Unity and Divisiveness in Egypt and at the Sea
By: Rav Mordechai Greenberg
"The water was a wall (choma) for them, on their right and on their left." (Shemot 14:29) Chazal comment on this: "This teaches that Samael (the prosecuting anger) stood up and said, 'Master of the Universe! Did Israel not worship idols in Egypt, and you are doing miracles for them?!' ... [G-d] became angry at them and wanted to swallow them up." (That is why it says choma without a vav, as if it said chaima.) The question is, why did Samael wake up only now, at the end of the process, and not at the beginning, during the plagues and the miracles that were done in Egypt?
The Meshech Chochma derives from this an important principle in Judaism. At first glance, the tangible mitzvot between man and G-d are more severe than those between man and his friend, which flow from corrupt traits. For example, idolatry and adultery are punishable by death, whereas there are not even lashes for dissension, lashon hara and rechilut. However, this is only true regarding sins of the individual, whereas regarding societal corruption we find the opposite tendency. The community suffers on account of corrupt traits, more so than the individual. David's generation was righteous, and even so they would fall in battle, since there were tattlers among them. On the other hand, Achav's generation, who were idolaters, were victorious in battle, since there weren't tattlers amongst them. Even regarding the sin of idolatry it says, "Who dwells among them among their contamination." (Vayikra 16:16) In contrast, regarding sins such as rechilut, lashon hara and dissension, David said, "Go up to heaven" (Tehillim 57:6) – i.e., remove Your Presence from them.
We find, similarly, that the sins of the first Temple were idolatry, adultery and murder, and even so the Temple returned after seventy years. The Second Temple, however, where they sinned with social sins, sin'at chinam (baseless hatred) – is still destroyed after two thousand years. "If society is corrupt in their character, it is worse than if they are corrupt in mitzvot." Therefore, the fate of the generation of the Flood was sealed only on account of stealing, since G-d is willing to wait regarding sins between man and G-d, but not on fundamentals of societal morality. The Meshech Chochma continues:
Therefore, regarding the desecration of Shabbat, which has spread in our sins, He will grant them time, because they are a community. Even regarding idolatry [Chazal] said in the Sifrei, "the soul – will be cut off" but the community will not be cut off." However, since they violated ethical norms, they go with swords and arrows to rob and steal, and have become corrupt in character and are like animals of prey, G-d will certainly avenge, and not tarry.
The reason for this is that when the social relationships are weakened, the people are not viewed as a community, but rather as individuals, and as individuals they are judged on the serious sins, such as idolatry and adultery. We find, as well, that G-d forgave Bnei Yisrael for the sin of idolatry at the golden calf, but did not forgive the sin of the spies, which entailed lashon hara and ingratitude to G-d, and they all died in the desert.
With this we can understand Chazal's comment in the Midrash that we began with, that the angels complained at Yam Suf about avoda zara and did not mention anything in Egypt. This is because in Egypt although Bnei Yisrael were corrupt in mitzvot, and even rejected brit milah, yet they were complete in character, and loved one another, and did not speak lashon hara. (See Mechilta Bo 5.) Therefore, as a community, miracles were done for them. However, at the shore of Yam Suf, when they were divided into four groups and argued between them how to act – it was no longer possible to judge them as a community but rather as individuals. Thus, as individuals, they were judged for the sin of idolatry, and there was objection to the miracles that were done for them.
This is what Chazal say on the pasuk, "Ephraim is attached to idols; let him be" (Hoshea 4:17), that even when they worship avoda zara, still, when they are united, they merit miracles despite this serious sin.
This idea is relevant nowadays, when the breach in matters between man and his neighbor has widened. We need to know that the solution is not in the division of the nation. Only one who is not the true mother is capable of saying, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut!" The true mother says, "Give her the living newborn and do not put it to death." (Melachim I 3:26-27)
Rav Kook zt"l writes about this in Orot (p. 73):
There is no end to the material and spiritual evils in the division of the nation into parts, even though complete separation, as entertained by those who cut with cruelty, is impossible and will not be. This is literally a thought of collective avoda zara, which we are sure that will not occur. "As for what enters your minds – it shall not be! As for what you say, 'We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands, to worship wood and stone,' as I live – the word of Hashem Elokim – I will rule over you with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath." (Yechezkel 20:32-33)
Shiur ID: 3668