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.
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