Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Finally! After hundreds of years of slavery, we escape Egypt – only to arrive at an impassable sea with Pharaoh’s chariots in fast pursuit.
This was not exactly the kind of redemption Moses promised, and our people were stuck, overwhelmed with the sense that life was pressing in on them and there was no escape. What do Jews do in this kind of situation? We complain! The Israelites cry out to God (we don’t know exactly what they said) and then complain with exquisite sarcasm to Moses saying: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” [Ex. 14:11]
Moses basically says (paraphrased): just wait for it … God will redeem us.
That’s when God jumps in – not to redeem, but to criticize, saying: “Mah titzak eilai? Why do you cry out to Me?” [Ex. 14:15]
In a word: oy.
Who is the ‘you’ God is responding to, Moses or Israel? And what does God even mean?
Rashi, the great rabbinic commentator has two insights, which in classic Jewish fashion, seem not to agree with each other. First, Rashi teaches that God was chastising both Israel and Moses saying: “This is not a time to spend in prayer – the Israelites are in danger!” In other words, don’t look to me – take action! Then, instead of leaving well enough alone, Rashi restates the question to offer a second perspective (by changing the punctuation and thereby changing the meaning): “Why do you cry out? Upon Me …” According to this reading, God was chastising both Israel and Moses because they dared to assume that they could command God or even place expectations on God. It is for God to determine what to do, and only God.
The first statement seems to suggest that in times of need we need to act instead of pray, meaning that it is up to us. The second statement seems to suggest that we should have so much faith that we should not even need to pray, just trust that God will intervene.
We could argue either position until we are blue in the face and not resolve them to our satisfaction – until, that is, Nachshon steps in.
The Midrash is simple and straightforward. While the Israelites milled about by the Sea filled with uncertainty, he walked right into the water. He did not know how to swim. He just started walking, deeper into the Sea, until finally the water came up to his lips. Only then, says the Midrash, did God split the Sea.
Nachshon chose to act decisively and put his faith in God.
History has taught that in every generation we eventually find ourselves caught, in one way or another, between Pharaoh’s army and the impassable Sea – seemingly with no way forward or back.
History has also taught us that every generation has its own Nachshons, and it can be any of us.
When the time comes, what will we do?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras