The Difficult Work of the Erev Rav

The Israelites finally make their way out of Egypt in this week’s Torah portion of Beshallach. Having been freed by Pharaoh, the people make their way to the shore of the Red Sea. After Pharaoh dispatches his army after the freed slaves, the Israelites cry out to be saved from a seemingly impossible situation. Moses raises his staff, the waters part, and the Israelites pass through to safety. This stage of the Exodus is complete.

In describing the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the text notes that when they left, “a mixed multitude (erev rav) went up with them.” The mixed multitude was, according to commentaries, made up of Egyptians who joined with the Israelites in their leaving–former oppressors who had renounced their association with an oppressive regime and found common cause with the oppressed.

The population that went out of Egypt, according to the text, therefore was diverse, multicultural and multinational. Perhaps, we can posit, that liberation such as this is only possible with a diverse coalition of people who are willing to make the journey, with a mixed group of the oppressed and their allies.

It could not have been easy, this erev rav. Being in a diverse coalition such as this involves difficult work, confronting that which you at best disagree with or at worst dislike. Movements of liberation built on coalitions will bring together those who are united on some causes but not on others, and it is up to all of those present to be honest and open as to where the differences are, and when is it necessary to put them aside to be focused on the task at hand.

It is not comfortable to be in that position, but sometimes necessary.

This weekend is the Women’s March, and we are confronted with such a situation. With accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at some of the leaders of the national march—primarily because of various associations of some of the leaders—the Jewish community has been forced into difficult conversations both within itself and with its partners. Is it possible to be in partnership with those who share common cause yet who also associate with others we would find anathema?

Some answer “no” and distance themselves. Others answer “yes” and take the difficult seat at the table. At that table is an opportunity to share one’s own truth, and hear others’ truths. And this is where real relationship and change is forged.

We have seen change at the national level in the Women’s March as the organizers sat down with Jewish leaders, released a statement specifically condemning anti-Semitism, and most recently added Jewish women—including Jews of Color—to the organizing committee. Progress like this needed to be made because fighting forces of hatred in this country, which are being given official sanction by elected leaders, is too important at this moment in time.

We as Jews do need to call out anti-Semitism when we see it. And we also must remember, the anti-Semitism that killed 11 in Pittsburgh came from the right and not the left.

In movements of social change, we need to be in dialogue with those we do not agree with. Looking back, that was the failure of the Olympia Food Co-op a decade ago when they instituted their boycott of Israeli products. Not the boycott itself, but the failure to engage in the hard conversation of talking with their neighbors, understanding the spectrum of Jewish experience and opinion. Rather the leadership chose the easy path of listening to only those they agree with, and not only that, using those opinions to serve as representative of a whole (i.e., talking to some Jews, but not all Jews) thus pitting a minority community against itself.

We have the opportunity to do things differently. Our current political situation gives us the opportunity to forge new alliances and relationships, if only we embrace the discomfort. If only we show up. If only we do the work.

It is work that will continue. For we know that while it is easy to point out other’s perceived biases, it is much harder to see them in oneself. While it is easy to tell others who they can and can not associate with, we get much more resistant when the same charge is leveled at us. But we need to be both strong and humble in our convictions and identities.

I know that within the Jewish community there are those I need to be in relationship and dialogue with at times for the sake of the greater Jewish community. I will engage with Chabad even though I find their Orthodox practice and ideology, especially around gender, to be far from my own. I will dialogue with StandWithUs even though I disagree with their politics on Israel and their assault on free speech. There are times we can be in coalition, and sometimes we can’t. But we must maintain the relationship, difficult and uncomfortable as it may be at times. The same is true in interfaith work, when I work on issues with those faiths whose theologies are antithetical to mine.

I do plan to spend part of my Shabbat this weekend participating in the Women’s March in Olympia. (For those who are tracking, the Washington Women’s March organization actually broke with the national organization over some of the issues referenced and is independent.) The times demand we show up, and I’m prepared to do the difficult work that entails, and I trust my partners are willing to do the same.

And I believe that standing there at the Temple of Justice on the Capitol Campus will be the closest we can come today to being a part of the erev rav, the diverse coalition that confronted oppression and joined together in the march to liberation.


The Fear of Freedom

I did not write last week because I took a trip out of town for a few days to Los Angeles. What brought me to LA (though I did tag on a few days of family vacation) was a two-day immersive learning experience at Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish residential treatment center for addiction that also serves as a congregation and Jewish spiritual center. Beit T’shuvah also develops programs of prevention, and trains professionals in its approach to recovery. It was in this capacity that I was there; my rabbinic association sponsored the workshop on Jewish approaches to recovery.

During this workshop we learned from both the clinical staff and the spiritual staff; the foundation of the approach to recovery there is spirituality. Residents have spiritual counselors as well as individual therapy and group meetings, and Jewish rituals of Shabbat and study are a key part of the week.

We didn’t spend Shabbat there, although I hear it is amazing—in addition to the traditions of Shabbat it also becomes a time in which people are celebrated with cakes for their sobriety birthday. But we did participate in the morning Torah study, a daily practice in which all the residents get together in the sanctuary for a discussion of the weekly portion. I found this to be very meaningful.

The study was led by one of the chaplains, and quickly joining was the senior rabbi, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. Rabbi Borovitz’s own journey is one of addiction and recovery, and he, after his release for prison, eventually found his way to rabbinical school and whose rabbinic work is to serve those in recovery.

The study was on this week’s portion of Beshallach, the climactic moment of the Exodus story when Pharaoh has released the Israelites from slavery. The Israelites make their way out only to be pursued by Pharaoh’s army, dispatched after Pharaoh seeks to bring them back. They come to the Sea of Reeds, and when all seems lost, the sea splits and the Israelites cross through in safety as the waters come down on the pursuing army.

The portion opens with a geographic note: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” It was these verses that formed the basis for the study.

These verses talk about the first steps of the Israelites into freedom. The most direct route from Egypt to Canaan would have been up the coast of the Mediterranean, which was in ancient times the land of the Philistines. But God did not want to people to be afraid and want to turn back to the life in Egypt that they knew.

In the text God was concerned that the people would be afraid of war. In Rabbi Borovitz’s interpretation, war is a metaphor for all that comes with a life that is free from slavery. God was concerned that the people would be afraid of freedom.

While slavery brought its challenges, freedom also brings its own challenges. We fear freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it, so we return to the things that are safe and give us comfort, even if they are not good for us. For the Israelites, it was Egyptian slavery. In Rabbi Borovitz’s teaching, this is the paradigm of addiction and recovery. Because we fear freedom, we retreat to those things that give us comfort, that shield us from responsibility, that are “safe.” And if we are Pharaoh’s grasp, he said, we can always blame everything on him. Ultimately, however, this is not good for us, and we need to be free.

Which is why, in the first verse, while the translation is “Pharaoh let the people go,” a more accurate translation is Pharaoh “sent the people out.” This is the meaning of the name of the parashah, Beshallach, “sent out.” That which is comfortable can also enslave us, and we will not willingly go, but we need to be sent out. We need to be free, and we need to face that very real fear of freedom.

And the road out can be long and difficult, another meaning of the reason for the long detour in the Torah. We have to be willing to take the long way at times, there are sometimes no shortcuts.

The fear of freedom is a powerful fear. It affects the Israelites, and it affects each one of us. It is something we all must face, and the strength to face it, as I learned at Beit T’shuvah, as we read in the Torah, comes from knowing that we do not need to face it alone.

For Passover and the Exodus, think Rivers not Seas

This column first appeared in the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. You can read the original post here.

It’s spring break in our school district, so we are taking a road trip.

We left our home in Olympia on the Puget Sound and drove to Boise, ID, where we have family. We drove south towards Portland then east across the length of Oregon. It’s a drive we have done many times before on family trips. This time we are taking a different route home, driving up through Idaho and Eastern Washington so we can drop my older son at a regional robotics competition.

It is a little anxiety-producing going away the week before Passover. Passover is one of those holidays that requires a lot of preparation both personally and professionally. We need to get our house ready, cleaned of all leavened products and stocked with all the special Passover foods. And I need to plan our congregation’s community seder—monitor registration, interface with our caterer and of course prepare the ritual and special readings.

But with the kids out of school, it is important to spend family time, especially when we can take time to visit extended family. And the trip, while interfering with some of the physical preparations for Passover, provides good opportunity for some spiritual preparation.

The story of Passover is a fundamental narrative within Jewish tradition and theology. Found in the Torah in the Book of Exodus, the story begins with the enslavement of the Israelites by Pharaoh in Egypt and concludes with their liberation by God through Moses. The details—the Israelites crying out, the harsh decrees of Pharaoh, Moses’s call at the burning bush, and the series of demands for freedom by Moses each accompanied by a plague—round out this overarching story of deliverance and emancipation.

The story is fundamental because of this narrative arc from oppression to liberation. It is a paradigm for personal transformation, and it is a paradigm for social change. Indeed, when we retell the story at the Passover seder, it is our requirement to make connections between the biblical narrative and our own lives and situations.

The climax of the narrative is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea): having left Egypt the Israelites find themselves pursued by the Egyptian army. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds and seeming have no place to turn; before them is an impassable sea and behind them is at best return to slavery and at worst death. Through both divine guidance and the human motivation for freedom, the sea is split in two and the Israelites move forward on dry land before it comes together again on top of the Egyptian army.

It is this part of the story that I have been thinking about on this road trip, as much of it has taken us by water. But not seas, rivers. We have passed by and along numerous rivers, primarily the Columbia River, which serves as the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean.

Driving alongside the Columbia, and stopping at times overlooking it, I realize that I may have been imagining the story of the Exodus all wrong. Personally, I always imagined the Sea of Reeds as a vast, endless body of water. (Maybe that was the influence of the movies.) But maybe a river is a better image. With a river one is able to see the other side, and so the potential for crossing over to a new life is attainable. And rivers themselves provide means for a journey, connecting locations over vast distances.

And the image that struck me most from this trip is when we stopped alongside one of the numerous dams that dot the Columbia, dams which harness the power of the water to create energy and electricity. Humans have learned to harness the power of the flowing river. And isn’t this what happens at the Sea of Reeds, when the waters are dammed up providing new energy for the people?

[Indeed the life-giving power of rivers is already hinted at in the story, with Moses being saved from a death decree by being sent down the Nile River, and the journey to liberation was begun by Moses turning the Nile into blood.]

Engaging with our natural world and rivers on this trip has allowed me personally to think about the Passover story in new ways. And no matter how you envision the story, no matter what images stand out for you, it should be in keeping with the essence of the story: that it is a story of movement, and we must end up in a different place than where we started.

Watching Out for the Ox That Gores

In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim we continue the theme of last week’s: the revelation at Sinai. Having journeyed out of Egyptian slavery, the Israelites are now at Mount Sinai where Moses is to receive the laws. Mishpatim means “laws” and the portion is a collection of different laws and practices that we are to follow, some ethical, and some ritual.

This is in many ways the final stage of the Exodus. Having been enslaved for generations, the Israelites had become accustomed to one way of being—they were a society whose lives were controlled by others. Freedom now is not just the liberation from the chains of bondage, it is the ability to form a new society to maintain and perpetuate that freedom. That is the meaning of Sinai—a new covenant, a new set of guidelines that will govern the people in the creation of a new society.

Many aspects of this new society is rooted in the past experience of the Israelites. This portion contains the oft-repeated, important dictum “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the biblical version of “never forget”—our experience in the past must inform our present and future behavior. We are to be ever mindful of where oppression exists in our world, and strive to combat it. It is a fundamental Jewish ethic. (And one, in this day and age, especially important to recall.)

Another ethic can be found in the passage of “the goring ox:”

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:28-29)

In other words, if your ox gores someone to death, you are not liable for damages. But if you knew your ox was in the habit of goring, and it then gores someone to death, then you are liable. And, since the Torah proscribes capital punishment, the owner of the ox is put to death. It is as if you were directly responsible for the murder.

It seems like a harsh punishment, especially for something one’s animal did. For those of us who have pets or spend time around animals, no matter how domesticated animals are, their behavior can at times be unpredictable. I have the dog and cat scratches to prove it.

But there is an understanding in the text to which we need to pay heed. In the Torah text, the understanding of the scenario in this case is that the ox owner knew that the ox was a threat to others, yet did not do anything to mitigate that threat: “its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it.” That is why the liability rests with the owner. Not because they had the bad luck to have their ox act like an ox, but because they knew this was a possibility and did nothing to prevent potential harm.

The Torah here is giving us an important lesson in legal liability, for one, but also in general responsibility. For if we know of a potentially dangerous situation, action or actor and do nothing to prevent it, then we are responsible for any harm that comes from it. Things are going to happen, of course, the idea of having complete control is an illusion. But we do have the power to mitigate harm, to resist damaging powers, to counter threats.

We can apply this to the individual realm, and we can apply it to the communal realm as well. As the modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, when it comes to issues of communal justice, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We may not cause harm ourselves, but if we know of harm being done, we are responsible to seek to stop it. The first step is to educate ourselves, the second is to act on that knowledge.

The law of the goring ox provides a corollary to the famous dictum about not oppressing the stranger. For in connecting the text to our present day, one question we must ask ourselves is, “who is the stranger who needs to be saved from oppression?”

And at the same time, another question we must ask ourselves is, “what are the dangerous oxen that need to be kept at bay?”

Being Good Citizens

In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, have escaped from Egyptian slavery, crossed the Red Sea and are beginning their journey to the Promised Land. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, has heard about the events that took place, and travels from his home in Midian to meet up with Moses in the Wilderness. Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children, and the family is reunited. Jethro congratulates Moses on the victory and offers up a blessing to God on behalf of the Israelites.

The next day, its business as usual, and, as the text describes, Moses takes his position at the head of the community to adjudicate the disputes of the Israelites:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:13-18)

Jethro then advises Moses to set up a system of system of judges wherein selected leaders would be placed over smaller groups of people, “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” with each leader handling the disputes of the group that they are overseeing. Larger disputes make their way up the chain, and Moses is left just handling the most important and difficult cases.

It is a system of jurisprudence that is familiar to us, with lower courts handling local disputes with the ability to appeal to higher courts as necessary.

This story of Jethro is taken to teach the importance not only of having an orderly court system, but to have an organized system of leadership in general. Moses running the entire community by himself was not sustainable neither for him nor for the people. We recognize the need to have institutions of government in order to facilitate community and ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

But Jethro has another lesson for Moses. For before advising Moses to set up the system of leaders he says to him, “enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.” (Exodus 18:20)

In other words, Jethro says before you set up a system of judges, make sure the people themselves know the law and what is expected of them as members of the community. A successful system, therefore, is one that not only relies on a functional system of government but on an active and engaged citizenry.

Earlier this week I sat on a panel at The Evergreen State College on the subject of religious liberty and specifically how it relates to the LGBTQ community. I represented a faith community perspective in a wide ranging conversation in which we talked about law, discrimination and the Constitution, circling around the Arlene’s Flowers case, in which a florist was sued for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding claiming it violated her religious beliefs. (The Washington Supreme Court unanimously decided against her on Thursday.)

During my opening remarks, I cited the famous letter from George Washington to the Jewish community in Newport, RI in 1790, which has become a sacred text to the American Jewish community. In that letter, a response from Washington to a letter of congratulations sent to him by the congregation on the occasion of his inauguration, he writes,

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I’ve always knew this letter to be an affirmation of religious liberty, especially important to a minority faith community wary perhaps of its position in this new country. But in reading it again we see that while Washington affirms those rights, he also notes that at the same time in order for those rights to be guaranteed, those who live by them should behave as “good citizens.”

From Jethro to George Washington the message is that while we have leaders and guides, the obligation rests on us to know what is expected of us and to behave accordingly.

We are responsible for our civic lives, needing to be educated in our laws, our rights and responsibilities and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we not only exercise them for ourselves but guarantee them for others. Courts can serve as a correction when things go wrong, but the onus is on us to treat everyone fairly.

And we are responsible for our own spiritual lives, needing to be educated in our traditions, texts and practices and to find our place within them in order to live out our values and convictions. We can find others who serve as teachers and guides, but we can not expect others to do it for us.

In both instances, we ourselves are expected to “know the way we are to go.”

Moses and Aaron: Allies for Justice

The Inauguration is upon us. The peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of our American democracy goes into effect on Friday. Yet this time power is being transferred to a man who enters the office with the lowest approval rating in recent history, who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, whose entry into office will be marked by protests across the country of unprecedented scale.

There is an intriguing juxtaposition of these events and our Torah reading this week, parashat Shemot. This week we read in the Torah the beginning of the Exodus. As we move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, we make the transition to a book of a family’s saga to the book of a national epic. Jacob and his sons have settled in Egypt and have become a people.

This people, however, is seen as a threat to the new Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh who, the text says, did not know Joseph. In other words, he did not know his history, he did not know of the relationship and bond between the majority Egyptians and the minority Israelites. Seeing them as his enemies, as those who could even overthrow him, he enslaves them.

We are introduced to the character of Moses, who will dominate the rest of the Torah. Born a slave, but sent off by his mother, he is raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. When as a young man he sees an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, something stirs in him and he kills the guard, then flees to Midian to escape punishment.

It is there in Midian he makes a new life, a new family. And it is there in Midian that he gets the call that will change the course of his life and of the world.

Tending sheep one day he notices a bush on fire, but the fire is not consuming the bush. From the bush comes a voice, the voice of God, who tells Moses that he is to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. After some argument—Moses is a reluctant hero—and assurances that God will support him and he will have his brother Aaron as a helper, Moses answers the call and heads back to Egypt.

As the story continues, a story that we know from retelling, from the Passover celebration, or even popular imagination, Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelites. Pharaoh continues to refuse, and Moses exhortations get stronger, more strident and when accompanied by the plagues, more perilous to the Egyptian society.

It is a powerful story of telling truth to power, of standing up to despotism, of making the plea for equality, liberation and justice. It is a story that we know resonated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrated this past week. And it is a powerful story that will hopefully resonate with us as new leadership takes over at the highest levels of our government.

There is, as our Torah teaches in this story, the opportunity and obligation to call out that which we know to be wrong. That we do not need to be nor should we be silent in the face of oppression. And that we have the power to confront our rulers when we seek change.

But in addition to reaching up, we also must reach across. We must reach across to our neighbor, our fellow community members. For what is most important, what forms the strongest society, what allows us to be successful in what we hope to accomplish, are the relationships that we are able to forge.

The Torah models this for us as well. For Moses knows that he can not go it alone. Standing in front of the bush he says in the text that he is “slow of speech,” and asks God for someone else to be the divine emissary. But God insists, and tells him the Aaron his brother will be by his side. We can say that “slow of speech” is up for interpretation, so while it can be interpreted as a speech impediment, or as lack of eloquence, we can also say that Moses understands that one person’s words by themselves may not be that effective. That what is needed is not a soloist, but a chorus.

Aaron’s presence symbolizes the strength in numbers. Aaron’s presence represents the need for allies in the fight for justice.

And how does one be an ally? Aaron and Moses meet for the first time shortly after the episode of the burning bush. Moses returns to his family in Midian, and prepares to return to Egypt. We read in the text, “God said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’ He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.” (Exodus 4:27)

Aaron doesn’t wait for Moses to return to Egypt. Aaron goes out to meet Moses where he is. And that is how we become allies, how we form strong relationships: we meet people where they are. We go out of our way to connect with them. We recognize that it isn’t about the “I” it is about the “we.” We support each other, we give of ourselves, we uplift each other’s tactics even when they differ. We make sure that challenging external threats is not compromised by needless division and infighting.

We turn towards, and not against each other.

It is through these relationships that we can overthrow the Pharaoh, free the oppressed, envision a better world and climb the mountain of God.

Nachshon Moments, on Land as on Sea

The Israelites are on the move in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, as they pick up their journey through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. It is quite a logistical ordeal, moving that many people along with all of their belongings, not to mention all of the communal property, primarily the Tabernacle, their central sanctuary which can be broken down and carried like Ikea furniture. The Torah goes into some detail as to how the tribes are to organize as they travel, and who is meant to carry what.

A long quote, but stick with me:

In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai. The cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. When the march was to begin, at the Lord’s command through Moses, the first standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Judah. In command of its troops was Nahshon son of Amminadab; in command of the tribal troop of Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar; and in command of the tribal troop of Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon. Then the Tabernacle would be taken apart; and the Gershonites and the Merarites, who carried the Tabernacle, would set out.The next standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Reuben. In command of its troop was Elizur son of Shedeur; in command of the tribal troop of Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; and in command of the tribal troop of Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel. Then the Kohathites, who carried the sacred objects, would set out; and by the time they arrived, the Tabernacle would be set up again. The next standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Ephraim. In command of its troop was Elishama son of Ammihud; in command of the tribal troop of Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur; and in command of the tribal troop of Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni. Then, as the rear guard of all the divisions, the standard of the division of Dan would set out, troop by troop. In command of its troop was Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai; in command of the tribal troop of Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran; and in command of the tribal troop of Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan. Such was the order of march of the Israelites, as they marched troop by troop. (Numbers 10:11-28)

Quite a lot of detail; the Torah is into logistics.

In reading this description, one name might jump out: Nachshon son of Amminadab. Nachshon we are told is the leader of the tribe of Judah, and it is the tribe of Judah that is the lead tribe, the head of the processional as the Israelites march out.

The name Nachshon may be familiar because of a story found in the midrash (commentary) about the crossing of the Red Sea. Ancient midrash often time “fills in” gaps in the Torah narrative, or adds additional detail. In the Torah text, when we read of the Israelites leaving Egypt, the story tells how with the Egyptian army in pursuit, the Israelites come to the shores of the Red Sea. With destruction seemingly in front of and behind them, the Israelites cry out to Moses, and Moses in turn cries out to God. Nobody seems to know what to do in the moment.

In the Torah text, God instructs Moses to raise up his staff and part the seas for the Israelites to march through. But the midrash adds in a detail. Before Moses raises his staff, in the moments when no body seems to know what to do, the midrash describes how Nachshon jumps into the water. He is going to move forward towards freedom and away from oppression no matter what it takes, and it was his action, his decisiveness in a moment of indecision, that inspires Moses to act and the seas to part.

Nachshon, the one whose actions inspired the nation to move forward to complete the final act of liberation, is now the standardbearer at the front of the nation on its path toward normalcy.

Now granted the Torah predates the midrash by centuries, and it is possible (probable?) that the midrash tells the story of Nachshon at the Red Sea simply in order to explain why the tribe of Judah rose to prominence later on. But let’s read the stories in order and suggest the Nachshon’s high position is a reward or recognition for the risk he took earlier. His actions helped create a nation, and now he is honored for them. And Nachshon was able to transform his revolutionary act to established leadership.

In telling the story of Nachshon, we tend to focus on the shores of the Red Sea, on his first act. And we ask ourselves, what is our Nachshon moment? When are the times that we take a leap forward into the unknown, take a risk, move the bar, and do so without knowing what the outcome will be?

But what if, instead of thinking about the Red Sea, we focus on his second act in the Wilderness. And in regards to this we can also ask ourselves, what is our Nachshon moment? In other words, when are the times we were able to translate inspiration into actuality? When were the times we were able to lead not by leaps of faith, but by thoughtful planning and small steps? When were the times we were able to advance not because of an individual action, but by coordinated efforts, collaboration and deliberation?

Indeed, it is often by these Nachshon moments–the ones on land rather than those on sea–that we are able to affect real and lasting change.