In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites stand at the shore of the Red Sea, with an army of Egyptians behind them and uncertainty before them. The Israelites are afraid and they cry out to Moses, “Did you lead us from Egypt only so that we may die in the wilderness?” God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites, and to urge them to go forward.
What would you have done? In an ancient scriptural exegesis known as the Mechilta, Rabbi Ishmael writes that the Israelites had four different reactions to this moment.
One faction said: “Let us cast ourselves into the sea.”
A second faction said, “Let us return to Egypt.”
A third said, “Let us wage war against the Egyptians.”
A fourth said, “Let us cry out to G‑d.”
When you are feeling trapped, which one are you? Do you run forward into a new problem to escape another? Do you go back to a situation that is familiar to you, even if you know that it’s unsafe? Do you fight? Do you cry for help?
Moses has an answer for each of them.
To those who said, “Let us cast ourselves into the sea,” he said: “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of G‑d.”
To those who said, “Let us return to Egypt,” he said: “As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again anymore, forever.”
To those who said, “Let us wage war against them,” he said: “G‑d shall fight for you.”
And to those who said, “Let us cry out to G‑d,” he said: “And you shall be silent.”
It seems counterintuitive to a lot of wisdom about leadership that asks us to meet people where they are. Moses, speaking on God’s behalf, instead pushes the Israelites right out of their comfort zone. In times of urgency, leaders need to be directive.
A midrash tells of another type of leader in this story, a man named Nachshon, who dared to walk into the sea – they say that the water split when he was in up to his nose.
Maybe Nachshon trusted that God would save the Israelites. Maybe he had no idea what would happen, and preferred to drown rather than to return to enslavement. Maybe he didn’t know what else to do, so he just kept moving forward.
When have you dared to try something new, something that seemed impossible, because it was better than what you were leaving behind? What are the possibilities that found you on the other side?
We are entering a Shabbat and a long weekend replete with countless symbols of change – marches across the country on Saturday, and on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr Day coincides with Tu b’Shevat, a Jewish holiday that celebrates trees, the earth, and all things that grow. As you approach these and other moments of change this week, I invite you to consider the four ways the Israelites responded at the sea. Will you run back toward the familiar? Will you fight or cry out in fear? Or will you take that first courageous step into the unknown, singing, as our ancestors did, when you find freedom on the other side? I close this week’s Torah portion with a poem from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a blessing on this journey, and on every journey forward. Shabbat Shalom.
They say cold feet are a sign of turning back,
The failure of internal will –
But I say it can be the other way,
The body’s anticipation of things to come.
Whether demons are nipping at your heels
Or gnawing within, here’s the thing:
Settle quietly, close your eyes,
Then take the most deliberate, deep breath,
As though it were the very first (God’s breath) –
And when you can feel it penetrate every bit of your being,
Making the rest of your life possible,
You open your eyes
And take that first step out into the sea of reeds.
Watered feet are just the price of coming home.