Vayomer YHVH el Moshe: “Ma titz’ak ei’lai? Da’ber el B’nai Yisrael v’yisa’u!”
Then YHVH said to Moses: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel, and tell them to get moving!” (Exodus 14:15)
The Children of Israel stand at the edge of the Sea. There is no way out. Pharaoh and his army are bearing down on them from the west, the vast sea stretches out to the east. They are trapped. They are petrified, and they cry to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you have taken us out here to die in the desert? What have you done taking us out of Egypt? Didn’t we tell you back in Egypt not to do this?” Moses replies, “Do not fear! Stand firm! You will see that YHVH will save you…and you, be silent!” (Ex. 14:11-14)
Picture this desperate scene. There is truly no way out. Moses’ reassurance rings hollow. Stand here and be quiet? Is that not certain death?
And what does YHVH tell Moses? YHVH does not say, “Good for you, Moses, I’ll handle it from here.” No, in one of the more surprising lines in the Torah, YHVH declares: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel, and tell them to get moving!” (14:15)
The plain meaning of the command is clear: you will not be saved without your participation in the task. Get moving! Who cannot relate to this truth of human experience?
And yet, the situation is not so clear. Get moving to where? There is no apparent path. They are pinned against the seashore. To answer this question our Sages spin a midrash, a story about the story. They take a minor character in the Torah, Nachshon ben Amminadav of the tribe of Judah, and make him the protagonist of redemption:
When Israel stood facing the Sea of Reeds, and the command was given to move forward, everyone hesitated, saying, “Are we to jump into the sea?”
Nachshon saw what was happening—and jumped into the sea. He waded deeper and deeper into the waters.
At the very last moment, as the waters reached up to Nachshon’s nostrils and threatened to drown him, the Red Sea parted and he walked on dry land in the midst of the waters. The Children of Israel followed him into the sea, and they were saved.
I read this as a parable of courage and faith: there are times in one’s life journey when the only way forward is to step into the unknown, not knowing if the ground will rise up to meet you. The way forward seems obscure, terrifying, beyond one’s capacity to endure, even absurd. Yet you know that return to Egypt is blocked to you – there is no going back to what was. And you know that doing nothing is a capitulation to fear. And so, paradoxically, you have no choice but to choose the unknown and uncharted path forward. Paradoxically, in willing ourselves forward, we also surrender our will and allow life to unfold before us and carry us along. This is the journey of faith: keeping fear at bay, turning toward the horizon and wading into the unknown and unknowable next moment.
I want to be like Nachshon. I want to practice stepping into the Sea in countless small and large ways. I want to get so practiced at wading into the water that when I reach my final horizon, the moment when I must die, when I know that all options have been exhausted and that there is no way but forward into the great unknown, I will be like Nachshon, turn my eyes toward the distant shore, and step forward. I will trust that once again solid ground will rise up to meet me.
May we all travel forward in our lives with courage and faith.