Chapters 14 and 15 of the Book of Exodus are among the most significant in the Bible from a theological perspective, defining for us the fundamental difference between monotheism and idolatry. The first opens with God’s instructions that the Israelites: “Turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahirot [the gateway to the Temple of Horus] between Migdal and the sea, before the Baal [master] of the North….by the [Reed/Red] Sea” (Ex. 14:1).
How strange that the description of their resting place — which will become a sacred shrine marking the most wondrous miracle of the Exodus, the splitting of the Sea — is associated with two major idols, Horus and Baal Zephon; to add insult to injury, the very same description is repeated only eight verses later!
I would argue that the Bible is here contrasting two different attitudes, one that is representative of idolatry and the other that refers to God’s miracles. The Israelites have just left Egyptian enslavement, but the slave mentality has not yet left the Hebrew psyche. They are just at Pi-Hahirot, literally at the gateway to freedom (herut), but they are still engulfed in the paralysis engendered by the idolatrous Horus Temple and exceedingly close to the domain of the master-god of the North (Baal).
Idolatry, you see, enervates its adherents, renders them powerless before the gods whom they created in their own image; these gods are simply more powerful creatures, filled with foibles and failings of mortal beings — only on a grander scale. It is these gods who rule the world; the only thing that the human being can hope to do is to bribe or propitiate the gods to treat them kindly.
Moses is still at the beginning of his career; he has much more to learn about Jewish theology. Hence he tells the nation, frightened by the specter of pursuing Egyptians behind them and a raging sea in front of them, “Stand still and you shall see the salvation of the Lord… The Lord will do battle for you and you shall remain silent” (Ex. 14:13-14).
God then steps in, countermanding Moses’s comforting words. “Why do you cry out in prayer at Me?” God asks, meaning: I, the omnipresent Lord of the Universe, empowered you by creating you in My image; I expect people to act, to journey forward, to take responsibility for human — Jewish — destiny. Now that they are at the cusp, or gateway to freedom, let the Israelites move ahead, either in fighting the Egyptians who came to force them back into Egyptian enslavement or by jumping into the Reed Sea.
God wants Moses and all of Israel to understand that He is not another idol, not even the greatest or most powerful of the idols, who renders humans powerless and awaits human gifts of propitiation and prayers. God is rather non-material Spirit, best described as Love (the four-letter name JHVH), Compassion, Freely-giving Grace, Long-suffering, Loving-Kindness and Truth (Ex. 34:6) who created human beings in His image, empowers them to act in history as His partners, expects them to develop His Divine traits of character and charges them to bring freedom and security to all the families of the Earth.
The Israelites are learning this lesson as they stand at the gateway to freedom (pi-herut) and nationhood witnessing the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea. They dare not stand still and silent waiting for a deus ex machina to extricate them from a seemingly impossible situation. Remember herut derives from the Hebrew aharayut, responsibility. Freedom demands taking responsibility.
They must initiate the action.
And so God commands them to “move forward,” to jump into the waters, risking their lives for freedom; only then will they truly deserve to live as free human beings under God. Our Sages maintain that indeed they learned this lesson at the sea, when they sang out: “This is my God, ve’anvehu” (Ex. 15:2); even a maidservant at the sea saw what the later prophets did not see” (Rashi ad loc citing the Mekhilta).
Apparently, their lesson is to be understood from the Hebrew word ve’anvehu. What does this word mean? Some commentaries suggest it means “I will glorify Him” either by building Him a Temple (Targum, naveh), or by singing His praises (Rashi) or by beautifying His commandments (a sukkah). But the Midrash Mekhilta renders the text as two words, Ani ve’hu, I will act together with Him, I will be God’s partner in achieving freedom for the Israelites. Rashi explained it best: When Moses told the Israelites to “stand still and watch the salvation of the Lord; God will do battle for you, you remain silent,” and Moses prayed to God to “Bask him up,” Rashi interprets “this is not time for a lengthy prayer, when the Israelites are in difficult straits. Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to get moving!”
God is telling the Israelites: “When you were still slaves I did the plagues to win the first stage of your freedom. Now that you are free, take responsibility, and get moving. I am your God, and you must act together with me for your redemption.” JN
Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.