A Complex Reality

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



A Complex Reality

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Yoseif Bloch

"God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for God said, 'Perhaps the nation will change their mind when they see war, and they will return to Egypt.'" (Shemot 13:17)

From this verse it appears that Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) was spiritually weak when they left Egypt, as there was a suspicion that the people might want to return to Egypt. Ostensibly, this stands in direct opposition to the words of the prophet: "So says Lord: 'I remember for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridals, your walking after Me in the desert, in an unseeded land'" (Yirmiyahu 2:20), words which express the steadfast faith of Benei Yisrael in God at the time of the Exodus. However, this second verse in turn contradicts God's account as delivered by the prophet Yechezkel (20:7-10): "I said to them, 'Each man… cast away his eye's anathema, and with the fetishes of Egypt do not defile yourselves… But they did not consent to listen to Me… Yet I acted for the sake of My great Name… and I took them out of Egypt…"

We might attempt to answer by saying that the spiritual state of the nation was very depressed before the Exodus, as Yechezkel describes, but from the moment of deliverance itself, they began to believe in God, as Yirmiyahu relates. However, this possibility is contradicted by the continuation of our parasha: "Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert? … Better servitude in Egypt than our death in the desert!" (14:11-12). Indeed, the Ramban there does not believe that the entire Nation of Yisrael could speak so to God after He saved them, and therefore he writes that among the people there were many different factions, some of which remained resolute in their faith and some of which did not. However, in the continuation of the parasha we see once again a contradiction regarding the people's status. On the one hand, it says, "They believed in God and in Moshe His servant" (14:31), and Am Yisrael bursts forth with Shirat Ha-yam, the Song of the Sea; on the other hand, the Midrash states (24:1): "Once they had descended into the sea[bed] - it was full of mud, as until now it had been wet from the water… Reuven said to Shimon: 'In Egypt we were in mud, and in the sea we are in mud!'" In other words, even after God had split the sea for them, all they could think to do was to complain over petty issues.

After Shirat Ha-yam, the Torah notes (15:22): "Moshe caused Yisrael to travel from Yam Suf;" Rashi explains that the people had to be encouraged to move because they were preoccupied with collecting the booty which had washed up on shore. However, the Midrash (24:2) explains this phenomenon differently:

"Yisrael said at that time: The Holy One, Blessed be He, took us out of Egypt for nothing but five things: 1) to give us Egypt's spoils; 2) to cause us to ride on the Clouds of Glory; 3) to split the sea for us; 4) to pay back Egypt for us; 5) to [praise] Him with song. Now He has already given us Egypt's spoils, He has caused us to ride on the Clouds of Glory, He has split the sea for us, He has paid Egypt back, and we have proclaimed song before Him - let us return to Egypt."

Can we really explain all of the contradictions by saying that there were numerous factions among Benei Yisrael? The Torah itself and the midrashim seem to indicate otherwise: that Am Yisrael itself reacted sometimes in one way and sometimes in another. In fact, this is explicit in the Midrash to Shir Ha-shirim (1:5:1):

"'I am black and beautiful:' 'I am black' in Egypt - 'They rebelled against Me and did not consent to listen to Me' (Yechezkel 20:8); 'and beautiful' am I in Egypt with the blood of the paschal sacrifice and the blood of circumcision.

"'I am black' on the sea, as it says, 'They rebelled on the sea at Yam Suf' (Tehillim 106:7); 'and beautiful' am I on the sea, as it says, 'This is my God, and I will beautify Him' (Shemot 15:20).

"'I am black' at Mara, as it says, 'The nation complained against Moshe, saying: What will we drink?' (ibid. 24); 'and beautiful' am I at Mara, as it says, 'He cried out to Lord' (ibid. 25).

"'I am black' at Chorev, as it says, 'They made a calf at Chorev' (Tehillim 106:19); 'and beautiful' am I at Chorev, as it says, 'All that Lord has said, we will do and we will hear' (Shemot 24:7)…"

This midrash comes to tell us that the spiritual state of Am Yisrael cannot be viewed as set and immutable, but as variable from moment to moment, sometimes "black" and sometimes "white." Even if we say that there were different factions, this only testifies to the different tendencies among the nation as a whole. In truth, the nation is physically neither black nor white, but a complex mixture of the two; so too, the spiritual make-up of Am Yisrael is very complex, an indeterminate shade of gray which varies between extremes.

This message also has an important application in a general sense. One cannot look at reality in a one-sided manner; rather, we must constantly see the complexity of a situation and strive to understand the other opinions. In our time, this becomes a requirement of tolerance for the other; but generally we do not understand what this concept means. Some think that tolerance means that once we understand simplistically the other side, we patronize it and do not state publicly that we feel that the other opinion is groundless and idiotic. In truth, tolerance demands far more than this: to examine the complexity of reality and to see the logic of our disputants, not to ignore the foundation and reason which stands behind their opinion.

The gemara in Eruvin (13b) states:

"For three years Beit (the House of) Shammai and Beit Hillel argued, these saying, 'The law is like us,' and these saying, 'The law is like us;' [finally,] a Divine Voice emerged and declared, 'These and these are the words of the Living God, but the law follows Beit Hillel.'

Yet if these and these are the words of the Living God, by what did Beit Hillel merit that the law follows them? Because they were easy-going and self-deprecating, and would study their words and the words of Beit Shammai; not only that, but they would put the words of Beit Shammai before theirs.

Beit Hillel recognized that Beit Shammai's opinions were also "the words of the Living God," and they knew to advance the opinion of their disputants first.

The Ritva (ibid. s.v. Eilu) asks: how is it feasible that one permits and the other forbids, yet they are both "the words of the Living God?" He answers that for each and every law, God gave to Moshe forty-nine reasons to permit and forty-nine reasons to forbid, then told him that it was in the hands of the sages of each generation to decide the matter. Thus, the reality is complex, as there are always reasons on each side. It is forbidden for us to advance one opinion without recognizing the there are grounds to say the opposite. Without this realization, we cannot understand Am Yisrael at the time of the Exodus - or our world today.

(Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Beshalach 5756 [1996].)


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