God tells the Jewish People to turn back towards Egypt, that Pharoah would chase after them with his army and then God would finish him off completely. The next verse says that they did so without question. The Medieval commentator, Rashi, says that this is a praise of the Jewish People. Even though they had just left Egypt – and the last direction they wanted to turn was back – they did so at the command of Moses. They trusted Moses.
However…just a few verses later, when Pharaoh does indeed chase with his army, the Torah says that the Jewish People were terrified. But surely, if they trusted Moses to turn back, in full knowledge that Pharaoh would chase them, why did they not trust Moses when he had said that God would save them?
On some level, I think this happens to all of us in life. We have the courage and determination to make a right decision, but when it comes to carrying it out, we lose heart and fall at the first hurdle. The diet that only lasts a few days, even though we felt so strongly about it; the person who gets angry, in a circumstance where he was determined not to. The utterly sincere New Year’s resolution that fails on January 2nd. It happens to the best of us because we are all human. The Torah still praises the Jewish People, however, in spite of their immediate failure – and I believe that our own heartfelt decisions are also precious, even if we don’t ultimately live up to them.
But Rashi is pointing out something further.
Why did they fail? Because they trusted Moses. Not God. They trusted the judgement of a human being, not their own inner truth. Whilst trusting our own inner truth is no guarantee of success, trusting human beings is almost a guarantee that we will fall at the first hurdle.
When I go into a shop with a mask on because the government has told me to do so – and no one else is wearing one – it’s incredibly hard to keep it on. But, when I wear a mask because it makes sense to me to do so, trusting my own judgment inoculates me from the social pressure. If my wife tells me it’s time for my son to go to bed, and I run off to do so like a good husband, it’s not hard for my son to twist me round his little finger and stay up longer. But when I see for myself that he needs to go to bed now, that’s what will happen.
Doing things because others have told us is not necessarily a bad thing – but it’s a weak reason and we will likely fail as soon as the going gets a little bit tough. Doing things, on the other hand, because of our own inner truth and conviction is strong as steel. It’s no absolute guarantee. However, the most likely way for us to follow through on the decisions that we make is to follow what we know in our hearts, not what others tell us to do.
Parsha in a Nutshell
The Jews leave Egypt. Pharaoh chases. The sea splits. The Jews come out the other side; the Egyptians don’t. God provides mannah for the hungry and complaining Jews. Amalek attacks and is repulsed. It’s all heading towards the big climax next week.