A Nation Of Nonbelievers

Amongst the most preeminent themes of Parshas Beshalach is without question that of emunah, belief in God. The stories of the parsha all seem to focus around the Jewish people finding their faith in the Divine. And yet, it is just as much a parsha of non-belief, and a lack of faith in God.

Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt the Jewish people find themselves in the middle of a desert without any water to drink. They cry out to God:

Exodus 17:3:

ויאמר למה זה העליתנו ממצרים להמית אתי ואת־בני ואת־מקני בצמא

‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?’

It seems whatever faith they found in God from the miracles, plagues, and Exodus as a whole was lost on them the moment they were confronted with something problematic. Indeed, the first story immediately following Az Yashir, and the splitting of the sea, is again one of complaint on the part of the Jewish people that they will die from thirst1. And then they complain once more later in the parsha2. It seems that every time that there is an issue, the Jewish people descend immediately into disbelief and an utter lack of any confidence whatsoever in the Divine.

Indeed, the entire phenomena is intriguing, mysterious, and more than a little perplexing. Mere moments after witnessing God bend and break the very laws of nature so as to rescue the Jewish people, those very Jewish people doubt God’s resolve to keep them alive? Such a proposition seems dubious, and yet, that is exactly what is relayed in the Torah.

A Ceaseless Struggle

Certainly, the most obvious explanation for this is also k’pshuto, the simplest. Namely, faith is difficult. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be faith. Yes, even after witnessing miraculous events first-hand, the Jewish people still find themselves caught in the endless struggle to maintain an awareness of the Divine presence. Faith remains an ever-present, ceaseless challenge.

This conjures up the imagery employed by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik throughout his Lonely Man Of Faith in which he presents religion as a constant tension and internal struggle. Far from being “the Opium of the people”, or bringing peace of mind, religion, and faith in the Divine, instead brings about a deep inner conflict. This conflict and struggle is ever-present, ceaseless, and simply a fundamental facet of the life of homo religiosus.

While this over-arching approach is without question true, we shall herein examine one particular instance of complaint to perhaps derive a deeper message.

Amongst Us; Within Us

The final time the Jewish people complain is at מסה ומריבה. The latter was named as such due to the fact that the Jewish people argued and quarreled there (from the word “ריב”). The former was so named because the Jewish people tested God there (“נסתם את יה-ה”). The posuk itself explains that they tested God by asking the following:

Exodus 17:7:

היש יה-ה בקרבנו אם־אין

“Is God amongst us, or not?”

The words are almost impossible to read. Suddenly the Jewish people think that God has abandoned them? What logic is there in a God that brings about the Exodus simply to leave the newly freed nation to die in the desert? Nonetheless, we witness the Jewish people doubting God’s presence amongst them once more.

Yet, perhaps that is not quite the case. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that the question “היש יה-ה בקרבנו” can certainly be translated as it is rendered above, but the word “בקרבנו” can just as well mean “within us”, thus rendering the proper translation of the phrase: “Is God within us, or not?” Both are equally valid translations of exactly the same word and phrase. Indeed, with this new translation, the question now flows naturally from the episode, and makes perfect sense in context.

There was, in fact, no doubt at that point in time amongst the Jewish people as to whether or not God was amongst them. Surely, the God of the Exodus had not just abandoned them. There was no concern amongst the Jewish people that they would perish in the desert when they asked “היש יה-ה בקרבנו”. Rather, they were asking a fundamental question of faith. After all they had witnessed and experienced, was the Divine now a part of them? Did Godliness run through their blood? Were all their experiences merely external to them, or had they properly absorbed their experiences into their very beings? In short, the Jewish people worried as to whether they had actually internalized any of the events that had transpired.

At מסה ומריבה the Jewish people asked the perfectly natural question of “היש יה-ה בקרבנו”: Is God now to be found within us? Indeed, the lessons to be derived are obvious.

1. Exodus 15:24

2. Exodus 16:2. This is not to mention the earlier time the Jewish people complained against God as well in Exodus 14:11.

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