of command but from above: ‘What are you kvetching to Me for? Talk to the Israelites and tell them to get moving!!’ ‘Moses,’ he is implying, ‘your prediction of rescue is correct. But that doesn’t mean the people can just stand there and do nothing.’
And therein lies the lesson that Moses had to learn. The Lord instructs Moses (to paraphrase the old saw): ‘I will help those who help themselves.’ Divine support for our well-being does not absolve us of all responsibility for looking after ourselves. As a people, we have learned to defend ourselves, politically and, in our homeland, militarily. Thankfully, rising to our own defence no longer means just zogn Tehillim.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman heads the Bet Din of the (Masorti) Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.