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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

I love when the Torah, the Bible, our shared, sacred story, speaks into our lives. This week, this service of gathering together, is one of those moments when our text comes to life.

This week, in the Jewish community’s weekly Bible reading, our lectionary, we read the story of the parting of the sea. This is the same story that we read around our spring holiday of Passover. To catch you all up, the ancient Israelites have been living in Egypt as slaves of Pharaoh for 400 years. God chooses Moses and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, to lead the Israelites to freedom, and back to our Promised Land. Pharaoh is not very excited about this, to put it lightly. God and Moses send ten terrible plagues to try to convince Pharaoh to free our people, and as we sang earlier, Moses asks Pharaoh, over and over again, “Let my people go!”

Finally, finally, Pharaoh, says, be gone with you, and we’re on our way. Only, we reach the Sea of Reeds, and there is no way forward, and, looking over our shoulders, there’s no way back. Pharaoh has changed his mind again, and the Egyptian army is pursuing us!

I’m on the edge of my seat. What happens next??

We learn in a Midrash, a story that attempts to fill in the gaps of our bible, that “Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: When Israel was at standing there, at the edge of the sea, the tribes were arguing with each other. One tribe said: 'I will go down first into the sea', and the other tribe said 'No, I will go down first.' Meanwhile, Moses sat praying, God, deliver us today!

This arguing and praying continued for some time, until one man, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, got fed up with all that back and forth. It was time to take action. Nachshon jumped first into the waves of the sea and went down into the water, and it is said that he shouted out the words of one of our Psalms, our sacred poetry, "Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck!” (Ps. 69). God turned to Moses, our leader, and said: My beloved people are sinking in the sea and you are praying?! Tell the Israelites to GET GOING!' (Exodus 14:15)

For Nachshon’s bravery, God blessed him, and the sea parted for all of the people of Israel to cross in safety to freedom.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13, adapted)

Looking back at his role in the civil rights movement and impact on our nation, we often compare Martin Luther King to Moses. Equally, I think we can see him as a Nachshon - stepping out ahead, speaking up when others would not, leading thousands with his bold first steps.

There have been and continue to be other Nachshons. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a friend and ally of Martin Luther King shared in 1963, “What we must do is to set an example, not merely to acknowledge [our neighbors] but to welcome [them], not grudgingly but joyously... We are all [either] Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?”

These questions ring true for us today. There is a time to be Moses, a time to pray. And there is a time to heed God’s call - “My people are sinking in the sea! Tell the Israelites to GET GOING!” Let us be Nachshon, not slaves to Pharaoh, not Pharaoh ourselves. Let’s jump into the sea, together, today.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784