Step Toward the Promise of a Better Tomorrow

Rabbi Geri Newburge

Rabbi Geri Newburge

Parshat B’shalach

Have you ever felt like you’re between a rock and hard place? What did you do, and how did you feel when you felt like any choice was less than desirable?

That is the situation our ancestors find themselves in during this week’s Torah portion, B’shalach. Once God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart for the last time, and Pharaoh told Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, it was time for them to flee, which they did expeditiously.
However, you might remember that once they began their journey Pharaoh had a change of heart, and then, “Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea … As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Eternal.” (Ex 14:9-10)

The narrative continues to build the tension as we read that the Israelites, “said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? 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 for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Eternal will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.’” (Ex 14:11-13)

Our ancestors proclaimed they’d rather be in Egypt as slaves than die in the wilderness! They see the Egyptians approaching, and they are getting close enough to spur the Israelites to cry out to God, and wonder if they could be saved, from both their oppressors as well as from drowning in the sea. Our people saw two rather dismal options, either slavery or death, and failed to consider any alternatives.

Except for one person: Nachshon ben Aminadav.

There is a famous midrash, a rabbinic story, about Nachshon. He is renowned for being the first of the Israelites to enter Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, when they were between that proverbial rock and a hard place, or namely, between the sea and the mighty Egyptian army. It was because of Nachshon’s first steps into the water that the rest of the Israelites saw a new possibility, and they followed suit.

While there are several rabbinic commentaries that offer this midrash, none seem to provide any insight into Nachshon’s motivation. Was he driven by fear or faith?
Not surprisingly, the rabbis pick up on the notion of the Israelites’ fear. They wrestle with what that does to the group. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (c. 1269-1343), also known as Ba’al haTurim, asks, “Why were these people not prepared to defend their lives and the lives of their children against this minuscule force of Egyptians? The answer is strictly psychological. All the Israelites had been raised from infancy to see in the Egyptians their natural masters, and to willingly bear the burden of being slaves to these masters. They had absolutely no knowledge of how to conduct a self defense.”

For Ba’al haTurim, the people had no ability to problem solve; they did not have the wherewithal to think for themselves much less examine their motivation for their behavior.
We still do not know the source of Nachshon’s initiative, but his actions proved inspiring and motivational. Even the Eternal tells Moses to stop praying and do something at this critical moment. Our community is not enslaved by tyrants and taskmasters, but that does not mean we do not find ourselves in situations where the options are undesirable. When we encounter such moments, how can we take brave steps into unknown territory?
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, “Kol ha-olam kulo gesther tsar me’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’hit-pa-cheyd klal — The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to become paralyzed by [your] fear.”

Take the time to act out of hope, or faith, or love, to take a step toward the promise of a better tomorrow, even if we do not know exactly what that means.

Rabbi Geri Newburge is the senior rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.



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