A Teaching for This Week’s Torah Reading: Beshalach Devar Torah

If I asked you to imagine being inside the story of this week’s Torah reading, when the Hebrew slaves were liberated, then chased by Pharoah’s army with chariots, most likely you wouldn’t have a clue what it would been like. Of course, some among us are Holocaust survivors or have experienced other life-threatening ordeals – and these images may seem personally relevant. But most of us have avoided the terror of enslavement and flight-under pursuit.

Yet, many of us have come through difficult ordeals – relationship crises, break-ups, job loss, financial crisis, or illness – and we have stood in that moment of terror between the narrow place of suffering and the unknown future. 

Moses faced his people’s frightened faces as they stood at the water, with Pharoah in pursuit. He tried to silence their cries by insisting they summon faith from within their hearts:

Exodus 14:13 But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

 I don’t know about you, but I know this wouldn’t have calmed my fears. In fact, Moses’ rebuke would have made me more afraid.  Stand and wait for deliverance? Really?!   I might be wondering which would be worse: drowning in the sea or succumbing to Pharoah’s violent fury?

The Torah text goes on to imagine the Divine reaction to Moses’ plea for faith:

 15 Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 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.

Clearly, the people needed action.  They needed to be empowered to move forward, feeling Divine support within themselves. The rabbis of the Talmud understood that we must act – sometimes taking a leap of faith.  They perceived a break in the text, filled-in with the legend of Nachshon ben Aminadav, reputed to be have been the leader of the tribe of Judah. Nachshon was the quintessential “first adopter” – he watched Moses awaiting God’s redemption and realized that the people needed to act. So he jumped into the water. Only then did Moses understand that his role was to raise his staff, leading the people across the receded basin of the sea.

At that moment, the wilderness ahead was not frightening. Even though the dry, barren desert would soon be another terrifying frontier – what would they eat or drink? — the chapters of wilderness were yet to unfold. At the sea, all they could do was move forward to the safety of dry land.  There was no turning back.

When survival — whether physical, spiritual, emotional – is at stake, only a leap of faith can propel us forward. No matter what challenges may await us, redemption from danger or despair is a process that begins with the heart of Nachshon. When we realize that we cannot afford to wait as Moses did, we open a world of possibilities for ourselves.

 We all know that change is hard. Stepping forward, diving into the waters of uncertainty, we cross the threshold of the most difficult moment of all. Once on the other side, we will be strengthened by the faith we learn in that dive. We learn that there is no turning back — and we don’t need to try. Fortunately, we discover that we have boundless capacity for changing our fortunes for ourselves. This is the foundation of faith.

Our world is changing rapidly around us. No doubt some of us have endured ordeals, and others of us may yet face imposing waters.  Nachshon should be echoing in our heads. If we stand still, we face greater danger than if we take the leap forward.  We can, in fact we must dive into the future.

A Talmudic discussion of this text imagines that the tribes were bickering as the terrified people faced the sea – who would go first? If it had not been for Nachshon, the bickering would have brought on the people’s destruction.  The dangers to us as individuals and as a people are not only external. We must pull together with respect and resolve.  Nachshon came to teach that there is no future unless we face it together.  The future is in our hands; we are “atidim” – those who are seizing the moment and shaping the path forward.

This is a lesson for families, communities, our nation, our people and all of humanity.  Thanks to Nachshon, we can overcome our obstacles and our fears to create a redemptive future together.

Image {This teaching was presented at the opening event honoring the Atidim, those who have invested in the future of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of Greater Metrowest, New Jersey, 1/8/14.}