Beshalah: What would you have done in the Exodus

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Shabbat Shirah


Exodus 13:17-17:16

Judges 4:4-5:31

This week we read the grand narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. I daresay that there is no story anywhere with more majesty, more vividness or richer application to life than the story of the Exodus.

Each year the Haggadah demands that we visualize ourselves as if we were there. This week, find yourself in the narrative. Had you been there, whom would you have been?

Imagine the scene. The agonizing process of negotiating with Pharaoh, refusal after refusal, the dashing of hopes again and again and the slaves' steadily worsening situation — and then the terrifying spectacle of the plagues. Then suddenly, the word arrives. It is time to leave, to flee, now. No time to pack with care, no time to even let the bread rise. Pull a few things together and run.

Now the motley band of slaves finds itself too-suddenly free, and unready for the challenge of faith that lies ahead. The Egyptian chariots are in hot pursuit, and ahead lies the sea. Moses holds his arm out over the sea, promising that God will be with them as they cross.

Whom would you have been? Might you have discovered some great store of inner strength and become Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first person to step into the waves? Remember, according to the midrash (the rabbinical story), the sea did not immediately part. The others watched as Nachshon stepped in, realizing that someone had to lead the way, and that he had what it took to step into the moment. But he stepped up to his ankles, up to his knees, and still the waters did not part. He continued to walk, till the water reached his waist and then his chest, and still the sea roared. Undaunted, he continued, as his community watched, aghast. He continued to walk deeper into the waters, until the waters reached his nose, until his faith was tested to his very life. Suddenly, the waters parted. Have you ever had Nachshon in you?

Or would you have been among the chorus who cried out in fear, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, `Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness'?" (Exodus 14:11-12). Would you have responded with fear to the first new challenge of freedom? Would fear have overtaken you, obscuring the blessing of freedom, the vista of new life opening before you?

Or would you have been those nameless characters of whom Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in his profound children's book, "The Book of Miracles"? Reuven, upon seeing the sea part, said something like, "Oh, yuck, you guys! What a mess! They don't really mean us to walk through this messy beach, do they?" This anonymous Israelite literally couldn't see beyond the sand between his toes. He perceived only the most concrete dimension of reality. He was utterly incapable of seeing the whole picture. By contrast, Shimon said, "Oh, but Reuven, look! There is suddenly a path between the waves! Reuven, it's a miracle!"

On the opposite shore of the sea, even after the passage was complete, there were still very different reactions. The Israelites had passed through the roaring waves in safety and witnessed the sudden demise of the mighty Egyptian warriors. Finally, the text tells us, the Israelites experienced genuine awe, perceiving God's redemptive power. For a moment, the Israelites believed in God. They sang the great song, a song of celebration, of gratitude. Then Miriam led the women in song and dance of their own. An explosion of exuberance, of awe, of faith. Would you have helped lead the dancing?

Or would you have been among those who, within days, began to prepare the next complaint? Would you, within days of the great miracle, have begun to ask of God, "What have you done for me lately?" complaining bitterly when the waters were bitter? What does it take to sustain faith in your life? What would it take for God to get your attention? How can you hold onto the miracles (even the small ones) that are sent your way?

Let Miriam and Nachshon be our teachers as we try, in our own day, to respond to the stunning events of our own lives. May our faith be nourished as we cross our own seas. Amen.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at