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People Believe What They Want to Believe

And Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea, and HASHEM moved the sea with a strong eastern wind all the night, and He turned the sea to damp land and the water split.” — Shemos 14:21

Mitzrayim, the nation that bragged that no slave had ever escaped its land, stood by helplessly as the Chosen Nation triumphantly left. The Jewish people, now some three million strong, marched through the desert surrounded on all sides by clouds that protected them and led by a pillar of cloud that lit up the night as if it was day.

Yet even at this moment, Pharaoh sent spies along to follow them. After three days, his agents reported back that the Jews had veered off course. Pharaoh called out to his people, “Let us reclaim that which is ours,” and he led them in pursuit.

When the Mitzrim arrived on the scene, the Jews were camped out against the Yam Suf. With their backs against the sea and no place to move, it seemed certain that the Mitzrim would recapture them. At that moment, the cloud of fire that led the Jews through the desert moved to the back of the camp and stopped the Mitzrim from advancing. That entire night, both camps stood in their places, separated by the Clouds of Glory.

The Ramban tells us that during the night, an eastern wind began to blow. This was the wind that split the sea. At first, it made small indentations in the sea, but as the night wore on, the wind became stronger, and those small indentations grew in size and depth until the sea itself was split into twelve distinct pathways – ready for each Shevet to cross in its own channel.

The Ramban explains that HASHEM split the sea specifically with an eastern wind “so that it would appear as if the wind split the sea into partitions.” Even though the wind can’t possibly split the sea, much less split it into twelve separate partitions, nevertheless, because of their great desire to harm the Jews, the Mitzrim “pegged it on a natural cause.” It was just the wind, nothing more.

How could the Mitzrim possibly believe the wind split the sea?

This Ramban is very difficult to understand. How could the Mitzrim possibly pin the splitting of the sea on the wind? They were intelligent, thinking people. They, as everyone else, clearly understood that it couldn’t possibly be a natural occurrence. How is it possible that they accepted this sham – that the wind split the sea?

Understanding free will

The answer to this question is predicated upon understanding the concept of free will. Free will doesn’t mean a theoretical ability to do good or bad. It is the practical ability where either side is possible. When a person can just as easily turn to the bad as to the good, then it is his decision to choose.

As an illustration, do you have free will to put your hand in a fire? In theory, you do. You could do it. But you never would. It is damaging. It is foolish. So, while in theory you have free will to do it, on a practical level, you don’t.

Creating man

Chazal tell us that HASHEM created man to give him the opportunity to shape himself into what he would be for eternity. That molding of the person is accomplished by choosing that which is good and proper and avoiding that which is wrong and evil. By making these choices, man is given the ability to form himself.

To give man an even playing field, HASHEM took the sechel – that pure, brilliant part of me – and inserted it into a body filled with drives, passions, and hungers. Now the two parts of me are integrated. I don’t want only what is good and proper and noble. I also desire and hunger for many other things. My choice of doing only good is no longer so simple.

However, if HASHEM created man only out of these two parts – the sechel and the guf – the purpose of creation would never have been met. The wisdom of man is so great that it would be almost impossible for him to sin. Since every sin damages me and every mitzvah makes me into a bigger, better person, my natural intelligence wouldn’t allow me to sin, no matter how tempted I might be. I would clearly recognize it as damaging to me. Much like putting my hand into a fire, in theory I would have free will to do it, but on a practical level, I wouldn’t.

Imagination – its role and function

Therefore, HASHEM added one more component to the human: imagination. Imagination is the creative ability to form a mental picture and sense it so vividly, so graphically, it is as if it is real. Ask anyone who has ever cried while reading a novel whether imagination isn’t a powerful force.

Now armed with this force, man can create fanciful worlds at his will and actually believe them. If man wishes to turn to evil, he can create rationales to make these ways sound noble and proper – at least enough to fool himself. Armed with imagination, man truly has free will. If he wishes he can do what is right, or if he wishes, he can turn to wickedness, and even his brilliant intellect won’t prevent him. With imagination, he is capable of creating entire philosophies to explain how the behavior he desires is righteous, correct, and appropriate. Now man has free will.

People believe what they want to believe

The reality is that people don’t necessarily believe that which is factual, proven and true; they believe what they want to believe. And while there are countless examples of this, one of the greatest manifestations is the Mitzrim following the Jews into the Yam.

Despite living through the makkos, despite seeing the Yam split into sections, they didn’t believe it was a miracle. They attributed it to the wind because that is what they wanted to believe.

Understanding this can help us comprehend how people can stare at things so obvious and true and yet deny their very existence. There are many reasons why a person might not want to accept what his mind tells him is true. He has to be able to put away all other issues and focus on this one question: what do I think is the truth? Forget the consequences. Forget my agenda. Is there a Creator of this world? Logic will bring them to see the hand of God. However, if he isn’t honest, then nothing in the world will convince him, not the greatest miracles, and not even the splitting of the Yam Suf itself.

This is an excerpt from the Shmuz on the Parsha book.

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