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Parshat Beshalach


The People of Israel are trapped between the sea on one side and the advancing Egyptians on the other. They cry out in desperation. (14, 9-12) Moshe is commanded to raise his staff and stretch his hand over the waters to part the sea. The people enter the sea.

Simple enough, or so it seems. Yet the sages explain that the actual entry into the sea was more complicated. The Torah tells us that “the Children of Israel entered into the sea, on dry land.” When they first entered the sea was still the sea, only once they entered did it turn into dry land.

According to Chazal the people decided to enter the sea in the face of crashing waves, not a dry path surrounded by walls of water. It was a human decision, and a slightly violent one at that. Their descent into the sea was an expression of their frustration with injustice and their desperation in the face of an intractable problem. This bold decision changed reality and turned the sea onto dry land. What prompted the people to act in such a way? The social dynamic that preceded this decision is debated in the midrash:

And the Children of Israel entered into the sea, on dry land.” Rabbi Meir said it one way, and Rabbi Yehudah said it a different way.

Rabbi Meir said it one way: When the tribes were standing by the sea this one said ‘I will go down into the sea first’ and the other sad, ‘I will enter the sea first.’ While they were standing and arguing the Tribe of Binyamin jumped and went down into the sea first,,, and the heads of the Tribe of Yehudah started to throw stones at them…

And Rabbi Yehudah said it a different way: “And the Children of Israel went into the sea…” When the Children of Israel stood by the sea, this one said, “I will not go down into the sea first,” and this one said, “I will not go down into the sea first”… And while they were standing and discussing Nachshon son of Aminadav jumped and fell into the sea. (Mechilta d’R.Y, Beshalach- Masechta d’Vayehi, Parsha 5)

According to Rabbi Meir all the tribes wanted to jump into the sea, but the Tribe of Benjamin beat them to it. Consequently, they were targeted by the Tribe of Yehudah for inappropriately seizing control. The midrash then informs us that both tribes were rewarded for their actions: the Shechinah would reside in the portion of Binyamin and the monarchy would be given to the Tribe of Yehudah.

Rabbi Meir views the entrance into the water as a coup, an act of brazenness. In a way the Tribe of Binyamin was ahead of their time; they didn’t just speed up the process, they circumvented it. On the other side of the scale there are the defenders of law and order, the Tribe of Yehudah, who stand opposed to the avant-garde jumpers from Binyamin and bring balance to the revolution. These and those act in the service of God. These and those are rewarded for their actions.

Conversely, Rabbi Yehudah believed that none of the tribes wanted to jump into the water. While they were procrastinating, trying to drum up volunteers, Nachshon ben Aminadav from the Tribe of Yehudah jumped in. According to Rabbi Yehudah his leap can be seen as an expression of leadership, audacity, and bravery. (It seems like the Hebrew language agrees with him, since it has turned Nachshon’s very name into an adjective for courage.)

A third approach is advanced in Midrash Tehillim. It is brought as part of a discussion between Rabbi Tarfon and his students. He asked them what Yehudah did to merit the monarchy. He offered several suggestions but each one was rejected by his students. Finally, Rabbi Tarfon turned to his students:

He said to them: If so, by what did he merit (to rule)?

They said to him: [It was] in the merit of his leap into the waves of the sea, for all the tribes were standing and not one would go down into the sea, rather one said, “I will go down first,” and the other said, “I will go down first.” But Yehudah sanctified the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and went down. And this is the reason he merited [to receive] the monarchy. As it says, “Yehudah became His sanctuary” (Tehillim 114, 2) Because Yehudah sanctified [God’s name], therefore, “Israel became His dominion,” [God gave Israel dominion, kings]. And because Yehudah made God’s Name known, the name of Yehudah was made great amongst Israel. (Midrash Tehillim Buber, 96)

According to the students Yehudah was given the monarchy because he actually jumped into the sea while everyone else was still just discussing it. Rabbi Meir viewed Binyamin’s action as pushy; he criticized them for making something happen before it’s time. Yet Rabbi Tarfon’s students see the same action performed by Yehudah as appropriate; for them it is a source of merit and it turns Yehudah into a leader.

These midrashim offer us three different points of view; three different situations and states of mind that lead to such a leap. Rabbi Tarfon’s students see the deliberations of the different tribes as pathetic attempts to cover up their own reticence and hesitation. A leader needs to act. Sometimes a leader can’t wait for things to develop and processes to play themselves out; sometimes a leader has to create the process, ignite the spark. But Rabbi Meir sees this leap differently, as a brazen act that broke through the bounds of accepted community practice. Such actions may not stem from bravery so much as a thoughtless lack of consideration. So even if it turns out that such a leap was the right thing to do still society must respond to restore balance. And yet for Rabbi Yehudah, while it may be against the current, this leap into the water is necessary to move the people from their paralyzing fear of change. And it has immediate results, both changing the world and the way the people perceive it.

Every generation has a similar experience, the feeling that they are closed in at all sides, stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s not always advancing Egyptians and crashing waves, but while the dilemmas may change they always seem to lead us down a dead end road. The ones who are hesitant or afraid of leaping into the water are not going to find us a way out. The problem can only be solved by those who are willing to leap into the water, those who turn it into dry land through the sheer force of their will. This is what Rav Kook says about those who avoid forging new paths:

In the settled world there are weak ones, those who are respected and proper, and are scared by the question: “Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us can dwell in the everlasting burning?” But they really should not be afraid, rather it is a sin perpetrated by those who are weak willed, the scared sycophants, and “trembling took hold of them.” (Orot Zironim, pg. 121-123)

There are others who refuse to surrender, who search for some way out, even if it is “choppy” or dangerous. But not all trailblazers are equal. They have different motives and so the types of change they instigate are also different. Some of them start fights that others have to put a stop to, sometimes by force, in order to fix the situation. The revolution that these people start is a multi-step process; change for the better does not come about immediately. Rav Kook describes these people as follows:

Their stirrings are alive and they will not be calmed. It is apparent in the brazen faces of the generation, the principled evildoers, those who sin not because they can’t control their hunger- but instead to elicit anger… yet the spark of courage contained in their will is a point of holiness. (ibid)

Finally, there are those that break the mold. They don’t abide by the norms, they break through and forge new paths, but they do so thoughtfully and intelligently:

Tzaddikim, brave as lions- through the brave spirit of their clear and courageous intellect, and the courage of their sentiment, and practical revelation that is stable and clear- they reveal the truth of the repairs and the constructs.”

Despite the obstacles that stand in their way these trailblazing tzaddikim are ready to make it their responsibility to forge a new path, one that we will recognize as true. 

Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781