Fear to Fortitude

Beshallah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 23, 2013 / 5773

As the Israelites march toward the Reed Sea, Pharaoh has a notorious change of heart. The Egyptians pursue the newly freed nation. Torah narrates, “Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to the wilderness? . . . Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!’” (Exod. 14:10–12). How could it be that a nation that witnessed the powers of God through the Ten Plagues and a miraculous deliverance tremble at their finest moment? And how could they deign to choose the enslavement of Egypt over the freedom of Israel?

Abraham Ibn Ezra, the prolific 12th-century Spanish exegete, comments,

It is surprising that a camp of six hundred thousand armed men were afraid of their pursuers and would not fight for their lives and those of their children. The answer, of course, is that the Egyptians had been the masters over the Israelites. The generation of the Exodus had learned from their youth to bear the yoke of the Egyptians, and they were submissive by nature. How could they suddenly fight their masters? For the Israelites were not trained in war . . . for this whole generation was destined to die in the wilderness—for they would not have had the strength to fight the Canaanites. They had to be replaced by a new generation that had not known exile and whose character was exalted. (Commentary on Torah, Exod. 14:13)

Our surprise is prefigured by the astonishment of Ibn Ezra. Given the large number of supposedly armed Israelites facing their Egyptian pursuers, how could they be afraid? Ibn Ezra’s response is thoughtful and heartening. While numbers and weapons matter, morale and attitude play an even greater role at a time of existential threat. For over 400 years, the Israelites had known only the reality of servitude. And so switching gears in the immediate aftermath of their release was difficult, if not impossible. One can take the Israelites out of Egypt; it is much more difficult to take the Egypt out of the Israelites. Having grown in an atmosphere of oppression, weakness, and abuse, this tragic generation must relent, making the space for a new generation of Israelites that can inhale the freedom of Israel and serve God with all their heart and soul. Only then will they be able to transition from fear to fortitude.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.