Shevi’I shel Pesach – Parashat Shemini 5780
It’s often the case that a crisis doesn’t hit as a single, momentary event but unfolds in a series of oscillating waves, and it’s vital to stay awake and shift tactics according to the shifting threats. This was the case in the Exodus from Egypt, which had two main points of acute emergency: the night of the plague of the firstborn, and the escape through Yam Suf, the Reed Sea. These two connected events are commemorated by the first and the last day of the week of Pesach, each a full Yom Tov. The fact that the redemption was not complete, and even stretches on until Am Yisrael reaches Mount Sinai, may also be reflected in the custom that we do not say a full Hallel during Hol HaMoed Pesach and the Seventh Day. The current coronavirus crisis is also likely to play out in a similar pattern, a real rollercoaster. Perhaps we can get some pointers from our Torah narrative and commentaries that can help us through our own contemporary challenge.
When the Israelites found themselves at the edge of Yam Suf, blocked by the Sea with the Egyptian army bearing down on them, a complex exchange occurs between the people, Moshe and God. The people cry out to God, and some complain and want to surrender. Moshe tries to maintain discipline:
שמות פרק יד
(יג) ויאמר משה אל העם אל תיראו התיצבו וראו את ישועת יקוק אשר יעשה לכם היום כי אשר ראיתם את מצרים היום לא תספו לראתם עוד עד עולם: (יד) יקוק ילחם לכם ואתם תחרשון: פ
Moshe said to the nation “do not fear. Stand still and see God’s salvation that He shall do for you this day, for though you are seeing the Egyptians today, you will no longer see them ever again. HaShem will fight for you, and you – be silent.”
Moshe commands the people to be still and silent – not to move, not to cry out, not to complain, just let HaShem do the work and save them. The Gemara Yerushalmi Ta’anit (2:5) describes the situation as a bit more complex:
תניא, ארבע כתות נעשו לאבותינו על הים, אחת אומרת נפול לים, ואחת אומרת נחזור למצרים, ואחת אומרת נעשה עמהם מלחמה ואחת אומרת נצווח כנגדן, זו שאמרה נפול לים, אמר להם משה התיצבו וראו את ישועת ה’, זו שאמרה נחזור למצרים אמר להם כי אשר ראיתם את מצרים היום לא תוסיפו לראותם, זו שאמרה נעשה עמהם מלחמה אמר להם ה’ ילחם לכם, וזו שאמרה נצווח כנגדן אמר להם ואתם תחרישון
It is taught: our ancestors divided into four groups at the Sea. One says “let’s jump into the sea.” Another says “let’s go back to Egypt.” Another says “let’s wage war with them.” Another says “let’s cry out against them.” To those who said let’s jump into the sea Moshe said “stand still and see God’s salvation.” To those who said let’s go back to Egypt he said “though you are seeing the Egyptians today, you will no longer see them ever again.” To those who said let’s wage war with them he said “HaShem will fight for you.” And to those who said let’s cry out against them he said “and you — be silent.”
Conflicting opinions and arguments in an emergency – sounds familiar – we are their descendants, after all. Moshe tries to stabilize the people, and his general approach is to try to get them to quiet down and be still. There’s certainly value in quieting down – their anxious noise was getting in the way of the clear thinking they needed. But then God speaks to Moshe, and the message is different:
טו) ויאמר יקוק אל משה מה תצעק אלי דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו:
טז) ואתה הרם את מטך ונטה את ידך על הים ובקעהו ויבאו בני ישראל בתוך הים ביבשה:
יז) ואני הנני מחזק את לב מצרים ויבאו אחריהם ואכבדה בפרעה ובכל חילו ברכבו ובפרשיו:
And HaShem said to Moshe “what are you crying out to Me for? Tell the Children of Israel to get traveling. And you, raise your staff and stretch your hand over the sea and split it, and the Children of Israel shall go into the sea on dry land. And behold I will strengthen the heart of Egypt and they will come after them, and I will be glorified over Paro and all his army, with his chariots and horsemen.
Rashi notes carefully that God is not chastising the people here for crying out – he is addressing Moshe alone, in the singular. Rashi explains:
You learn from this that Moshe was standing and praying, so the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “this is not a time for praying at length, with Israel placed in distress… Tell the Children of Israel to get traveling – they have only to get moving, the sea will not stand in their way.”
God criticizes Moshe for his own inaction and for advising the people to stand still while God does all the work. Back in Egypt, on the night of the plague of the firstborn, the Israelites were instructed to stay put indoors, and that was the right thing for that situation. But in this next phase of the crisis everyone has work to do. The people should get moving. Moshe should wave his staff and split the sea. God will encourage the Egyptians to follow their bloodlust and plunge into their own destruction. There are times when a situation calls for stillness, and times when other phases of a situation call for action, and it’s vital to recognize the difference.
In this week’s parashah there’s also a critical moment that is misread, with disastrous results. Parashat Shemini features the dedication of the Mishkan, in which the first sacrifices are offered on the outer altar and fire comes from Heaven and consumes them. That should have been a triumphant climax to all the work that went into building the Mishkan: God Himself is pushing the on-button, so to speak, and the Mishkan works. But in the midst of this dramatic moment, two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, take manmade fire, not commanded by God or by Moshe, and use it to light incense to offer God and are struck dead by divine fire from the Holy of Holies. In the Gemara Eruvin (63a) it explains what happened:
רבי אליעזר אומר: לא מתו בני אהרן עד שהורו הלכה בפני משה רבן. מאי דרוש – ונתנו בני אהרן הכהן אש על המזבח, אמרו: אף על פי שהאש יורדת מן השמים – מצוה להביא מן ההדיוט.
Rabbi Eliezer says: the sons of Aharon died because they decided the halakhah in the presence of Moshe their teacher. What was their interpretation? The sons of Aharon placed fire on the altar, saying: even though the fire is descending from Heaven, it is a mitzvah for it to be brought by human beings.
Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer haLevi Edels notes that under normal circumstances the sons of Aharon would have been correct, the halakhah is that the fire of the altars should be ignited by human beings. But the inauguration of the Mishkan was a unique situation. The whole point was to demonstrate that the Mishkan is a real and effective connection with God, so it was important that the fire in response to the offerings be from God alone, and for the Kohanim to be still. They should have checked with Moshe to learn God’s Will for that situation before acting impetuously.
The essence of the way of Torah is to learn to coordinate our will to God’s will, and this attunement demands all our wisdom and experience and self-control. The thirteenth century kabbalistic text known as “Sha’ar haKavanah – the Gate of Intent” describes a contemplative process of reciprocal “equalization (hashva’ah)” between our will and God’s Will, based on the saying of Rabban Gamliel in Pirkei Avot (2:4): “make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.” We adjust our will to God’s Will as expressed generally in the Written Torah, more specifically in the Oral Torah, and intuited and discerned personally by each of us in every situation, while the divine Will comes to empower our will as well (see R. Hayyim Vital, Sha’arei Kedushah, part 4). It’s an ongoing, lively, and lifelong process.
One of my favorite descriptions of the fully attuned human being occurs in the book of Kings. Ovadyahu, a virtuous person but serving as overseer of the palace of the wicked king Achav, is sent by Achav to find water during a drought prophesied by Eliyahu haNavi. In the midst of his search he runs into Eliyahu haNavi himself, for whom king Achav has been searching in order to kill him. Ovadyahu bows in sincere respect, and Eliyahu tells him to go tell king Achav that Eliyahu is here, waiting for him. But Ovadyahu complains, saying that Achav has been searching for Eliyahu everywhere, and if he goes and tells Achav that Eliyahu is in a certain place waiting for him “it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, the spirit of HaShem will carry you where I know not, so when I come and tell Achav and he cannot find you he will kill me (1 Kings 18:12).” Such a God-attuned person might be a bit exasperating for those trying to pin him down – but maybe those people need to learn to be more responsive as well.
The Torah teaches us that crises can unfold in waves and may take time to resolve. So we need to be alert and not let down our guard throughout the process, with careful attention and creative responses adjusting to shifting conditions. Here in Israel, when the first wave of the coronavirus hit, the country went into a lockdown that’s held, more or less effectively depending on the community, up to this point. There might be a tendency, when things seems to be easing, be-ezrat HaShem, for people to ease up or even pop out of shelter like a cork from a bottle. That would be a mistake. It might also be a mistake to stick to one approach as the situation evolves, including already devastating impact on the economy. Torah is not a simplistic, one-size-fits-all ideology. It’s guiding path of spiritual maturity that asks each of us to become more awake, more resourceful, more responsive, more responsible in our great journey towards ultimate human redemption.