One of my favorite quick reads is God in the Wilderness, by Rabbi Jamie Korngold. Rabbi Korngold is known as the “Adventure Rabbi.” She leads a non-traditional Jewish community that uses experiences to highlight the teachings of Judaism. Rather than worship in a sanctuary, her community gathers on a Saturday morning for a hike up a mountain. Learning centers around the moments they share e.g. biking in the woods or swimming a pristine lake. Her book, just a mere 140 pages long, dives into the moments that sparked the idea for her radical play on Judaism. I am especially taken by her retelling of this week’s parsha, B’shalach and subsequent teaching.
Just to recap, the Israelites have trekked to the Sea of Reeds. Pharaoh and his army are hot on their tails. The Israelites began to panic. They are trapped between the crashing waves of the sea and pursuing army. Moses does everything in his power to calm his people. And, in a scene etched into our brains thanks to Charlton Heston, Moses raises his staff, and with the power of God, splits the sea. The Israelites now pass, and the waters crash down on the Egyptians as they give chase.
Interestingly, our sages were concerned that people would assume the lesson of this story is that God would be standing by ready to create miracles to save us. Rabbi Korngold introduced me to the Midrash of Nachshon ben Aminadav. The midrash goes a little something like this: There are the Israelites standing at the edge of the sea with the Egyptians bearing down on them. They are whining and complaining. “Why did we listen to Moses? We should have never left!” Moses is surveying the scene, uncertain of when God is going to swoop in and bring a miracle. God, on the other hand, is thinking that all these people do is complain. God is wondering why Moses is doing nothing and questioning whether this whole exodus thing was a good idea. It is at this moment when God noticed something. Nachshon ben Aminadav has made his way to the water’s edge away from the commotion. Nachshon takes an initial step into the cold waters of the sea. He continues to step deeper into the water. With each step forward the water rises on his body. Eventually Nachshon is walking with face propped up so he can breathe through his nose while the rest of his body is completely covered. Tradition teaches that God parts the sea for Nachshon, who dared to take that first step and who was convinced if he reached out to God, God would reach out to him.
Our ancient sages wanted us to learn that we cannot be bystanders waiting for God to rescue us. We must be willing to take the first step in order for something to happen. Rabbi Korngold teaches that we tend to embody both Nachshon and the rest of the Israelites.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as Nachshon, boldly stepping forward into the unknown. But there are many times when we are more like the Israelites, standing on the sidelines waiting for something to happen, for someone else to take care of the situation. Each of us has a little Nachshon and a little whiny bystander in us. Unfortunately, our cultural norm tends to dodge responsibility and claim, “That was his job, not mine,” or “It wasn’t my responsibility to look after that.” In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example, what did we see? On federal, state, and local levels of government, just a lot of finger pointing. “They were supposed to make sure the levees were safe,” and “It was their job to orchestrate the evacuation.”
When good things happen, we are happy to own it and credit ourselves, however when bad things happen, we are quick to pass off the blame. Back in my days as camp director, I used to use the “five-finger contract” to set group rules and norms for our time together. I identified the index finger as blame and used the anecdote when you point blame at someone else three fingers will be pointing back at you. If we are to make change in this world, we must be the ones to take the first step. There is a lot of negativity surrounding us these days. Those around us tend to radiate an aura that says without words “I’m not with you.” What would it mean to be like Nachshon and take the proverbial step towards compromise and collaboration? It’s uncomfortable to be vulnerable. I don’t know many who are willing to be trendsetters or put their beliefs out there first to potentially be torn down. However, the courageous act of putting yourself out “on the line” is an important first step in making change. The next time we are encountered with a Nachshon moment, I hope that we are willing to take the step in the right direction.