Hope, Action and Rebirth

Here we stand – all of us, Bnei Yisrael, at the edge of Yam Suf - the Reed Sea. In In your mind’s eye, picture the scene….

Behind us lies terror – Pharaoh’s massed armies hurtling closer and closer. We hear the screeching wheels of their chariots even as we speak. Before us – a vast Sea – seemingly impassable. Great waves lap the shores. We are filled with fear and uncertainty. Is this why Moses led us out of Egypt – to die in the desert, by the hand of the Egyptians, or in a watery grave?

We cry out to Moses: ’Moses, save us!’ But Moses is busy, deep in prayer, pleading with God. The chariots hurtle closer. Children scream. Panic rises.

Then one man steps out of the crowd. We know him. He is Aaron’s brother-in-law – his name is Nachshon ben Aminadav. What is he doing? According to the Midrash, (those rabbinic stories that fill in the gaps between the words and verses of the terse Torah text),  , as quoted in the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37a, Nachshon ben Aminadav takes a step into the Sea, and then another step, and then another. Now he is up to his knees in water, now his neck, now… his nostrils. As his nose bubbles with water… the sea parts, and all of the Children of Israel – men, women and children, walk through the walls of water on dry land. And in other versions of the Midrash – the whole people step into the Sea up to their nostrils before the Sea parts.

Shirat HaYam, The Song at the Sea, is one of my favourite sections of the entire Torah. It conveys essential teachings about what it means to be a Jew.

It teaches of Hope: even when we are in a place of deep despair, even when it seems there is nowhere to go, no way out, when we are overwhelmed by fear - hold onto Hope. Jews are fundamentally hopeful – and this is no easy position to hold. Not long ago I read the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s book, ‘Chasing Shadows, Memories of a Vanished World’. Hugo and his father are prisoners in Auschwitz during the festival of Chanukah and, with a number of others, save their meagre margarine ration for an entire week in order to light a makeshift Chanukiah – only to find, as the wicks splutter and die, that margarine doesn’t burn! As Hugo turns to his father in anger bemoaning this waste of precious calories, Hugo writes:

‘Patiently my father taught me one the most lasting lessons of my life and I believe that he made my survival possible. ‘’Don’t be so angry,’’ he said to me, ‘’you know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!’’ ‘

Hope is not an easy position to hold for us today, in a world that is cynical, where the media constructs a reality dominated by bad news: disaster, acts of evil and hate. Jews are realists, yet we are also optimists – it is this that has given us the resilience to pick ourselves up and create our lives anew again and again after each catastrophe in our history, in our personal lives.

Shirat HaYam teaches of Action. While Moses is busy praying, Nachshon ben Aminadav – and perhaps the entire People – step into the Sea, up to their nostrils. For sure there’s a time for talking, a time for praying, but there comes a time when we are called to act, each and every one us. At significant moments, each and every one of us is called to be a leader.

And finally, Shirat HaYam, teaches a message of rebirth. We journey through the narrow walls of water, and we emerge transformed – a free People delivered from danger, ready for new encounters, new beginnings, new life.  This journey represents both  the inner journey of every human being in response to the inescapable call for change, just as it represents a  mythic journey through history marking the formative experiences that mould the Children of Israel into a Nation.

Hope. Action. Rebirth. As we sing the verses of Shirat HaYam, recounted in some of the most ancient and triumphant poetry in the Torah, we affirm our capacity for victory, and the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of challenge.

This 7th Day Pesach, we all stand at the edge of an Unknown Sea. For you, a new Rabbi; for me, a new community. How will our relationship develop, and how will the future of SWESRS unfold in partnership with its new leadership? Perhaps we are thinking back with real yearning to times past – to how things were, and people we miss. Who isn’t reluctant to let go of the comforting security of what is past? Yet the Torah’s message is clear. Change isn’t only desirable – it’s a necessity for growth, and for life. If we deny change, we embrace death, and the walls of water come crashing down to drown us.

In the face of the joys, the challenges and the unknowns that lie ahead, let’s all accept the invitation of Shirat HaYam on 7th Day Pesach – to assert a realistic hope that a bright future awaits us; to commit to taking action, each every one of us, to ensure that future; and to celebrate the journey we are stepping out on together, singing a victorious song of rebirth as we go.