As Am Yisrael approaches the shores of the Yam Suf, they discover that the Egyptians are chasing after them to kill them. At this point in the narrative begins a series of pesukim which, when we take a close look at them, appear confusing and contradictory. Benei Yisrael’s immediate reaction is to cry to Hashem – prayer. Rashi notes on the spot that Benei Yisrael here follow the example of the patriarchs of turning to Hashem in prayer during times of trouble. In the next pasuk, by contrast, Benei Yisrael turn to Moshe with a harsh complaint for his having led them from Egypt. They argue that it would have been preferable for them to remain as slaves in Egypt rather than perish in the wilderness. At first glance, Benei Yisrael reactions appear contradictory. Moshe’s response to the people, as well as the Almighty’s response, add to the confusion. Moshe says to Benei Yisrael, “Hashem shall wage war for you, while you remain silent” (meaning, be passive, trust in Hashem, and everything will turn out fine). The Almighty, by contrast, says to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to me” – this is not the time for prayers – “tell Benei Yisrael that they shall travel ” – this is a time for action (see Rashi). Hashem expects Benei Yisrael to act.
Hashem’s response to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to me,” is somewhat surprising. As the Or Hachayim asks, “To whom shall he cry out if not to Hashem his God?” -particularly during a time of crisis. Moreover, what did Hashem mean when He ordered that Benei Yisrael should “travel”? To where exactly were Benei Yisrael to travel – the sea stood before them!! (Bear in mind that Hashem’s command to Moshe to stretch out his arm and split the sea appears only later!)
In order to understand Hashem’s response, we must first understand Benei Yisrael’s complaint to Moshe, from where it evolved. The root of Benei Yisrael’s problem lies in the issue of faith. But not the usual type of faith – faith in Hashem, but rather faith in themselves. They had faith in Hashem, as we can see through their immediate appeal to Hashem in prayer. But they lacked faith in themselves and in Moshe. After so many years as slaves in Egypt, they lacked the ability to believe in the their own strength and in the strength of Moshe. They had the capacity to fight and save themselves, but they did not have the faith in themselves that they are worth something. (We can thus readily understand why they prefer returning to Egypt rather than die in the wilderness: if they had even a drop of faith in themselves, they would have preferred to die rather than return to slavery.) The Almighty therefore says to Moshe, “Tell Benei Yisrael that they should travel.” The time has come for you, Moshe, to move aside and allow them to travel independently, with their own strength. Give them the opportunity to believe in themselves, for if they believe in themselves, then even the sea cannot stand in their way. And this is indeed what happened. The Midrash tells that as Benei Yisrael stood before the sea they consulted with one another as to how they should proceed. Finally, Nachshon Ben Aminadav leaped into the water. This step symbolizes the first stages of Benei Yisrael’s faith in themselves. Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin teaches us an important lesson from this parasha. He writes: “Just as one must believe in Hashem, so must a person believe in himself.” We sometimes tend to think that faith in oneself brings only arrogance and egotism, and a lack of faith in Hashem. But if we believe properly, it will turn out that without faith in oneself, that he is worth something in this world, that one has a role to play, that he has capabilities, one’s faith in Hashem is not strong enough. A person who believes in himself and his capabilities and his connection to Hashem, and in his role in this world – his faith in Hashem is at a higher level. With such faith one can accomplish almost anything, and this is the level that Benei Yisrael reached as they crossed the Yam Suf. Once they believed in themselves they could sing such a powerful shira (song) at the sea, they could reach the level of prophecy, and dream of Eretz Yisrael and the Be?t Hamikdash.
We can extract a critical lesson from our parasha, that if we believe in ourselves and in our ability to change and accomplish, we can reach higher levels of faith and trust in Hashem, and we can even sing shira and once again dream of the Be?t Hamikdash.