taking the first step
The miraculous exodus from Egypt behind them, almost immediately the Children of Israel run into trouble. Pursued by Pharaoh, they find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the impassable Red Sea. The Israelites are in a state of panic. With wry irony they shout at Moses “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”. Moses promises the Israelites that God will still save them, and prays to God for salvation.
In response, God gives a surprising, even shocking, reply: “Why are you crying to me!? Tell the children of Israel to get moving!” Only then does God add: “Now raise your staff over the sea and divide it”.
Why, if God was going to help split the sea, did he need to shout at Moses to ‘get a move on’ first?
The strange discrepancy between God’s first and second statement, telling the Children of Israel to move forward, and only then revealing that He will split the sea, has given rise to a famous midrash:
“When Israel stood at the sea, one tribe said, ‘I will not be first to go down into the sea;’ and another tribe said ‘I will not be first to go down into the sea.’ In the midst of this argument, one individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav, Prince of the tribe of Judah, seized the initiative, and went down first into the sea, inspiring the rest of his tribe to follow…. Therefore, Judah merited to become King of Israel, as it says, ‘Judah sanctified His Name; by this he merited to rule in Israel.’ (Psalms 114:2)” ( Mechilta Beshalach )
According to the midrash, it was only when Nachshon ben Aminadav showed the courage to walk forward that God determined to split the sea. But it seems strange indeed that the behaviour of Nachshon ben Aminadav should have brought him such praise and glory. Walking into the sea was by no means a rational action, nor was it a plan which could in any logical sense have brought about the delivery of the Israelites. To the contrary, it might be considered a foolhardy and desperate measure.
But Jewish tradition judges Nachshon otherwise, praising him for having the courage to act when everyone else was stultified into inaction. In praising Nachshon for his action, Jewish tradition is reflecting a profound conviction that, even in apparently impossible situations, miraculous solutions may be found – but only if we make the first move. This indeed is Rashi’s understanding of God’s response to Moses: “Tell the Children of Israel to move onwards”. Rashi’s interpretation is: “If only the Israelites will start to move forward, then the sea will not stand in their way”.
The short history of Israel, like the long history of the Jewish people is full of remarkable – apparently miraculous – events which salvaged apparently impossible situations. But like the splitting of the Red Sea, the message seems to be that only if we make the first move will the impossible begin to become possible.
A Chassidic parable conveys the same idea:
A man is lost in a long dark tunnel and can’t see his way out. Suddenly another man appears: “Can I help?” “I can’t see my way out of this tunnel,” says the first man. “Here,” says the newcomer. “Take my torch. It will help you find your way.” The man takes the torch, but he’s still unhappy. “Look,” he says, “it’s no good. The torch only lights up a few yards. This tunnel must be hundreds of yards long.” “You’re right,” says the man. “The torch only lights up a few yards. But start moving forwards and then it will light up the next few yards. They may seem dark now, but move forward and it will look different. And before you know it, you may not just be further along in the tunnel, you may even be outside in the bright daylight.”
In others’ words
To Step Forward…
Once in a while
As I progress towards the course’s end,
I feel a pang of fear.
Today I felt such fear.
If the war comes
When the war comes
I will have to lead men to die
But those men were not men a short time ago
Some don’t even shave yet
And I will have to have the calm power
to yell to them
or to whisper Kadima.
And, I will have to have the calm power
to step forward myself.
From the Diary of Alex Singer. Alex, an American oleh, was a Givati brigade platoon commander. He was killed on his 25th birthday in the security zone in Lebanon, while trying to save his commanding officer.
On a lighter note
Like many tragic aspects of Jewish life, the history of the disputations – the cruel public debates conducted against the Jews – has given rise to its fair share of jokes. Here is one of them: In the Middle Ages a cruel priest decided to stage a public disputation against the Jews of his village. The Priest would debate against a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won the debate, the Jews would remain unharmed; but if he lost, the Jew would be killed, and the entire Jewish community would be expelled from the village. As if this were not cruel enough, the Priest added another rule: the debate would be conducted entirely in silence.
The Jewish community summoned an urgent meeting to select a representative for the debate, but no-one was prepared to undertake the task. Finally, Moishe, the village fool, took a nervous step forward. “Better me than no-one” he said.
The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Priest sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Priest raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Priest waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Priest pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. Suddenly the Priest stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
An hour later, the Priest’s followers gathered around him to ask what had happened. The Priest said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins.
He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?” Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. “What happened?” they asked. “Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
“Yes, yes,.. and then???” asked the crowd.
“I don’t know,” said Moishe, “He took out his lunch, and I took out mine.”