Whether we are preparing for an exam, a simcha, a job interview, or retirement, our success is directly proportional to our preparatory efforts. Immigrants who arrive in a new country without adequate preparation for what lies ahead face enormous difficulties and challenges beyond those that are a standard part of any migration. The numbers of olim who moved to Israel in the euphoria surrounding the return of Jerusalem to Jewish control, yet eventually returned to their western countries of origin, attest to this law of nature. Emotional identification is no match for practical realities.
Our ancestors who departed from Egypt were caught in a similar bind. When Moshe arrived, bringing G-d’s message of redemption, “the people believed; they accepted the message” (Shemot 4:31). Throughout the unfolding events of the Exodus, they dutifully followed Moshe’s instructions. Despite the dangers involved, they slaughtered the Egyptian god and put its blood on their doorposts. And displaying tremendous faith in the unknown, they followed Moshe into the desert. “I remember the kindness of your youth …you followed Me in the wilderness in an unsown land” (Yirmiyahu 2:2). This level of faith coupled with a desire to carry out G-d’s mission was too difficult for most to achieve. Our Sages teach us that only one in five had the necessary fortitude to embark on the journey from Egypt to Israel via Sinai. The other 80% perished in Egypt.
The nation that left Egypt was truly a great one, full of faith and a sense of mission. Yet, equipped with the best of intentions, they soon came face to face with the cruel reality of life in the desert. On no less than four occasions the Jewish people are recorded venting their anger, fear, and frustration regarding conditions in the desert. The pursuing Egyptian army, the food supply, the drinking water: at each and every turn, there was another complaint. Whereas a scant few days earlier they had hurried out of Egypt, now they were yelling, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us here to die in the desert?” (14:11). A nation glad to eat simple matzah was replaced by a people crying, “there, at least, we could sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread! But you had to bring us out to this desert, to kill the entire nation by starvation!” (16:3).
While one might have hoped for better, it is difficult to fault the Jewish people. How would you react if you had been enslaved your entire life and were suddenly freed, only to find yourself in a desert with little food and water?
This conflict between good intentions and mundane reality is borne out by an analysis of a Midrashic dispute describing the events leading up to kriat yam suf. Rav Meir claims that each tribe was vying for the right to be the first to jump into the sea to demonstrate their faith in G-d. While they were arguing, the tribe of Binyamin quickly jumped in and led the way. Rav Yehuda, however, has a diametrically opposing view: the Jews gathered around the sea, each saying, “I will not go first”, hoping someone else would lead the way. The sea only split when Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in. With an insightful analysis, the Lev Aryeh explains that in reality there is no difference of opinion. Miles away from the sea, many vied for the opportunity to be the first in the water. However, when the time came to actually jump, the big talkers were nowhere to be found. Nachshon was forced to jump in to save the nation.
The nascent nation was simply not up to the challenge of converting their good intentions into action. While we can perhaps forgive the band of slaves in the Sinai, it is harder to understand this failure in ourselves. We have had the opportunity to learn the lesson of Jewish history; but how often do we find excuses not to act on our good intentions, missing opportunity after opportunity to sanctify the name of G-d? Why are we so much quicker to complain than to fix? When a mitzvah opportunity arises—be it for Talmud Torah, giving tzedakah, visiting the sick, calling a friend in Israel, or greeting a neighbour—we must take advantage of it. We must strive to shake off our own slave mentality as we march forward. If we can do so successfully, our many dreams just might turn into reality.