It is a pleasant, though dark evening here in Israel as I sit down to review my thoughts for yet another Passover. The moon—almost full—glows faintly through a clouded sky. No stars can be seen. On the one hand, it is a lovely early spring evening. On the other, we are strangely bonded together in our isolation, sensitive to the darkness, and conscious of the angel of death flitting in our midst.
I wonder if the skies were clouded and dark that terror-filled night prior to the tenth and final plague, when each Israelite family painted their doorposts, hoping that their home would be spared? Were the night stars to be seen when each family made its fateful decision to journey—poorly prepared–out of the narrow places to freedom?
We are living in darkened times in Israel and in the world. There is confusion and fear. Tectonic shifts—political, economic, ecological—lead many to question the most basic of premises upon which they rely. Spreading its shadow over all, our world is convulsed by a pandemic that came seemingly out of nowhere.
In all of this, there is an issue, raised so eloquently (in his own way) by Bogart in Casablanca “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” A corollary is that one person—or two, three or more people—are seemingly helpless in the face of this crazy world’s problems. How can one person’s voice be heard — how can one person’s actions be felt — within today’s frantic, threatening world? Why does one life matter? To whom can we turn?
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?
Every year I revisit a seldom-told story from the exodus that touches on these issues. Here is this year’s telling as again I dip my foot in waters before they are split.
In the traditional telling of the Exodus story, a people-in-the-making is oppressed, threatened and, ultimately, freed by great forces that swirl around it. It is a story in which individual agency has little role.
But a closer reading—and one informed not only by the Haggadah—shows us that it was only through the courage and initiative of individuals that our freedom was won.
You see, according to rabbinic tradition, 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 told in the Babylonian Talmud (Sota 37b), until the waters covered even his nostrils.
Others leapt in after him.
According to this Talmudic rendition of 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 following Nachshon’s willingness to enter the waters before they had split—that God parted the sea.
Miracles, it seems, represent more of a partnership than we tend to think.
In Tehilim (Psalms) 69:3-16 we can hear echoes of what must have been Nachshon’s fears and his 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.” Nachshon, though, did not allow his fear or a loss of confidence to stop him.
So my questions to you: Can we advance ourselves to safety and 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?
Regarding safety: as we are being reminded constantly these days, we each are inherently limited. We may improve our position, we may protect ourselves temporarily, but our lives remain rounded with a sleep. As the Hebrew poet Rachel wrote “A person may yearn, yet his legs fail him.”
What then must we do? It appears that the best for which we may hope is to live a good life within our own mortal limitations. To remain aware of our mortality, but not paralyzed by it.
So many of us carry a debilitating, sense of despair at our ability to shape our future and to take proactive steps towards building the communities and societies within 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. In the context of Israel, isn’t this the crux of Zionism: that we make our own future? In a broader context, isn’t this essence of the story told by all peoples who seek to create just and free societies: that you and I, through our actions—or our lack of them—change the world?
Another Midrashic tradition (Numbers Rabbah 13:11) 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.
These indeed are dark times. But as I look around me, I find encouragement in the audacity of so many who strive—with decency, commitment, love and a humble awareness of their fragility—to birth daily a better world for themselves and those around them. Each in his or her own way struggles against the crushing isolation of our moment. Each in her or his own way guides the way forward through the narrow places.
This Pesach, I will be thinking of Nachshon striding into the waters and, through his actions, helping to make them part so the people could pass through on dry land.
Note: This is an adaptation of a piece first published in the Times of Israel on April 6, 2017.