Silence is more than golden

The last days of the festival of Passover are dedicated to the splitting of the Reed Sea, one of the most dramatic and cataclysmic events in the Bible. The Israelites have left Egypt and believe they are home free. However, the Egyptian hordes begin to chase after the newly formed free people. The Israelites, faced by the Egyptians behind them and the Reed Sea in front of them, panic — and in their fear they cry out to Moses, “Are there then no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the desert?” (Exodus 14:11).

Moses attempts to comfort his people, exhorting them not to fear, but rather to watch for divine salvation. “The Lord will do battle for you and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:14).

Is this the religious message of the Exodus? Does the Almighty expect us to stand quietly by in times of danger and challenge, simply waiting for the Almighty to emerge, plucking us out from the fires of our enemies? Is such silence on our part consistent with Jewish history, and especially with these last six decades following the Holocaust? Where would the Jewish people be today had we not attempted to take our destiny into our own hands and fought battle after battle for the Jewish state?

Perhaps Moses understood that although the ultimate victor in Israel’s battles is the Almighty Himself, God does not fight alone. He battles alongside of the Israelites, but the Israelites themselves must wage the war. They were frightened to take on the seven indigenous nations inhabiting Canaan during their first 40 years in the desert, so God did not make war either. It was only in the case of Amalek and then later in the time of Joshua that Israel fought — and then God fought with them and led them to victory.

Every war, though, is a tragedy because the fallout of every war is the cruel and untimely death of the best and brightest of our people.

In 1952 I was privileged to pray in the Beth Moses Hospital, which had been taken over by the Klozenberger Chasidim who had survived the Holocaust. That particular Sabbath was the first Sabbath circumcision the Chasidim had experienced since leaving Europe. The Rebbe, who suffered the loss of his wife and 13 children, rose to speak: “And I see that you are rooted in your blood (damayich) and I say to you, by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live.”

This verse of the prophet Ezekiel is intoned at every Jewish circumcision, explaining to us that the price for our eternity is the necessity that we shed blood on behalf of our God, our faith and our ideals. However, I would give the verse an alternate interpretation. The Hebrew word dam is usually translated as blood; but the root d-m can also mean silence. I believe the prophet Ezekiel was telling us that when Jews suffer, and even seem to suffer needlessly, tragically and absurdly, but still remain silent and refuse to cry out against God, we express with that silence the profound inner strength which justifies our eternal life.

Perhaps this is what Moses was saying to the Jewish people: Yes, the Lord will wage battle for you, and some very good Israelites will tragically die in battle, but you must still remain silent in terms of your relationship to God. It is by the faith of that silence that you will live eternally and ultimately redeem the world. n

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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