To paraphrase the old saying, God could take the Israelites out of Egypt, but He couldn’t take Egypt out of the Israelites. The Israelites had witnessed a series of miracles and wonders — all the plagues that had struck the Egyptians and bypassed the Israelites, their livestock, and their homes — but they remained fragile.
They saw the plagues that freed them from slavery, they left Egypt with gold and silver, and they had the promise that God would bring them to a good land. They had, too, the evidence of their own eyes that God kept promises, yet each time they encountered difficulties they were overcome by panic.
This is clear from the opening words of the parsha: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’”
At the sea, the Israelites saw the pursuing Egyptians and cried, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘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?’”
God splits the sea, brings the Israelites across safely, and lets them see the death of Egyptians and that they are no longer a threat — but three days later they are complaining again. They complain about water, they complain about food. God does miracle after miracle, but the Israelites continue to complain — “We were better off in Egypt.”
Really? They were better off where their sons were murdered because of Pharaoh’s paranoia? They were better off where they were forced to perform hard labor under terrible conditions? They were better off where they could be beaten, perhaps even killed, at the whim of a taskmaster? Was it really better in Egypt?
It is obvious that all the miracles that God did in connection with yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, were not enough to convince the Israelites to trust God’s promise or to believe they were on the right path. All they could see were risks and danger. They were overwhelmed by fear and negativity and lack of confidence.
Slavery had marked them not only physically but also psychologically. Slave life certainly wasn’t pleasant, but it involved no risk — a slave just had to do what he or she was told; there was no need to make decisions or choices that might lead to failure.
The people who left Egypt hadn’t yet come to terms with being free. They couldn’t imagine fighting for their freedom, or even their lives. They certainly weren’t ready to fight for possession of the Promised Land. They hadn’t yet learned to take risks. Whenever the freed slaves were faced with the need to take a chance, they started to complain that they should have stayed in Egypt. And finally, when they panicked at the report of the spies, God realized that this generation was too badly damaged. They would have to die in the wilderness so that their children could become an independent people.
One of my very favorite scenes in the Torah occurs when the Israelites stand at the edge of the sea, watching the pursuing Egyptians grow closer and closer. Moses exclaims, “Have no fear — stand by and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today!” And how does God respond? “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”
Standing still meant certain death. Going forward might not guarantee success, but it did offer the Israelites the possibility of becoming a free people in their own land.
Going forward was an act of hope. Sometimes, in spite of everything, you have to risk a leap of faith.