Rabbi Elana Dellal, 18 January 2019
As the parasha begins the Israelites have had their first taste of liberation. In last week’s parasha they watched as the plagues fell on the Egyptians and gathered enough faith and courage to leave what they had known with hopes for a future of freedom. They brought with them dough on their backs which had not risen, and some of the valuables that they had taken from the Egyptians before their departure. Six hundred thousand Israelite families travelled out of Egypt.
The Israelites had enough faith to believe that a different life was possible. Even so, this faith would again be tested. As they began their journey by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds God protected them in a pillar of cloud by day to guide the way, and a pillar of fire by night to give them light. The Israelites came to the shore of the Sea of Reeds as Pharaoh was pursuing them with his chariots driven by his best officers. When the Israelites saw the Egyptians approaching some of them lost faith that they would ever know a life outside of slavery, they lost faith that they would live through their departure from Egypt. In Exodus 14:12 we read the cries of fear of the Israelites “What have you done to us taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians for it is better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!?”
The Israelites had lost faith in a brighter future and had lost faith that God would protect them. They arrive at the water’s edge as the Egyptians are pursuing them. Moses held out his arm over the sea and the waters parted and the Israelites found the fortitude of spirit to proceed into the split sea and walk on dry land to safety, the Egyptians followed and God closed the sea down on them.
What happened in that moment when the waters parted that brought the Israelites from a place of fear into a place of hope? The Talmudic rabbis answered this question by adding in the story of Nachshon. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 37a tells the story of Nachshon, of the tribe of Judah. According to this Talmud text all the tribes were at the sea before it had parted and none were willing to take the risk of going into the water. Nachshon was the first to descend into the sea. As he was walking into the sea he offered these words of prayer from Psalm 69 “Save me God; for the waters have come unto my soul. I am sunk in deep mire where there is not standing. Let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up.” It was only when God saw Nachshon entering the water that God allowed for the sea to part. Nachshon’s actions showed that the people had enough faith to take a risk and to keep moving forward away from Egypt towards liberation.
Like Nachshon, may we face our challenges with a strong spirit and with a willingness to take a risk that might better our future. And like the Israelites, when we find ourselves in a place of fear, may we search out and lean on the Nachshons in our lives, those whose courage and hope is strong enough to encourage us to take a step into the unknown waters.
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