During Hurricane Harvey, my brave little dog spent most of his time in his kennel. The kennel was a good fit for him when he was a puppy, but it’s really too small for him now. Still, that is where he wanted to be. When he felt scared, he chose a small place to lay down and rest for awhile.
I know of people who have chosen to return to our small town after some life crises: a divorce, job loss, or some other life-altering event. They had been in bigger places, places with more options and opportunities, but they chose to come back to our very small town when they needed a break from their lives.
In fact, some people are even building very small houses in the backyards of their bigger houses and using them as “writing retreats,” or “man caves.” Whatever else they may be, they are small spaces. People — and our dogs too — seem to feel safe in small spaces.
It is interesting to me that even though Egypt is a pretty big country, its Hebrew name, Mizraim, means limitations, boundaries, or constraints. It might be described as a small place. And, like many other small places, Egypt offered its comforts, even to slaves. That’s right. In the wilderness the people cried out to Moses, “Have you brought us out here to die?” and they reminisced about the good old days in Egypt. It was small, they had been slaves, but it was familiar and predictable. Sure, God provided in the wilderness: There was manna, sometimes quail!. There was water from a rock, or bitter waters made sweet. One legend says that Miriam’s well, created on the sixth day of creation, somehow followed the Hebrews during their sojourn. They were provided for, but there was always a question in the back of their minds… “Will God come through today?” The Egyptians had been faithful in their provision of leeks and onions. Life was hard but predictable.
In the passage we read today, the Hebrews had left Egypt carrying the gold of their former masters with them, and almost immediately they confronted an obstacle: The Red Sea. The story in Torah is fairly straightforward. The story is that Moses stretched out his hand and the Red Sea parted. The water became like walls on either side and the ground like dry land. The Hebrews crossed the Red Sea in perfect safety. Of course, the Egyptians gave chase and, in an equally stunning miracle, Moses stretched out his hand again and the sea walls came tumbling down on the Egyptian army killing them all. Great story, right? Certainly, it has made for some great cinematography over the years. But, the rabbis didn’t like the story too much because while it is indeed dramatic it lacks the element of human agency. So they did what rabbis often do, they wrote an alternative story and placed it in the Babylonian Talmud.
In the rabbi’s story, Moses held out his hand and nothing happened. The people were stunned. Moses had never failed to deliver a miracle before, yet there he stood, hand outstretched, and nothing was happening. Imagine the terrifying silence of that moment. There was no miracle. An immovable object before them, and the Egyptians behind them. What must have been going through people’s minds?
One rabbi rather optimistically argued that the tribes began arguing among themselves over who would be first into the sea. No,” said Rabbi Meir who went on to postulate that none of the tribes wanted to be first. Picture it, the spear points getting closer and closer by the minute, the hoofbeats getting louder, and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob arguing over who had to go first. “I’m not going to go first,” said Dan, “Well, we’re not going first either,” said Asher. “I know,” said Levi, “Let’s get Zebulon. He’ll go first.” But, of course, Zebulon didn’t want to go first either. And the Egyptian Army continued to approach. Even in our modern world, nobody wants to go first, do they? It is the first one who paves the way, who gets the glory, and yet the first one is also the one who risks failure and the shame that can go with it. Shame is such a powerful motivator that we will do almost anything to avoid its sting, even if that means risking the freedoms that we may have fought for. Some people will sacrifice everything, even their dreams, to avoid shame.
I am sure the Israelites could feel the heat of the approaching horses by now, and still, they stood around arguing over what to do. Should they try to cross the sea or just give up? Then, like a mythical wonder rising from the horizon came Nachshone, a leader of the tribe of Judah, but really nothing more than a former slave, dust-covered, and desperate. Desperate enough to risk everything. If Nachshone had been wrong about God he would go down in history as just another crazy man, if history remembered him at all, that is. There was no indication of a miracle. Moses just stood there with his hand outstretched, the others argued, or wept, or joined the throngs of other bystanders, but Nachshone began walking. He walked past all the other tribes. With purpose, he continued toward the sea. People began watching, as people do. And they said things like, “Nachshone, what are you doing?” “Nachshone, you’re crazy man. Stop it.” “Don’t try to be a hero, Nachshone. This is no time for your drama.” Yet, he walked on. Nachshone was all about freedom. And as Saint Janice Joplin taught us, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Nachshone continued.
As the water went from the soles of his feet to his ankles and beyond, the people turned to look, for there is something about people that makes them incapable of turning away when great tragedy is about to strike. They watched as the water covered Nachshon’s knees and rose up to his hips. He raised his arms, but the water was soon up to his shoulders. Oh, what a foolish thing to do. But, if you’ve got nothing left to lose, what are you going to do? Nachshone might have thought about turning around and avoiding complete humiliation. Later, back in Egypt, they could laugh it off. He could save face Somehow. But, he kept going. As the water reached his neck, he tipped his head back but his feet kept moving and in that instant when he was just about to go under, when utter defeat was imminent, the waters ripped open and Nachshon found himself on dry land. He must have been shocked! But, God had come through with another miracle.
Of course, everybody else followed. People love to follow. They poured across the Red Sea in complete safety, as if on dry land, and they all arrived safely… and dry. Well, except for Nachshone. Nachshone was wet. Nachshone’s experience of crossing the Red Sea was qualitatively different from the experience everyone else had. The power of his fearlessness, his utter disregard of potential shame, his desperation had literally torn the sea in half.
Once on the other side, Miriam began singing. In another place in the Babylonian Talmud R. Meir said that everybody was so happy that even fetuses inside their mothers sang. R. Meir was a great storyteller. But, nobody said, “Hey, way to go Nachshon. Thanks for saving our skins and the whole God thing… Great job.” No. In fact, we never hear about Nachshon again. In Torah, and in most people’s minds, Moses gets all the credit. That’s OK, though. Nachshone may or may not have even been a real person. But, his story is true enough. What R. Meir was trying to teach us is that our own actions have power.
There are a lot of small places in the world today, lots of Egypts.
Myanmar is now too small for both the Buddhists and the Muslims who have lived there as long as anybody else.
In the United States, a black man doesn’t dare walk down the street without constantly checking himself to make sure he is conforming to every nuance required of the very small space in which society allows him to exist.
China is undergoing the biggest migration in history, from the countryside to the cities because the villages and towns are just too small for the hopes and dreams of this generation.
Almost everywhere on the globe, people are moving, wriggling as best they can, from too-small spaces into something they hope will be bigger.
It may be that you are in your own private Egypt today. Maybe your world is smaller than it used to be. You used to have such joy in your work, in your family. Maybe you had hobbies, friends, hope, but things have changed, you’re in a tight rut, and there seems to be no way out. It is easy to stay in the comfort of a small place. I know. At least it’s predictable, steady, right? There’s a quiet desperation that is almost heartbreaking, but lots of people live that way. Like the Hebrews standing there on the shore of the Red Sea, we think, “Well, it may be misery but at least we’re all in it together.”
In a world of migration, legal and illegal, I remember that my own ancestors believed that their lives could be better, and they got on a boat not knowing what was on the other side of the ocean. But, they came. They risked everything. If you are a United Stater you probably have a history of this in your own family. Those who came before us took mighty risks to their honor and even their lives on the thin hope that things could be different.
The good news is that you don’t have to live in a small space. You are brave too. And you are powerful.
Please allow me to paraphrase what one of the Psalmists said about Nachshone’s courage:
The sea beheld it and fled…
Obstacles will not deter you.
Mountains skip, and hills do too…
When you dance with courage, the whole world dances with you.
If you’re living in a small place, and you wish it were bigger, you can look to the dogged courage of Nachshone for inspiration. There was nothing about Nachshone. He was a dirty former slave. Nothing special, just brave. You are at least as brave as Nachshone, maybe braver. When the waters come up to your neck you keep going. Don’t give up on that sea parting.
If you’re OK in your own life, but feel heartsick about the Egypts of this world, then know that there are other Nachshones out there, and they will spring forth — please, God, make them hurry. We will all somehow get to a wide and gracious space, and on dry land too, because God will raise up others who are unafraid to go first. Will you be one of them?
Linda McMillan lives in YangZong, China. She likes spending weekends in Shanghai, playing ukulele, and writing essays.
Image: Illuminated manuscript depicting Moses and the Israelites observing the drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, fron the Persian world history of Hafiz-i-Abru, Herat
, Keir Collection
Some Notes of Possible interest
Mizraim is also the name of one of Ham’s sons, grandson of Noah (Genesis 12;10) And it may indicate both upper and lower Egypt — an even bigger space, and stranger, given the meaning kabbalists have ascribed to this word. Also, of interest is that in Arabic, Egypt is still called Misr, which is pretty close to Mizraim. It’s also the Hebrew name of Miriam which brings us to Miriam’s Well, and another selection of stories!
You can read the Babylonian Talmud
online. In fact, most every ancient text I want is available somewhere on the internet. Thanks God for technology!
Interestingly, Nachshone was a direct descendant of Perez who burst forth ahead of his brother in the womb (Genesis 38… towards the end). Later descendants will be Boaz, and King David. But isn’t it interesting that Perez “burst forth” from his mother, and Nachshone burst forth from the crowd and went into the sea. This is a great tradition of bursting forth.