Beshallach – Jumping In and Journeying Toward Freedom

(based on Conservative Yeshiva drash by Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein)

Certain moments in life require response, whether you are ready for it or not. You are confronted with a moment and have no choice but to act. What will we do? Will we run, jump, fight, argue, pray, panic, capitulate, avoid, cry, or complain? Often our options are limited. And more often than not, our response is unconscious; we react without thinking.

In this morning’s portion, the Israelites face an epic crisis. As we study their response, we learn lessons that allow us to respond to those unexpected moments that will arise in life, hopefully with mindful and moral awareness.

So let’s turn to our story. No sooner had we triumphantly departed Egypt, liberated from slavery, that we find ourselves panicking as Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his mighty army after us. With the sea on one side and the chariots rumbling toward us, the options seem limited. We panic, crying out to God and angrily blaming Moses for taking us out of Egypt.

Look at Moses’ response at Exodus 14:13. “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today….The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” That would be a good moment for the sea to split, but that is not what happens!

God’s response is telling (Ex. 14:15). “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” Stop praying and act. It’s an important lesson in a crisis; move forward and act. There is a time for praying and a time for doing. No one can help us until we act ourselves.

You know how the story turns out, the sea parts and the Egyptians drown, but various Midrashim, stories about the story, come to fill in gaps. Did anything precede the parting? Were other dynamics happening in the Israelite camp? And the Midrashim come not just to fill in narrative gaps, but to teach us lessons about facing crisis. This morning I would like to explore Midrash and biblical narrative, to seek guidance for those moments in life which require response.

Many of you know the famous Midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadov. That Midrash builds on a little detail in the narrative, the line “they went into the sea on dry ground.” It wonders how you can go into the sea, which is wet, on dry ground, which is dry. From the inconsistency of language in this detail, the Rabbis who wrote the Midrash teach that the sea did not part until Nachshon jumped in, with the water coming all the way up to his nose. The lessons that underlie the

Midrash are important:

  1. At times of crisis, miracles don’t just happen. They are created by human action.
  2. History is defined by individuals who take the initiative and find the courage to act when facing crisis.
  3. Faith is knowing that actions catalyze change.

When Gabby, her family and I discussed Nachshon, we saw a link to her father’s family leaving Russia and the saving of Russian Jews. Through leadership and courage, unimaginable change came about. People like Natan Sharansky, Yuli Edelman, and Ida Nudel were the Nachshons who brought about miracle by their courage. Their stories are important to tell and re-tell for Nachshon exists in every period of time. These stories motivate us as we face decisions. Do you know the story of the day Natan Sharansky left Russia? He was told he was leaving prison, but did not know where he was going or that he was being released. He asked if the book of Psalms that his wife Avital gave him would be taken and was assured that it would. The book was a tie to Avital that reminded him of the courage of King David and that for David to be bold in combat, he had to be humble before God. He arrived at an airport and realized he was leaving and asked, “Where is my Psalm book?” The response was, “You received everything that was permitted.” And what did Sharansky do? He dropped to the snow refusing to move until he received his Psalm book. He began shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!” And they did! (Story taken from Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil)

People like Nachshon step forward in every generation and we are privileged to be inspired by them. My question, and struggle, is: Who is the Nachshon of our time? What is the act to be taken to create redemption? That is a question worthy of debate and discussion. We turn to Nachshon, and many modern Nachshons, for inspiration and we wonder, what would Nachshon do right now? The answer is not clear to me, although the need to act in Nachshon’s footsteps is very clear. Perhaps clarity begins to emerge through study and discussion.

But I believe that if we look for salvation solely through the acts of courageous individuals, we don’t understand the nuance and complexity of the story. It wasn’t just Nachshon. There were lots of small details that went into the Exodus. The night before leaving, every person had to find the courage to place blood over their doorposts. Think about how it may have turned out is the promised plague did not materialize. Those people would have been exposed and punished. Furthermore, the people had to leave with meager provisions. They could have stayed, but they chose to leave.

It is the little things that create the circumstances where redemption can happen. When we go back to the story of the Russian Jews, it is the simple act of deciding to leave, knowing the cost that would come as you wait. It’s the acclimating and adjusting to a new country where you don’t speak the language. It’s support you find in that country. It is the people who reached out before you left and gave support in any way they could. Our Rabbi Emeritus, David Teitelbaum, and his wife, Robin, traveled to Russia to meet with and provide support for the refuseniks. It is the protests that our congregation supported at the Soviet Consulate every week. It is the activist organizations that arose to work to free Soviet Jews. It is legislation that lifted the issue to the top of our country’s priorities. It is things like leaving an empty chair at B’nai Mitzvah for those Jewish children who could not have a similar ceremony. Redemption requires the Nachshons, but it also requires all the small acts connected to the moment of redemption.

The story of Nachshon is not the only Midrash about what happened at the Sea of Reeds. It is the most famous one, but there is another that I think is just as instructive, a little less heroic, a bit more provocative, and in some ways more accurate. Rabbi Meir taught: “When the tribes of Israel stood at the sea, one said, ‘I will go down first’ while another said, ‘No, I will go down first.’ While they were standing there fighting with each other, the tribe of Benjamin jumped up and entered the sea first. The tribe of Judah [in their fury at being preempted], began to throw stones at the tribe of Benjamin.”

Admittedly it is a peculiar Midrash, but I think it points to another aspect of facing challenging times. We are often so busy disputing one another, insisting that our way is right, that we end up missing the bigger picture, and the moment passes us by. We are throwing stones at those who upset up in our own communities. Interpreting this Midrash, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein writes that it teaches us that “at moments of crisis, many of us are whole heartedly convinced that we know what God’s message is, that our positions on moral or political issues are absolute truth and that the other guy is totally wrong. We are so convinced that we would have no compunctions about ‘throwing stones’ at our opponents.” Fear narrows our world and creates the space in which anger and dissension can flourish.

We need our Nachshons. We need people who take care of different details and we need to recognize that others who disagree with us might have something legitimate to say, and might be equally sincere in trying to do the right thing. The message for this moment is that we may differ as to what the moment demands and, unless we can muster respect and humility, our throwing of stones at one another will be our demise.

One last detail from our story is of great importance. The portion begins by detailing that when the Israelites left Egypt, G-d did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for G-d said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So G-d led the people on a roundabout route, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Change takes time and there are no shortcuts or easy answers. It was a whole generation before the Israelites were ready for freedom. Liberty is not realized in a moment. We learn in this portion that it is a long path, catalyzed by big and small acts.

So today, let’s embrace the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: The Long Walk to Freedom. There are no shortcuts as we nurture the inner Nachshon in ourselves, asking how we can emulate his catalyzing acts. There is no easy blueprint, but there are daily acts that contribute to the enterprise, and we each find the detail that touches our soul. And we realize that there is constant risk of demanding that others follow our truth, and throwing stones at those with whom we disagree. We must resist that risk, knowing that to arrive in the Holy Land we need to travel together, tolerating dissent and finding common cause and action.