Shabbat BeShalakh: What It Takes To Get Across the Sea

Evil consists in ruining someone else’s life rather than examine one’s own. – M Scott Peck, People of the Lie

As we follow Torah’s narrative of the Israelite escape from Egypt, this week’s parashah relates a tense, utterly human moment. It’s the well-known sense that often sets in immediately after one takes an irrevocable step, that the step was absolutely wrong.

And so it is with our ancestors as they head out of Egypt. The land is ruined by plagues, the first born is dead in every house, and a panicked motley group of slaves is stumbling forward into the unknown. 

Almost immediately, they reach the Sea of Reeds. 

וַיִּרְדְּפ֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיַּשִּׂ֤יגוּ אוֹתָם֙ חֹנִ֣ים עַל־הַיָּ֔ם כׇּל־סוּס֙ רֶ֣כֶב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וּפָרָשָׁ֖יו וְחֵיל֑וֹ

the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out. (Exodus 14.9-10)

Death – or, at the very least, the complete failure of what they thought was their way to freedom, seems to be staring them in the face. What does this group of people do? They do what most frightened people do: they turned on their leaders.

According to a famous midrash, the People of Israel not only attacked their leadership for the move, they also attacked anyone who tried to take steps to deal with the situation at hand. When Hashem said to Moshe, “Tell the people to go forward (into the Sea)”

זֶה אוֹמֵר אֵין אֲנִי יוֹרֵד תְּחִילָּה לַיָּם וְזֶה אוֹמֵר אֵין אֲנִי יוֹרֵד תְּחִילָּה לַיָּם קָפַץ נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן עַמִּינָדָב וְיָרַד לַיָּם תְּחִילָּה

this [tribe] said, “I will not be the first to go down to the sea,” and this one said, “I will not be the first to go down to the sea.” 

As they argued among themselves about this next step (apparently even when HaShem says it will be okay, Jews have always reserved the right to doubt!) they literally attacked anyone who attempted to go forward in fulfillment of HaShem’s urging, by pelting them with stones. At this point, all seemed lost. But then:

Then Nachshon ben Aminadav sprang forward and went down first to the sea….(BT South 37a)

We all know how the story ends; the act of faith of plunging into the Sea itself causes the Sea to part, even as we have seen in our own lives how reality can be shaped by one courageous act. Yes, stepping forward is frightening even when it seems to be the only way. The question that remains is why some would rather stay sunk in anger, in despair and in fear, rather than hold hands and take a scary step together.

A rather sobering midrash asserts that only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt with Moshe. The rest, majority voice though they be, are never heard from again. On this Shabbat of Martin Luther King Jr day and Tu B’Shevat 5782, we’ll lift up the inspiration of the Nakhshons of our knowing – those who step forward into the unknown because it is the only way to walk away from what enslaves us. It is in their visionary steps that we find our own way toward all that spring means.

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