Contemporary Reflection on Parashat B’Shalach
By Patricia Karlan-Newmann
In every generation, Jews have understood the significance of the Torah in their lives. We have studied, written, and taught about the meaning of Torah and its relevance to contemporary circumstances. With the publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary in 2007, the teachings of women scholars and Jewish professionals on the significance of Torah in their lives is now available in a scholarly compendium. The “Contemporary Reflections” section in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “enable us to hear women’s voices that reckon with divine revelation… each essay shows the significance of Torah as a record of God’s revelation to Israel: it is a repository of Jewish memory, however incomplete, from which we, as individuals and as members of contemporary Jewish communities, can attempt to hear and understand the voice of God.” (Ellen Umansky, “Women and Contemporary Reflection,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, page ix)
Today’s Ten Minutes of Torah is excerpted from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pages 402-403.
There are moments that define us: unexpected or unplanned moments when the decisions we make, the actions we take, determine all that will follow. Crossroads come disguised in many forms. Many are unmarked, without a hint of what is ahead.
B’shalach describes such a crossroads. The crossing of the Sea of Reeds was not only the crossing out of Egypt and out of slavery, but also the entrance into an unknown future, made possible by a moment of extraordinary faith.
At the far bank of the sea, triumph rings out in instrumental music and in song, led by both Moses and Miriam. Yet earlier, with Egyptians in pursuit and the waters ahead, according to the Rabbis it was neither Moses nor Miriam who took center stage, but Nahshon ben Amminadab. Nahshon is a curious hero. Briefly mentioned as Aaron’s brother-in-law (Exodus 6:23), the Torah neither notices nor lauds him. Yet the Rabbis praise him for his initiative, the one who first entered the billowing waves, leading all of Israel to safety.
Nahshon’s heroism is a literary deduction. In Numbers 7:12, Nahshon, the prince of the tribe of Judah, brings the first offering to dedicate the Tabernacle. The Midrash surmises: “When it was time to dedicate the tabernacle, Moses confessed to the princes of the tribes, ‘The Holy One has commanded you to bring offerings, but I do not know who should go first.’ The princes looked at Nahshon, saying, ‘This man has sanctified the name of the Holy One at the Sea of Reeds. He is worthy to bring the Shechinah. Let Nahshon go first’” (B’midbar Rabbah 12.21).
At the Sea of Reeds, according to midrashic tradition, Nahshon stood at a crossroads–whether to have faith and plunge into the water, or be gripped by fear and remain on the shore. What was that moment like? If we were on the shore of the sea that fateful day, how would we have acted? Confidently? Timidly? Would we have entered the water gingerly or with fury? Flailing or swimming? How do we approach the sea crossings in our own lives? Are we coerced by an army from behind, or pulled ahead by the unknown?
Some think of Nahshon as fearless, determined to be the first into the water. In Midrash T’hillim 114:8, Nahshon reputedly pelts his brothers with stones to assure his place of primacy. The daredevil confidence of this Nahshon contrasts sharply with another vision of this moment (M’chilta, B’shalach 5). Huddled together, a terrified crowd looks behind at the Egyptians and forward toward water. As they yell, “I don’t want to go into the sea!” Nahshon jumps up in fear; losing his rooting, he falls into the waves. Overcome with terror, he cites Psalms, “Save me, 0 God, for the waters have reached my neck” (Psalm 69:2). Here, Nahshon-a fearful, drowning man-cries for God’s help. The midrash alternately envisions Nahshon as hapless victim, brash show-off, or eager leader.
As she emerges from the water, Miriam, too, faces an array of alternatives-an internal sea crossing of her own. Was it the time to forge ahead, adrenaline still coursing from their narrow escape? Was it the occasion to mourn the loss of the known, the familiar if oppressive Egypt? Was it the instant to comfort those catching their breath, those who had needed to run and swim faster than they believed possible? Was it safer to hang back and let others take their rightful place as leaders? Or was this the moment to lift up the hand-drum and triumphantly sing and dance, giddy with gratitude for God’s redemption?
Miriam had the foresight to bring her hand-drum. Miriam had the wisdom to gather her sisters to acknowledge and affirm the miracle, to mark the moment when their tenuous hope broke forth in joy the birth of her community as a people touched by God.
Like Nahshon, Miriam’s leadership is surprising. Kol ishah, the voice of a woman, Miriam’s strong voice, had been heard previously only as a sister and daughter. Yet, at her sea crossing, emerging from the waters, she does not wait for someone else to change the world. She does not demur that she was not bred for greatness. She does not blend into the crowd. Instead, Miriam’s voice rings out for all to hear.
Miriam is a leader: a prophet who speaks to and hinds others to God. Like a large tallit on small shoulders, she is one upon whom the mantle of authority does not fit snugly, one who might have been surprised at her own influence, but one who nevertheless conscientiously undertakes responsibility for contributing to God’s purpose-much like contemporary women leaders. In the waters of transition, Miriam sparks innovation, creativity, and hope, rooted in the past yet focused on the future-just like contemporary women leaders. Like Nahshon before the waves and Miriam after them, we ask: how do we navigate waters never traversed before? How do we create rituals that reflect the tradition yet give voice to our experience? How do we speak new words that include the familiar in a Holy tongue?
Like Nahshon and Miriam, today’s women face our own sea crossing. We too can choose to enter the water: with quiet certitude, brash impulsiveness, or terror at what lies ahead. Or, we may decide to hang back, looking around for someone else to go in first. Eventually, when we enter—however we enter—we, and our world, are transformed.
In our time, the sea crossing may be when we hear a cry for social justice, when we unexpectedly find our voice waxing prophetic; it may come as we read a book, converse with a friend, or witness a scene in which we are seized with understanding about our place in the world. As we enter the water, if we speak and act out of awe and gratitude, if we look around and trust our vision, we may discover that we are bathed in and buoyed by the presence of God.
Rabbi Patricia Karlan-Neumann is the Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford. Ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1982, she has served as a Hillel Director, a congregational rabbi and a Regional Director for the Union for Reform Judaism.
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund.