Parashat B’Shalakh recounts the first steps of the Exodus from Egypt. After much confusion, pain and terror, the time has come and the Israelites – those who choose to follow Moshe – have celebrated the first Passover and are now on the move. Not all the Israelites went along, and some who were not Israelites did, and so our text speaks of an erev rav, a “mixed multitude,” that passed the gates of the city walls and faced the endless wilderness.
Not everyone who is offered redemption accepts it, but all those who do, regardless of background, stand equally in the face of the promise and the challenge. When the water is deep and the shore cannot be seen, it is fearfully difficult to go ahead and jump.
The going does not get easier after that first brave foray forward. Not only do our ancestors wander about without a clear sense of forward movement, but the text itself, as well, doubles back on itself and seems to wander about, confused and panicky. Finally we stand at the shore of the Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, even the hesitant forward movement stymied by its depths. The Egyptian army closes in behind us, and we see that there is no other choice but to go forward, yet the way forward is frightening.
At that moment, according to interpretive midrash, the Israelites are standing on the shore arguing, each accusing the other of the acts that lead to what seems, literally, to be a dead end. Moshe prays, and is answered that now is not the time to pray but to act. Moshe responds, literally, mah b’yadi la’asot: “what strength is there in my hand to do?”
It is then that one person, identified by our tradition as Nakhshon ben Aminadav, of the house of Judah, is spotted heading for the water. Everyone watches him, aghast. Then he is in the water, and a few others have begun to run toward him, following in his footsteps, toward that terrifying, endless water.
And only then, only when some Israelites had immersed themselves in it, did the waters begin to part. A related midrash asserts that when the Israelites began singing mi khamokha ba’eylim the waters had not yet subsided; it was when they got to the second line of the Song of the Sea, mi kamokha nedar bakodesh that the waters suddenly made way for the Israelites.
Our ability to moved forward is not the act of the leader, nor is it the leader’s fault when we do not. It is our own collective trust – in each other and in that [G*d] which unites us – that brings us to redemption. In large ways and small we face waters that seem endless, challenges that are daunting, moments when we ask with Moshe, “what strength is there, after all, in my one little hand?”
On this Shabbat as we celebrate in song and story the saga of our people’s redemption from slavery, consider where you have met Nakhshon in your life; consider where you have been that person. Give thanks for the good we have known because of those moments, when despite reasonable fear, someone has shown the way by finding the courage to go ahead and jump.