Fear is not a rational thing. Even when the mind knows perfectly
well that there is absolutely no danger, sinister shadows strike fear into
the heart. As the Jewish people emerging from Egypt saw Pharaoh and
his army in pursuit, what should have been their logical reaction?
They had seen the ten plagues demonstrate the utter
powerlessness of the Egyptians to withstand the will of Hashem. They
had been liberated from centuries of bondage without lifting a finger in
their own defense. What danger then did this pursuing army pose?
Clearly, there was none.
And yet, the Jewish people were terrified. As the fearsome
Egyptian chariots surged towards them, they may have understood
intellectually that Hashem would render their enemies harmless before
they could inflict any damage. But they could not stop themselves from
being overcome by a terrible fear. They cried out to Hashem in
desperation, and they maligned Moses for having taken them out of
Egypt to perish violently beside the sea.
Beleaguered, Moses tried to reassure the panicked people. “Do not
be afraid,” he called out to them. “Stand by and watch Hashem save
you. Never again shall you have to see these Egyptians.”
Just then, Hashem said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me?
Tell the people to get under way.”
The question immediately arises: If Moses was trying to reassure
the terrified Jewish people that they were about to witness the climax of
the Egyptian downfall, why did he himself cry out to Hashem? Hadn’t his
reassurances come from a profound inner conviction?
Moreover, observe the commentators, we only learn that Moses
cried out because Hashem reproved him for it. Why is there no explicit
mention in the Torah of Moses crying out to Hashem?
The commentators explain that Moses’s prayer was not the result
of a conscious decision to plead with Hashem. He already knew that the
salvation of the Jewish people was assured. Rather, it was a reflex
reaction, a spontaneous outburst of supplication in response to the very
real distress of the people. Because of his intense love for the Jewish
people, Moses could not separate himself from their emotional
condition. As the quintessential leader, he felt the anguish of his people,
and he responded in kind.
For this reason, the Torah makes no mention of Moses standing in
prayer, since it was not something he had intended to do. But he did it
nonetheless, and Hashem chided him for praying when he should be
taking bold action.
A man once came to a doctor with a splinter deeply imbedded in his
hand. The doctor saw that the hand had become swollen and infected.
“Now listen, my good fellow,” said the doctor. “This is going to be
quite painful, and I need you to sit perfectly still.”
The man nodded, squeezed his eyes shut, gritted his teeth and
began to tap compulsively on the floor with his feet.
The doctor laid out his instruments, swabbed the puncture clean
and began to dig for the splinter.
Suddenly, the doctor jumped back and screamed, “Ouch!”
The man’s eyes flew open, and his foot tapping came to an
immediate halt. “I’m so sorry, doctor,” he said. “What did I do? Did I step
on your foot? I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the doctor. “You didn’t do anything at all.
When I pulled out the splinter, I knew how much pain it was causing
you, and I couldn't stop myself from crying out.”
In our own lives, we very often see the anguish of others, be they
family, friends, acquaintances or even people in the news, and our first
tendency is to be judgmental. If these tortured souls were responsible
for their own anguish through negligence or foolishness, we may
sometimes shut them out of our minds and say, “They brought it on
themselves. They should have known better.” Indeed. But the Torah
expects a higher degree of sensitivity. The Torah expects us to
empathize with people in distress under all circumstances, to feel their
pain, to be inspired to help them out of their predicaments. For in
Hashem’s eyes, all people deserve to be helped.