How can one person’s voice be heard — how can one person’s actions be felt — within the frantic, threatening arena that is Israel today?
The clouds of war are looming to our north and to our east and to our south. Economic troubles convince our young couples that they have no hope of ever owning a home for their families or providing for them. We seem to lack the essential solidarity to care.
Despite our own history of persecution, compassion for the stranger among us—for those who have suffered torture and rape escaping their home countries as they seek freedom and shelter—fails to guide our policy towards asylum seekers. Millions of Palestinians continue to suffer from an ongoing occupation in the West Bank and the closure of Gaza.
Our leaders, either seemingly corrupt or ineffective, provide little confidence that there is a safe way forward. And on the global stage, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
What, then, is each of us to do?
For insight into this, one can look to a subplot to the story of the exodus from Egypt. In the traditional telling, a people-in-the-making is oppressed, threatened and, ultimately, freed by great forces that both swirl it around and act upon it. It is a story in which individual agency has little role.
But a closer reading—and one informed not only by the Hagadah—shows us that it was only through the courage and initiative of individuals that our freedom was won.
You see, when the Israelites, ill-prepared as they were and chased by the Pharaoh and his army, arrived at the Red Sea, Moses was at a loss. What were they to do? The people panicked and despaired.
Floundering, Moses began to pray for guidance.
But Nachshon ben Aminadav, heeding the call to move forward, boldly stepped into the Red Sea. He pressed on, as we are told in the Talmud and Mishna, until the waters covered even his nostrils. Others leapt in after him.
According to the story, God chastises Moses, “My beloved are drowning in the stormy seas, and you are praying?”
“But what shall I do,” asks Moses?
To this, God answers, “You lift your staff and spread your hand over the seas, which will split, and Israel will come into the sea upon dry land.”
It was only then—and only because of Nachshon’s willingness to enter the waters before they had split—that God parted the sea. Perhaps we can learn from this the critical importance of depending on our own agency. This is true even for those who hold the view that we are part of broader epics that are seemingly foretold.
Despite an awareness of the great forces moving around him, Nachshon bravely rose to the challenge. In Tehilim (Psalms) 69:3-16 we can hear echoes of what must have been his fears and realistic assessment of his predicament. “I have sunk in muddy depths, and there is no place to stand; I have come into the deep water, and the current has swept me away . . . Let not the current of water sweep me away, nor the deep swallow me, and let the well not close its mouth over me.” But Nachshon did not allow his fear or a loss of confidence to stop him.
So my questions to you: Can we here in Israel advance ourselves to freedom –laying the groundwork for peace and a just society—when we have so many real doubts and fears? What are the risks if we do not? And why is this so important now?
In today’s Israel, so many of us carry a debilitating, paralyzing sense of despair at our ability to shape our future and to take proactive steps towards building the society in which we want to live. Many have come to believe that we are threatened on all sides and lack an ability to move ourselves into a better position—to change our world. We seek guidance from a leadership that seems unable to give it.
It is as if we are dug-in by the shores of the Red Sea.
But perhaps the future really is in our hands. Isn’t this the essence of Zionism and the ongoing tale of modern Israel: that we make our own future? That you and I, through our actions—or our lack of them—change the world?
Tradition holds that Nachshon was rewarded for his actions, including having the honor of fathering the messianic line. According to the story, then, our very redemption is linked to Nachshon’s—and perhaps our own–basic willingness to step forward and act.
This Pesach, I will be thinking of Nachshon striding into the waters and, through his actions, helping them to part so the people could pass through on dry land.