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04/06/2015 06:58:00 AM


Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

The most exciting story in the Torah is surely the Crossing of the Red Sea. We remember the story from countless Seder-table tellings:
The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, 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?!" Moses prays for deliverance, and is told, "Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it..."

The rod is lifted, the Sea splits, and the Israelites cross in safety. Then they behold the final act of Exodus drama: The Sea comes crashing down upon Pharoah and his armies. As they once drown Israelite children in the Nile, now the Egyptians are drown in the Red Sea. The Israelite raised their voices in song. They had been slaves. Their parents grandparents, and great-grandparents, had been slaves. And for all they could know, their children and grandchildren would be slaves. And suddenly, overnight -- 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 tell it, they added an element. Typical of Midrash, between the lines, they insert a vignette:

The people cry out, and Moses prays, and God commands. But when Moses lifted his rod, nothing happened. He tries again, carefully rehearsing God's words to himself. And again, nothing. Panic wells up within him, he tries, again and again. But the Sea does not move. As the 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 one 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 knew exactly what he was doing. He understood, as did no one else, not even Moses, why the Sea would not split. He understood that all of redemption to this point had been enacted by God -- God had sent Moses to Pharaoh, and God had sent the plagues that shattered the arrogance of Pharaoh, and God had brought His people to the shores of the Sea...everything accomplished by God. But now God waited....waited to see if one of the Israelites would take into his own hands the task of redeeming the people. God waited to see if any one of the Israelites would be willing to risk himself to bring freedom to his family and his people. Nachshon knew this, and so he jumps in, and wades out until the waters reach his waist. His family's screams fade, as his 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 opened and the Israelites crossed in safety.

This story isn't found in the Torah. It was inserted by the Rabbis. As much as they loved the Torah's exodus story, something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of redemption. The Rabbis believed that God can only create the conditions for the redemption of the world. If redemption is to come, someone must jump into the water. Someone visionary and brave must be willing to put life on the line and jump into the waters of history to bring us out of slavery. The waters are cold, and dangerous, and the currents are strong, but only when one of us is willing to jump in, will redemption be ours. In every generation, there are Nachshon's willing to jump into the water. Sometimes the water splits, and sometimes it doesn't. But these are the heroes whose faith redeems us from slavery and hopelessness.


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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780