This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Sea of Reeds

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

The redemption from Egypt and the complete redemption of the future are one unending action. . . . Each individual must feel their own part in that completion. –HaRav Kook, Olat Ra’ayah commentary on the Passover Haggadah

According to Jewish tradition, it is the task of every generation to locate itself in the Passover story and to find its role in the story’s continual unfolding towards redemption.

Where are we in the story at this very moment? As I see it, the Jewish people are standing by the shores of an un-parted sea, gazing with hope and trepidation at the uncertain future of the State of Israel.

We are not standing in this place alone. We are standing on the edge side-by-side with the Palestinian people. Like those who left Egypt together, we are a mixed multitude with a single fate.

Here, we find ourselves asking new questions together:

Will we be able to safely bring about a sea change? Or will we all drown trying?

Like an approaching army, will the press of a painful past an actually overcome us? Or can we peacefully move past our history together?

In a midrash, we read that before the sea parted, Moses asks God, “What is there in our power to do?” Today, we might ask ourselves the same. And today, the midrash is as instructive as ever:

[As they stood at the shores of the sea,] each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the waters. Then, suddenly, Nahshon the son of Amminadab leapt forward and descended first into the sea. . . . As the scripture says of him: “Save me O God, for the waters are entering my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing etc. Let not the waterflood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up.” . . . [Hence it is written (of Nachson)]: “The sea saw him and fled.”

In this remarkable description, the sea did not part before the people entered it, but because the people entered it.

In a similar reversal of the plain reading — this time of the midrash — perhaps Nachshon felt himself to be drowning not because he leapt into the sea but before he did. Perhaps the existing situation was unbearable for Nachshon and was swallowing him up. So the jump — terrifying and dangerous as it was — actually saved Nachshon from drowning, even as it felt that it was the cause of it.

There’s more to this midrash. While all this is happening with Nachshon, God says to Moses:

“My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer before Me!” Moses asks: “Lord of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?” God replied to him, “Speak to the children of Israel telling them to go forward. Raise your staff, and stretch out your hand. . . .”

Here, God tells Moshe to follow the example of Nachshon and to lead by joining those taking a leap of faith. Would that today’s leaders in Israel and Palestine would follow suit. Especially now that so many Israelis and Palestinians are ready to take that step.* And especially now that the United States is committed to safeguarding the journey.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of joining about 50 clergy for a lunch with Secretary John Kerry. There, I was both moved and persuaded by Kerry’s sensitivity to the nuances of Israel’s security needs, his empathy for the peoples on both sides, his personal commitment to the peace process and his determination to see it through.

Would that Mr. Netenyahu and Mr. Abbas find within themselves a similar determination. As of this writing, the gulf between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators seems to have widened. Recent actions by the leadership on both sides suggest that they continue see themselves not as standing together but as facing-off — yet again.

For real peace to happen, we need to accept that we are in this together. And we all need the courage to jump into unchartered waters.

And so at my seder this Passover, I will say a prayer that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership be blessed with the courage to defy naysayers, to create new coalitions, to drop obstructive demands, to make sacrifices, to make real strides for peace and to reach out their hands to those at the ready to support their every step.

As Passover so vividly reminds us, bitter memories don’t die, and sweet dreams don’t either. Standing at the sea, rising on our tip toes and straining our eyes, we can actually glimpse today what our hearts have imagined for generations: a glorious place where we can dwell in justice, security and peace with our neighbors.

Im tirtzu, if we will it, we can each find our role in bringing our aggadah — our story — to its redemptive conclusion. Cain yehi ratzon.

About

Rabbi Rachel Gartner Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the Director of Jewish Life at Georgetown University. She is a co-author of "Rosh Hodesh: It's A Girl Thing," and she sits on the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

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