The exit strategy: keeping mitzvot changeBeshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16

The exit strategy: keeping mitzvot changeBeshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16

It’s a scene from a nightmare: Millions of women and children defended by men who were never trained to use the weapons they carried out of Egypt. Their backs to the sea, no defensive barriers on their flanks and the full might of Egyptian cavalry and infantry closing fast. No apparent exit strategy.
Some people cry out to G-d for salvation. Others use their last moments on earth to blame Moshe and Aaron: “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to this wilderness to die?”
Moshe turns to G-d for help and is told to stop his prayers. G-d commands Moshe to stretch his hand over the sea and split it, and direct the Children of Israel to, “… go into the midst of the sea on dry land.”
Our tradition puzzles over the apparent contradiction in these last words. Did they enter into the waters of the sea, or did they go on dry land?
The answer is that both are true. Before the sea could miraculously split, the Israelites had to do all they could to save themselves. They had to wade into the water until it was up to their noses. Only when they could go no further did the sea split for them. Then they walked the rest of the way on dry land.
It was not enough to pray. It was not enough to cry. It was not enough to plan. They had to take action. Only then could the hand of G-d save our people from imminent destruction.
The studies show there is a positive correlation between Jewish education and Jewish survival. And this is certainly true. But it is only half the truth and that makes it a dangerous misconception. If we do nothing but educate our children Jewishly they will most likely still intermarry.
We have seen this happen repeatedly, with confused, frustrated parents wondering what went wrong. The missing half of the survival equation is “action” in the form of mitzva observance. As our ancestors had to walk into the sea, so we must enter the “sea of mitzva observance.” If you can’t see yourself becoming totally observant, that’s OK; it’s not an all- or-nothing formula. Every individual mitzva you observe is one more important step forward.
It is not enough to study Judaism. We must keep mitzvot. Only then will the miraculous hand of G-d “split the sea of assimilation” and save our people from imminent destruction

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)