The Good Kind of Shut Up
Is there a helpful way to say “shut up?” One of the earliest lessons most of us learn is to never tell someone to shut up. It’s rude. It immediately tells a person that what they have to say is worthless. That old adage does not ring true. Sticks and stones do hurt and no, actually, words also really hurt. But what happens when the person telling you to shut up is Moses? What happens when he tells you this with a raging sea in front of you and an advancing, murderous army nearing you from the other side?
That’s exactly what happens in this week’s portion of Beshalah. As they are trapped between an army and a wet place, the Israelites cry out in their usual desert complaint of “why did you take us out of Egypt for this?!” Moses’ response is as follows, “Have no fear. Stand by, and witness the deliverance which God will work for you today, for the Egyptians whom you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!”
It seems to the modern reader that the people are being given the “shut up” treatment. It is on this note that the Midrash1 comments:
“Rabbi says: The Lord will battle for you and you hold your peace. Shall God perform miracles and mighty deeds for you while you stand silently by? The Israelites then said to Moses: Moses, our teacher, what is there for us to do? And he said to them: You should be exalting, glorifying and praising, uttering songs of praise, adoration and glorification to God in whose hands are the fortunes of wars.”
This may be the response many of us would assume had we held Moses’ position. Are you serious? After all of the miracles of your freedom from Egypt, this is the type of faith that you show in God?! Perhaps the Midrash, picking up on the harshness of the initial response adds in the suggestion to sing and offer praises to God. Yes, it is a version of “silence!” but it is a redemptive “shut up.”
I couldn’t help but feel challenged by the response. Even if it was an attempt to steer them to say something more productive, their fear was warranted. Any person with the utmost faith facing an advancing army and a stormy body of water would understandably quake. It is this discomfort that I think pushes Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, the 2nd Sochatchover Rebbe2 to say the following:
“You hold your peace has to do with trusting in the Lord. Trust is above faith, for trusting subsumes having faith, but having faith does not subsume trusting. So, by the very act of remaining silent and trusting in the Lord’s deliverance, deliverance will come. That being so, You shall hold your peace is not a negative, rather a positive command.”
It was not a command to shut up for naught but a command to use silence. Utilize it to look inward and forget about needing absolute faith. Seek trust.
The difference in Jewish thought between faith and trust is nuanced but important to understand. Faith means believing that there is something greater than just our own individualism in the world. Trust is relying on that knowledge to aid you in a given moment in life.
According to this text, you can have that belief but not the trust that it’ll work out. Trust though is inclusive of both. Even if in this moment, you people do not have the faith that God is present, you must trust that The Divine will find a way to act.
Sometimes, our own inner voice gets in our heads so much. It distracts us from the varied and deep truths that we hold. One of those is our trust in that which is greater than ourselves. We don’t always have to believe that every aspect of our lives will be perfect. But it is wise to cultivate the practice of saying I trust that something will work out.
The symbolism of an advancing army and a storm feels more apt than usual right now. The advice from our tradition is apt as well. Even in moments of great desperation, when faith feels so far off, Moses, channeled through Rabbi Borenstein is telling us to quiet down, listen, and try to find that trust.
Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishhmael Beshalah 2
Also known as the Shem Mi’Shmuel-19th/20th Century Poland.