Moses gets the instruction, “‘lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land. As for Me, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. Then the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I am honored through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen.’ The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. Then the Egyptians took up the pursuit, and all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen went in after them into the midst of the sea… Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and their horsemen.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state at daybreak, while the Egyptians were fleeing right into it; then the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even Pharaoh’s entire army that had gone into the sea after them; not even one of them remained. But the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.”
That is the slightly abbreviated story of the crossing of the sea that is described in the book of Exodus, in the portion of the Torah that we read this week. There is one character missing from this description, the name of Nahshon is not mention in connection of the crossing of the sea. How can it be that we think of the man as the one who hurried first into the water? This is in fact a tale that the rabbinical literature discusses. In the Babylonian Talmud there appears a saying by rabbi Meir that claims that when the Israelites were about to enter into the sea they argued between them. One would say that he needs to go in first while another said the he ought to be the first. As they were standing and shouting at each other the tribe of Benjamin jumped in first. Rabbi Judah said that this it was not so and the argument was that one said that he would not be the first and then another said that he would not be the first. While standing there getting advice from each other Nahshon the son of Aminadav went into the sea first. When the debate continues another interesting tale appears that talks about Moses who is standing there praying. God turns to him and asks: “My friends are going under the water and you are praying in length to me?” Moses then asks what should he do and God responded saying to Moses to tell the sons of Israel to go forward and as for him, he should lift up his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea and so on.
When great things are to happen the action is more important than the prayer, it is more essential than the deliberation, it is certainly more significant that the question of who goes in first. The lifting of the staff is to signal a direction for the purpose of showing motion, change and advancement. The great sea is seemingly an unsurmountable obstacle, humongous, which there is no immediate way to overcome. We face such obstacles in our lives, the kinds of obstacles we find hard to believe that we can cope with, at least several times a year. Sometimes it is as simple as getting out of a warm bed on a cold and rainy day, finding it impossible to gather the energy to make even the first step down to the clod tiles of the floor. At other times we have challenges with our life partners, children, or parents, each presented to us with gloom and doom. At other times we are confronted with a problem at the workplace, possibly between people or at an unresolvable task. And mostly, like the Midrash describes, we debate, shout and complain.
The problem is that shouting, complaining, grieving, and grumbling do not change the situation. They may give us a feeling as if we are changing something in the real world but it is far from it. In fact it is a lot of idle chatter that does not advance us towards a solution. To do that requires us to take real action. That is true for us at home and at work, it is what needs to be done in our congregations and in our Movement. Every time we want to change something, while it is important to discuss things first, it is not less important to take action. The timing from moving from verbosity to performance is important, not too early not too late. There is a time to point with the staff.
Much criticism was raised against the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayement LeIsrael), recently by a comptroller of the Ministry of Justice who suggested to dismantle the organization, as if the State of Israel has a hold of the KKL which duly belongs to the Jewish People of the world who founded and funded it for over a century. The fund should get credit where credit is due. One of the most important ones is the reforesting of the land here in Israel. The country entered the 21st century as the only country in the world having more forests now than when entering into the 20th century. We owe thanks to the KKL and especially to those from all over the Jewish world who contributed generously towards its existence. The 15th day of Shvat is coming upon us this Monday. Don’t talk, take action, plant trees.
Reuven Marko, 18 January 2019, 13 Shvat, 5779