The Torah quotes G‑d as saying to Moses before the crossing of the Red Sea: "Why do you cry out to Me, speak to the Children of Israel, and they will start moving!" (Ex. 14:15) Rashi, quoting ancient sources, says that this verse teaches that while G‑d spoke to him, Moses was engaged in lengthy prayer. G‑d reprimanded Moses for spending all this time in prayer at a time when the Jewish People were in distress. This seems exceedingly strange. The Psalmist tells us, "On the day of my distress I call upon You, so that You will answer me." (Psalms 86:7)

Had it not been for Rashi's comment, we would not have experienced any difficulty. We would simply have understood G‑d as telling Moses that there was no need for prayer since G‑d had already assured Israel of His help when He said, "I shall deal severely with Pharaoh and his entire army". (Ex. 14:4) All Moses had to ask was how best to go about defeating Pharaoh. Nachmanides follows this approach in his commentary.

We must assume, however, that the word which troubled Rashi in that verse was the word "to Me". Who else would Moses have cried out to? Why did G‑d have to add this word? Would Moses have addressed the angels Michael and Gabriel? Surely not! Moses had to induce the Jewish people to leave Egypt…

Another difficulty is the very reply of G‑d. How could G‑d tell Moses that the Jewish people would [or should] march when the sea which they faced prevented them from doing just that? Maybe G‑d should have said: "Tell the Jewish people if they get moving I shall split the sea for them!"

If we are to explain the plain meaning of the text we must keep in mind the preceding verses and pay close attention to them. Regarding the expression "The Children of Israel cried out to G‑d," (Ex. 14:10) our sages in the Mechilta comment that they did the same time-honored thing their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had done when in trouble. The Talmud adds that there were four different groups of Israelites, each of whom reacted differently to the problems they faced.

Verse 11 seems to contain unnecessary verbiage: The Israelites are portrayed as sarcastic in lambasting Moses complaining that, since there was no suitable burial sites in Egypt, why did they have to come thus far only to be buried? And after that they ask, apparently for a second time, "What did you do for us to take us out of Egypt?" Rashi attempts to explain the repetition by saying they asked Moses in a different language, maybe Egyptian when they asked, "Did you take us out to bury us?" He seems to exchange the usual meaning of the word "you took us" for "you have seduced us". His reason maybe that man is first and foremost propelled by his intellect. It follows that the word "takes", does not really fit when applied to human beings. One "takes" objects or animals, but not human beings. The truth is therefore that Moses had to induce the Jewish people to leave Egypt by promising to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.

This still leaves the question why the Israelites did not say "why did you lead us out" instead of saying "you took us". After all, they did use the verb "to lead us" at the end of the same verse when they said "to lead us out from Egypt." The very words "what is this you have done to us" seem to be a repetition. When Moses answers them at length, saying:
a) "do not fear"
b) "stand upright"
c) "watch the salvation of G‑d"
plus the words "the way you see Egypt this day you will never see Egypt again," this surely appears an unnecessarily long answer! Besides, the last statement is not a clear-cut promise, but could be interpreted in exactly the reverse manner!

In fact, in the days of Jeremiah, the Israelites who fled from the land of Israel after the ruin of the Temple turned to Egypt for succor! Moreover, the Torah (see Deut. 28:68) describes Israel's return to Egypt as one of the curses in store for them for not observing the Torah! For all these reasons our sages did not view this latter statement of Moses "you will never see them again" as a promise, but construed it as a prohibition not to settle in the land of Egypt. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 5, 5) …This was surely not the time and the place to teach Israel never again to settle Egypt!

Even so, how can the historical period under discussion be related to what happened a millennium later to permit a distorted text at this point! This was surely not the time and the place to teach Israel never again to settle Egypt! At this time the only thing that mattered was a timely prayer! This is why G‑d said to Moses: "Israel is in distress and you indulge in overly long prayer!"

Our sages explain that the words "And here Israel saw Egypt traveling behind them" (Ex. 14:10) refer to the celestial minister of Egypt. This is the reason the Torah speaks about Egypt instead of about Egyptians. When the Israelites saw this, they were assailed by great doubts. At the time of the slaying of every first-born in Egypt they had believed that G‑d personally was in their midst and that all these miracles had not been orchestrated with the help of angels, etc., but had been performed by G‑d in His capacity as the four-lettered ineffable Name [Havayah]. They had been convinced that the first-born highest-ranking celestial minister of Egypt had also been defeated and no longer existed. They had believed that G‑d had disposed of that force because no one but G‑d Himself was able to accomplish this! The very fact that the Egyptians had buried all their dead had served as a sign for the Israelites that G‑d personally had struck down every first-born [as described in Num. 33:4]. When Israel saw that all the Egyptian first-born on earth had been slain, they naturally assumed that their celestial minister in the upper regions had been slain also, because we know of the principle that the spiritual counterparts of the nations on earth suffer defeat in the celestial regions prior to the defeat of the nations on earth whom they represent.

In this instance, however, the celestial minister of Egypt had not yet been totally eliminated. When the Torah spoke about G‑d's having struck Egypt, (see Num. 33:4) this did not mean that G‑d struck a fatal blow at that time. G‑d had allowed the celestial minister to survive until the Egyptians were drowned in the sea…

G‑d had allowed the celestial minister to survive until the Egyptians were drowned in the sea. The celestial minister had already been weakened. The Rekanti explains that at the sea the Israelites saw that the celestial minister of Egypt had allied himself with 'Satan' in order to be a real threat against Israel. G‑d allowed this celestial minister to exist in order to impress Israel even more deeply with His miracles. Israel was unaware of this at the time the Egyptian pursuit was in full swing. They did not yet know that G‑d was going to split the sea, save them and drown the Egyptian army in it. As a result of all this, they were beset by doubts as to whether it had been G‑d or Moses who had orchestrated the Exodus. They thought that G‑d perhaps had only wanted them to travel three days' journey into the desert, after which they were to return to Egypt, though not as slaves. They believed that Moses had overstepped his authority and decided by himself that Israel should not return to Egypt at all. They believed that Moses had done so in the belief that G‑d carries out the wishes of His prophets. This is why they cried out to G‑d to demonstrate that He was a living G‑d in their midst just as He had demonstrated this at the time He slew the first-born. They were angry at Moses, and this is why they accused him of taking them into the desert to die…

…The Israelites referred to their assumption that the celestial minister had been killed by basing themselves on their having seen the Egyptians bury their dead. They now doubted what their eyes had seen and implied that possibly the interment they believed they had witnessed did not prove that the first-born Egyptians were really in their graves. If so, instead of G‑d having taken the Jews out of Egypt, "you Moses have taken us, acquired us instead of G‑d!" The word "taken up" is used in contrast with G‑d's words, "And I saved you from their labor/deity [in Hebrew, "avodatam"] and I took you to be My nation". Those words had implied that Israel would be saved from the celestial minister of Egypt who represented their deity. When the children of Israel said, "What have you done to us?", they merely paraphrased Pharaoh, who had said, "What have we done - for we have sent Israel out of servitude." (Ex. 14:6) The word "out of servitude" [in Hebrew, "m'avdeinu"] also can mean "from our deity", meaning that Pharaoh regretted allowing Israel to serve their own deity instead of that of the celestial minister of Egypt. None of the projectiles the Egyptian army hurled at the Israelites caused any damage…

At this point Moses revealed to them that they would not again observe the celestial minister as he had been. His demise was about to occur amongst tremendous miracles which they would witness. At that moment G‑d's promise of "I will save you from their deity and take you to be My people" (a higher spiritual level by far) would be fulfilled. As proof of its immediacy, they would observe G‑d doing the fighting on their behalf. An even more immediate proof was that none of the projectiles the Egyptian army hurled at the Israelites caused any damage. They were all caught by the angel described as traveling between the camp of the Israelites and that of the Egyptians. (see Rashi on Ex. 14:19)

When G‑d criticized Moses for calling out to Him at that time, He meant that by doing so Moses only reinforced the people's suspicions that he had acted high-handedly without consulting G‑d and that he was not pleading with G‑d to come to his assistance. If now He Himself would tell the Israelites that they should move forward they would realize and believe that whatever Moses had done in the past was also at G‑d's behest, and that G‑d personally slew the Egyptian first-born, not an agent.

All of this message is contained in the brief instruction to "get moving". G‑d purposely did not waste any time explaining that He would split the sea, etc. If G‑d would now reveal His plan of drowning the Egyptians it would be perceived as a new decision by G‑d and not as part of His overall plan conceived much earlier. An allusion to this impending miracle was already contained in the announcement of the plague of killing the first-born, when G‑d referred to "increasing My miracles" [plural (Ex. 11:9)]. One of the "miracles" referred to was the slaying of the first-born, the other the splitting of the sea and the Egyptians being drowned in it (Rashi). G‑d's entire purpose in the sequence of events was to build up Moses' reputation amongst the people. We know that G‑d succeeded in this because the Torah tells us, "They believed in G‑d and in His servant Moses". (Ex. 14:31) The verse in question refers to the Israelites having seen Egypt dead in verse 30.

The Zohar is at pains to point out that the Torah does not speak about Egyptians being viewed as dead, but rather Egypt, i.e. the celestial minister of Egypt. G‑d made a point of showing the dead celestial minister to the Israelites. I believe that this is the plain meaning of the verses dealing with this episode.

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]