Walking into Freedom
By Nizan Stein Kokin
After following in the footsteps of redemption at our Seder tables we now move on to witness the people of Israel becoming a free nation for the first time on Shevii Shel Pessach (the last day of Pesach), traditionally associated with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. We are recalling, some might even say “reenacting,”, this move to freedom as we ourselves participate in the recitation of Shirat HaYam during the Torah Service.
All well and good. But what might Kriat YamSuf – (the parting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds) mean to us as modern Jews, how might it still be relevant?
At first glance, God appears to be the sole actor.
Stuck between the advancing Egyptian army and the sea, the Israelites cry out to God and a dramatic dialogue between Moses and the people ensues, with Moses requesting calm and patience in anticipation of God’s redemption:”Have no fear! Stand by and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today”(Shemot 14, 13).
Yet God calls Moses to action: “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (ibid. v 15).
In what follows, the angel of God and, the pillar of cloud which had been leading them move behind them. Moses is told to raise his staff, and God will split the sea.
We are left with a scenario where everything is ready, set to go, time is pressing but with a void: who will actually take the lead?
This is a moment of suspense. God waits, dependent upon Israel to initiate the action. God is, at that moment, actually dependent on Israel’s following through, showing sufficient courage to advance.
The reciprocal nature of the God-Jew relationship reveals itself here for the first time.
The Midrash takes up this question, when Rabbi Judah says to Rabbi Meir: ”Each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea [each one saying] ‘I won’t be the first to go down into the sea’ . Then Nahshon the son of Amminadab jumped forward and descended into the sea…Concerning him Scripture states, ‘Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the slimy deep and find no foothold..’(Ps. 69,2-3). At that time, Moses was engaged for a long while in prayer; so the Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong prayer before Me!’ He spoke before God, Majesty of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?’ God replied to Moses, Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward. And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand …” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37a).
Moses seems to be in an almost slave-like mode of excessive dependence, leaving salvation to God alone, and thus endangering the whole endeavor. And so God says to him – no – now is the time to act.
Nahshon, on the other hand, who appeared to have just the right understanding of the situation and courageously jumps ahead, also seems to fail, as the quotation from Psalms seems to suggest: neither Moses nor the people followed his lead and soon enough he is on the verge of drowning himself.
When we talk about true freedom as the foundation of the relationship between the Jewish people and God this stirring passage shows that everybody needs to be on board, together. The collective needs to join in. There needs to be communal spiritual devotion and yet also concerted social action.
The person of spirit or of prayer needs to support the person of deed. Each and everyone needs to join together and move forward.
Rabbi Eliezer expresses this even more poignantly in Shemot Exodus Rabbah when he says: “The Holy Blessed One said to Moses: ‘There is a time to pray briefly and a time to pray at length. My children are in dire distress, the sea shuts them in and the enemy is pursuing, and you stand here adding prayer on prayer! “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they go forward.” Rabbi Joshua said: God said to Moses: ‘All that Israel have to do is to go forward. Therefore, Let them go forward! Let their feet step forward from the dry land to the sea, and you will see the miracles which I will perform for them.’
In this paradigmatic moment of divine salvation it is amazing to discover how much of a role God grants (indeed, demands from) human beings. This is what it really means to become free.
And where does this occur? At Pi-haChirot, as we learn at Shemot 14,2. Rashi glosses this place as Pi-haCheirut – the Mouth/opening of Freedom, because there [the Israelites] become free people.”
The splitting at the Sea of Reeds happened at Pi-haCheirut. The people of Israel truly became a free people by taking an active role in their own redemption – mustering the courage to enter the Sea.
This reminds us of our work with refugees presently arriving in Europe, and teaches us to help them such that they can take hold of their own lives again and move themselves forward into true freedom.
Nizan Stein Kokin is a rabbinical student at the Zacharias Frankel College in Berlin, Germany. She is currently interning at New London Synagogue under the mentorship of Rabbi Jeremy Gordon.