The Mountain and the Sea


We all know the feeling: we wake up one morning to the realization that the world is not as we would like it to be. A common experience, to be sure, but many and diverse are the ways in which a person may react to it.

One man embarks on a quixotic crusade to change the world. A second gives up the world for lost and retreats into whatever protective walls he can erect around himself and his loved ones. A third takes the “practical” approach, accepting the world for what it is and doing his best under the circumstances. A fourth recognizes his inability to deal with the situation and looks to a higher authority for guidance and aid.

The Four Factions

Our forefathers experienced just such a rude awakening on the seventh day after their exodus from Egypt.

Ten devastating plagues had broken the might of the Egyptians and forced them to let the Jewish people go. After two centuries of exile and slavery, the children of Israel were headed toward Mount Sinai and their covenant with G-d as His chosen people and a “light unto the nations.”

Indeed, this was the stated purpose of the Exodus; as G-d told Moses, “When you take this nation out of Egypt, you will serve G-d at this mountain.”[1]

But suddenly the sea was before them, and Pharaoh’s armies were closing in from behind. Egypt was alive and well; the sea, too, seemed oblivious to the destiny of the newly-born nation.

How did they react?

The Midrash[2] tells us that the Jewish people were divided into four camps. There were those who said “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” A second group said “Let us return to Egypt.” A third faction argued “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.” Finally, a fourth camp advocated: “Let us pray to G-d.”

Moses, however, rejected all four options as inappropriate, saying to the people, “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of G-d, which He will show you today; for as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. G-d shall fight for you, and you shall be silent.”[3]

“Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of G-d,” explains the Midrash, is Moses’ response to those who had despaired of overcoming the Egyptian threat and wanted to plunge into the sea. “As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again,” is addressed to those who advocated surrender and return to Egypt. “G-d shall fight for you,” is the answer to those who wished to battle the Egyptians, and “you shall be silent” is Moses’ rejection of those who said, “This is all beyond us. All we can do is pray.”

What, then, is the Jew to do when caught between a hostile world and an unyielding sea? “Speak to the children of Israel,” said G-d to Moses, “that they shall go forward.”[4]

The Tzaddik in the Fur Coat

The road to Sinai was rife with obstacles and challenges. The same is true of the road from Sinai, our three-thousand year quest to implement the ethos and ideals of Torah in our world. Now, as then, there are several possible responses to an adverse world.

There is the “Let us throw ourselves into the sea” approach of those who despair of their ability to resist, much less impact, the big bad world out there.

Let us plunge into the sea, they say, the sea of the Talmud, the sea of piety, the sea of religious life. Let us sever all contact with an apostate and promiscuous world. Let us build walls of holiness to protect ourselves and our own from the alien winds which storm without, so that we may foster the legacy of Sinai within. An old chassidic saying refers to a such-minded individual as “a tzaddik in peltz”–“a holy man in a fur coat.” There are two ways to warm yourself on a cold winter day: you can build a fire, or wrap yourself in furs.

When the isolationist tzaddik is asked, “Why do think only of conserving your own warmth? Why don’t you build a fire that may warm others as well?,” he replies, “What’s the use? Can I warm up the entire world?” If you persist, pointing out that one small fire can thaw several frozen individuals, who may, in turn, create enough fires to warm a small corner of the universe, he doesn’t understand what you want of him. He’s a tzaddik, remember, a perfectly righteous individual. There’s no place for partial solutions in his life. “It’s hopeless,” he sighs with genuine sadness, and retreats into his spiritual Atlantis.

The Slave and the Warrior

A second “camp” says “Let us return to Egypt.”

Plunging into the sea is not an option, argues the Submissive Jew. This is the world that G-d has placed us in, and our mission is deal with it, not escape it. We’ll just have to lower our expectations a little.

This Exodus business was obviously a pipe dream. How could we presume to liberate ourselves from the rules and constraints which apply to everyone else? To be G-d’s “chosen people” is nice, but let us not forget that we are a minority, dependent on the goodwill of the Pharaohs who hold sway in the real world out there.

Certainly, it is our duty to influence the world. But then again, the Jew has many duties: it is his duty to pray three times a day, to give to charity and observe the Shabbat. So we’ll do what we have to. Yes, it’s a tough life, keeping all these laws while making sure not to antagonize your neighbors; but who ever said that being a Jew is easy?

A third response to an uncooperative world is that of the Fighting Jew. He understands that it is wrong to escape the world, and equally wrong to submit to it. So he takes it on, both barrels blazing. The Fighting Jew strides through life with a holy chip on his shoulder, battling immorality, apostates, anti-semites, “Hellenist” Jews, and non-fighting Jews. Not for him is the escapism of the first camp or the subservience of the second—he knows that his cause is just, that G-d is on his side, that ultimately he will triumph. So if the world won’t listen to reason, he’ll knock some sense into it.

The Spiritualist

Finally, there is the Jew who looks at the world, looks at the first three camps, shrugs his shoulders and lifts his eyes to the heavens. He knows that turning his back on the world is not the answer, and that neither is surrendering to its dictates and conventions. But he also knows that “The entirety of Torah was given to make peace in the world,”[5] that “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”[6]

“You hope to peacefully change the world?!” say the other three camps. “When was the last time you looked out the window? You might as well try to empty the oceans with a teaspoon.”

“You’re absolutely right,” says the Praying Jew. “Realistically, there’s no way it can be done. But who’s being realistic? “Do you know what the common denominator between all three of you is? Your assessments and strategies are all based on the natural reality. But we inhabit a higher reality. Is not the very existence of the Jewish people a miracle? Ours is the world of the spirit, of the word.”

“So basically your approach is to do nothing,” they counter. “Again you are employing the standards of the material world,” answers the Praying Jew, “a world that views prayer as ‘doing nothing.’ But a single prayer, coming from a caring heart, can achieve more than the most secure fortress, the most flattering diplomat or the most powerful army.”


And what does G-d say? “Speak to the children of Israel, that they shall go forward.”

True, it is important to safeguard and cultivate all that is pure and holy in the Jewish soul, to create an inviolable sanctum of G-dliness in one’s own heart and one’s community. True, there are times when we must deal with the world on its own terms. True, we must battle evil. And certainly we must acknowledge that we cannot do it all on our own. True, each of these four approaches have their time and place. But neither of them is the vision to guide our lives and define our relationship with the world about us. When the Jew is headed towards Sinai and is confronted with a hostile or indifferent world, his response must be to go forward.

Not to escape reality, not to submit to it, not to wage war on it, not to deal with only on a spiritual level, but to go forward. Do another mitzvah, ignite another soul, take one more step toward your goal. Pharaoh’s charioteers are breathing down your neck? A cold and impregnable sea bars your path? Don’t look up, look forward. See that mountain? Move toward it.

And when you do, you will see that insurmountable barrier yield and that ominous threat fade away. You will see that despite all the “evidence” to the contrary, you have it within your power to reach your goal. Even if you have to split some seas. If only you move forward.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shvat 10, 5722 (January 15, 1962)

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] Exodus 3:12.

[2] Midrash Mchiltah, Beshalach

[3] Exodus 14:13.

[4] ibid, 14:14.

[5] Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah 4:14.

[6] Proverbs, 3:17; see Talmud, Gittin 59b.


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9 years ago

Thank you for this! Very edifying and very comforting as well!

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