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Creating Our Own Miracles #813

01/26/2024 05:05:30 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Beshalach

Creating Our Own Miracles

My wife and I have a saying that has carried us though our journey together.

“Good luck does not drive up to your front door in a limousine and invites you to get in. Rather, you are the driver of your own journey.”

When you think of it, the job you have now, your partner, some of your most memorable experiences, have occurred because you took a chance.

So, here we are in our yearly reading of the Torah.

The Jewish people, having just departed Egypt, are at a crossroads.

As they look back at Egypt, they see the dust of approaching chariots.  Pharaoh has had a change of heart. He wants the Israelites back in Egypt.

And as the Israelites look forward, they see the forbidding waters of the Sea of Reeds. There is, seemingly, nowhere to go. So, the Israelites and Moses pray. And they pray, and they pray, and they pray.

God appears perplexed by all this praying, and quizzes Moses with one of my favorite lines in the entire Torah.

“Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to move forward?” (Exodus 14:15) There are many awesome scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s depiction of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as part of the four-hour classic, The Ten Commandments.

But perhaps one of the greatest—using 1956 special effects—occurs when Moses raises his staff, causing the sea to part. The Talmud takes issue with that “official” depiction and provides the inside story of what really happened.

In so doing, we are introduced to perhaps one of the least known—yet important—people in the Bible. His name is Nachshon, the son of Aminadav and head of the tribe of Judah.

While Moses is surrounded by the Israelites in prayer, Nachshon takes charge. According to our oral tradition, as Moses prays, the leaders of the 12 tribes consider another approach.

And, contrary to the Torah—as well as the movie—Moses is not the one who takes the lead. According to the great Sage, Rabbi Yehuda, "That is not how the incident took place."

Considering an alternate plan, the tribunal chiefs ask, “Who will take the first step into the water?” According to the Talmud, “This tribe said: ‘I am not going into the sea first,’ and that tribe said: ‘I am not going into the sea first.’”

Finally, amid the fear, uncertainty and inaction, Nachshon ben Aminadav and the Tribe of Judah step into the forbidding waters.

As Nachshon advances, but the decision does not initially look good. His feet sink into the mud, the waters at his nose. Like many of us in times of uncertainty, Nachshon must make a decision: He can either step forward or retreat to safety.

Ultimately, he proceeds, and according to tradition, at that moment, the “great east wind”—which God created at the dawn of creation—arrives, parts the sea and creates a path for all the Israelites to take.

At that point, Moses raises his staff and leads the rest of the people forward.

What an inspiring story. Often, when we think back at the best decisions we’ve made—choosing universities, changing careers or even countries—it is because we’ve taken a chance, and sometimes those decisions are not easy.

But that’s when our miracles occur.

How do we create those miracles? Although it drives my wife crazy, I am often the first to say “hello” to a stranger while we are travelling or at a ballgame. And, usually, an interesting story or experience occurs.

By taking an unexpected step, we make new friends. My parents met 75 years ago at a resort north of Montreal, as my father walked up to my mother with two ping pong paddles in his hand and asked a question that would change their lives: “Do you?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that few of our most incredible experiences come by chance. They occur because we take a first step out of our comfort zone.

Sometimes, these chances don’t work out. But through them we develop antibodies to try again. In the words of my mother, who often buoyed my brother and me after we endured a difficult day at school or at play, “The hard today will be easy tomorrow.”

That is why—as the Cantor and I discuss our favorite characters in the Torah—the name Nachshon Ben Aminadav rises to the surface.

His name and example inspire us to take a chance and act. For when we think of it, perpetual prayer, lack of action, or being satisfied with the status quo usually leads us nowhere.

To put this into the context of the Passover story, “Stagnation is a form of slavery.”

In their 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, authors Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. introduce the phrase, “a bias for action.” They wrote that we should embrace “action over inaction” when faced with a difficult decision.

In his 2017 book, Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life, the late Rabbi Harold Kushner noted that this world is often an unfair place, and while God does not put those obstacles in front of us, God provides us with the strength to deal with them and journey forward.

And that is why this week’s story of the parting of the sea has inspired so much within Judaism. It is perhaps above all manifested through the creation of the State of Israel and its determination to survive.

It is expressed by the miracles in our own lives—most of which have been created by taking a chance or stepping forward.

Nachshon ben Aminadav. Pioneers like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. Your parents or grandparents, who left Europe or Asia to immigrate to this country. They decided to advance into unsure waters.

Whatever and whoever we are is forever linked to those who took chances—often against forbidding odds. That’s what makes our lives and our tradition so great: Judaism is not based on playing it safe.

It is based on the example of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, who, by his actions, teaches it is up to us to take the first step.

And more often than not, as Jewish history has proven, miracles and a better life usually follow close behind.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv

Rabbi Irwin Huberman.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784