January 16, 2003
Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16)
It is the Torah's most exciting, most cinematic story. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, were camped at the shores of the sea when suddenly the sounds Pharaoh's approaching chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried bitterly to Moses, "Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die here?" (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded: "Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it." (Exodus 14:15-16)
Moses raised the rod, the sea split and the Israelites crossed in safety. Then, they beheld the final act of Exodus drama: The sea crashed down upon Pharaoh and his armies. As they once drowned Israelite children in the Nile, now the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites raised their voices in song. They had been slaves. Their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had been slaves and, for all they knew, their children and grandchildren would be slaves. But suddenly, overnight, they received the gifts of freedom and the promised return to the land of their forefathers.
That's how the Torah tells the story. But when the rabbis of the Talmud told it, an element was added. Typical of Midrash, a vignette finds its place between the lines: The people cry out, Moses prays and God commands. But when Moses lifts his rod to split the sea, nothing happens. He tries again, carefully rehearsing God's words to himself. And again, nothing. Panic builds within him, he tries and tries again. But the sea does not move. Beads of perspiration rise on his forehead, the people renew their screams of terror, but Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd, comes one man, identified by the Midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah. To the astonishment of the people gathered on the shores of the sea, Nachshon jumps into the water.
"Are you crazy? What are you doing?" shout his family. He knows exactly what he's doing. He understands, as no one else, not even Moses, why the sea would not split. He understands that all of redemption to this point has been an act of God. God sent Moses, and God sent the plagues; God shattered Pharaoh's arrogance, and God brought the Israelites to the shores of the Sea. But now, God was waiting to see if but one Israelite would take the task of redemption into his own hands. Would one be willing to risk himself to finish the process of liberation?
So, Nachshon jumps in and wades out until the water reaches his waist. His family's screams fade as the people stand in silence, watching in wonder. He wades out and the water reaches higher. Finally, the water covers his nostrils. And at that point, with Nachshon's life in peril, the sea opens and Israel crosses in safety.
This story isn't found in the Torah. It was inserted by the rabbis. For as much as they loved and revered the Torah's exodus story, they knew that something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of redemption. God creates the conditions for redemption. But if redemption is to come, someone must jump into the water. Someone of vision and courage must be willing to put his or her life on the line and jump into the waters of history to bring us out of slavery. And that kind of courage is the greatest of God's miracles, the most powerful sign of God's stake in human history.
Standing on the shore, patiently or anxiously, faithfully or cynically, brings nothing -- no salvation, no rescue, no transformation of society or history.
Understand that the waters are cold and dangerous, the currents strong and unpredictable. Sometimes the water splits and sometimes it doesn't. But only when someone is willing to jump in, will redemption be ours. And these are the holy ones whose faith redeems us from slavery and whose courage redeems us from hopelessness. Nachshon, the Bible teaches, was the ancestor of Boaz, who was the ancestor of King David, who is the ancestor of the Messiah. Â
Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.