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.


From Goshen to the Sea: Passover as the In-Between

red seaThis coming Monday is (unofficially) Red Sea Crossing Day.

We mark Passover at this time of year because this is the time of the events of the Exodus as recounted in the Torah. According to the Torah the march out of Egypt began on the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Passover. It was on this day that Pharaoh, after the tenth and final plague resulted in the death of the first born of Egypt, told Moses that he and the Israelites are free to leave.

As the story goes, after marching out of Egypt the Israelites were brought to the Red Sea. Pharaoh, regretting his decision, amassed his army to chase after the Israelites. Facing a vast body of water in front of them and an approaching army behind, the Israelites appealed to Moses and God for help. Moses and God then split the sea in two, allowing the Israelites to cross through on dry land and drowning the approaching army. It is the climactic moment of this epic story of liberation and redemption.

The traditional anniversary of the crossing of the Red Sea is the seventh day of Passover, which is Monday (beginning Sunday night). It was on this day that the Israelites finalized their liberation from bondage and permanently left Egypt behind. (“Will the last person leaving Egypt please turn out the lights?”) With the physical crossing of the sea the Israelites also spiritually and emotionally crossed into a new chapter of their national saga and development. It is such an important episode of the entire Exodus narrative that reference to it is found in most prayer services (“mi chamocha”).

So while we celebrate the entire story of the Exodus on Passover, the holiday does span a specific time period of the story: from the time the Israelites left Goshen, where the they lived in Egypt, to and through the Red Sea. And while the overall theme of Passover and the Exodus is freedom, during this specific time of the story the Israelites were not completely free-the emancipation had been proclaimed, but they were still in Egypt. It was only after crossing the Sea that we can say they were truly out of Egypt.

Thus while we look at Passover as a celebration of redemption and transformation, it is also a marking of that liminal and dangerous period of in-between on the way to that redemption and transformation. Passover marks that period between leaving what one knows and approaching what will be known. Passover marks that necessary period of transition that bridges enslavement and emancipation.

Our Christian brothers and sisters are celebrating Holy Week this week, recounting the events of the crucifixion (on Good Friday) and resurrection (on Easter Sunday) of Jesus. In regards to the season, my friend and colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters of the United Churches of Olympia recently wrote that while Christians recount and remember the resurrection on Easter, it is done while still living in a “Good Friday world.” In other words, Easter represents the world as it could be and Good Friday represents the world as it is.

Which brought me to wonder–what about Saturday? What is the Christian theological “mood” of the time between the crucifixion and resurrection? It is, as Elsa put it, “the time between the worst thing that could happen and the possibility that we can live again.” It is a necessary time; one can not go directly from one to the other. Within Christian thought and practice too is this notion of a liminal and dangerous period of in-between.

Judaism has the notion of sacred time, such as the weekly Shabbat. But sacred time is not limited to just a day at a time. Judaism has the notion of sacred time span as well-certain extended periods of time have significance. We have the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but we also have the month of Elul immediately preceding to prepare for these events, and the 10 Days of Repentance between the two. We have Passover and Shavuot (the festival celebrating the gift of Torah and covenant), but we also have the Omer, the seven week period linking these two holidays. And as we have noted, several of the holidays themselves-such as Passover-are not limited to just a day.

Remembering these spans of time reminds us that so much of our spiritual lives are lived not in the moment, but in the movement. Not at the ends, but in the middle. We live much of our lives in the scary center, the fragile and liminal places. While we seek transformation, and sometimes find it, the process is not immediate, and we must learn to be comfortable with the idea of becoming.

All the moreso when we remember the story of Passover through the eyes of Pharaoh, who was less of an actor than one upon whom life acted upon. Life is not always fair to us, and we many times find ourselves in those middle places not by choice but by necessity.

Passover does not mark slavery and it does not mark freedom; it marks the transition between the two. As we conclude the festival in the coming days, as we walk through the muck and mud at the bottom of the sea and watch the waters close up behind us, we end one journey but begin another. And we are mindful that as we do, we move not from one end point to another, but rather one in-between space to another.