This sermon was delivered at our Friday night service on January 26th, 2024. You can watch it on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on the latest episode of the Contact Chai podcast.
This week the Torah opens with the Israelites gathered at the edge of the Reed Sea. They have just left Egypt, a mixed multitude (we are told) of former slaves and those who felt called to accompany them on their journey toward the promise of a different, better future. They are tired but hopeful. After a series of terrible plagues and several harrowing days of uncertainty, they are free – something that they had been told, that they had told themselves, was impossible for the past four hundred years.
And just as they begin to believe that this might be their new reality, Pharaoh and his army appear on the horizon. They are trapped, between the Egyptians’ violent desire for retribution and an impassable sea. So at God’s command Moses walks to the shore, lifts his staff, and splits the water in two. And so our ancestors walked, b’toch ha-yam b’yavashah, through the sea on dry ground to safety on the opposite shore.
One more miracle to demonstrate divine power. One step closer to redemption.
The rabbis tell a slightly different story. When the Israelites rush to the shore, Moses raises his staff and – nothing happens. The people panic. They turn to Moses in fear and anger, “Ha-mibli ein k’varim b’Mitzrayim lakahtanu lamut ba-midbar, was it for a want of graves in Egypt that you brought us into the wilderness to die?” It would have been better to remain slaves. And then a single figure emerges from the seething mass. Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, calmly steps into the water. He walks in up to his knees, his waist, his neck, and then just as the water comes up over his nostrils – when he is no longer able to breathe – the sea splits in two. Nachshon’s refusal to give up on the possibility of redemption, even as those around him despaired, was the catalyst for this last miracle.
Walking into the water was a courageous act of faith. For the rabbis, Nachshon becomes the paragon of spiritual devotion and trust in God. He is the embodiment of the words sung by our ancestors – recorded in the best animated film of all time, The Prince of Egypt (this is a fact) – that there can be miracles if you believe. Yet most Jews, myself included, are uncomfortable with this kind of faith. We are a rational people. We abhor dogma. We are cautious and critical and always questioning. Faith, at best, connotes a sweet kind of naïveté – and at worst, a willful repudiation of personal agency that prevents critical thinking and abrogates responsibility for our choices. For a number of reasons, “Jesus take the wheel” is not part of the contemporary Jewish lexicon. Our people have never been able to trust the road ahead. The obstacles that we have had to overcome teach us to keep our hands firmly on the wheel.
But I don’t think this is the kind of faith that the rabbis identify in Nachshon. Faith is not the belief that divine forces will change the course of history on our behalf; faith is the understanding that change can only happen when we refuse to accept the world as it is now as the only world that can be. God calling to Moses from the burning bush, the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea – none of those miracles happened until our ancestors cried out in indignation, rejecting the idea that enslavement was their only future. Faith is the refusal to give into the malaise of the world. It is a critique of the status quo, an argument against “well, that’s just the way things are.” It is the conscious choice of hope over despair. Nachshon shows us that the only way for things to change is to believe that change is possible – and then act on it.
All of us are here today because of people like Nachshon, folks who waded into uncertain waters because they understood that something better had to exist on the opposite shore.
Once our ancestors reach the other side of the Reed Sea, they break out into joyous song (this is why today is called Shabbat Shirah; it is the Shabbat when we read the Song of the Sea). Unfortunately, their celebration is short-lived. First there is the problem of drinkable water – they are, after all, standing between the sea behind them and the vast desert ahead. Then there is the problem of food. The people are thirsty. They are hungry. They are tired. And suddenly, the Torah tells us, as the Israelites’ resolve begins to crumble – an unknown enemy attacks; Amalek targets the most vulnerable, the people living at the edge of their encampment. While the Israelites eventually emerge victorious, many lives are lost. It is a bitter triumph.
Their victory is followed by a puzzling request. God tells Moses k’tov zot zikhron, to record the following instruction for perpetuity. What is this commandment? That the memory of Amalek should be erased. Forty years later, when Moses recalls this moment for the Israelites as they congregate at the edge of the Promised Land, he repeats: You will erase the memory of Amalek. Do not forget!
It should come as no surprise that the rabbis have spilled a lot of ink about the paradox of remembering to forget. There is one tradition, recorded by the medieval philosopher Maimonides, that these words contain two complimentary commandments. The first, to seek out and destroy all descendents of Amalek (i.e. to erase his memory). The second, to always remember their enmity and hatred, lest we are caught off guard once again by people who wish us harm (i.e. to never forget). The guarded paranoia of this interpretation is understandable, given our people’s history of persecution. Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer writes, “Perhaps — perhaps — the Torah’s phrasing wants us to be burdened by an eternal curse to remember, to feel that we will never actually be able to forget. We hold on to the memory not to finish the job, but because this victimhood reminds us to be vigilant that Amalek is still out there.”
It is true that that there are those who wish Jews harm, a fact that I imagine all of us are painfully aware of at this moment in history – but if we are to be like Nachshon, if we are to maintain our hope for a world that is not perpetually scarred by hatred and violence, we must be willing to abandon the status quo and forge ahead into uncharted waters.
I was struck by another interpretation of the command to remember to forget, taught by the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev: that we should not look over our shoulder for Amalek, but within us. “Yeish mitziut l’Amalek l’koah ha-ra b’chol adam, the seed of Amalek – with its inclination toward evil – is within every human being,” he writes. It is the capacity for hatred that exists in all of us, a violence of thought and action fueled by fear, distrust, and despair at the state of the world. Its counterpoint, Rabbi Levi writes, is the seed of Israel: the courage, the will, and the audacious hope within each of us that enabled our ancestors to continue the journey through wildernesses of adversity and heartbreak toward a different, better future – even if we haven’t reached it yet.
But look around you, some might say. How could we hold out hope in a world filled with so much brokenness, so much ignorance and ill intent? Perhaps I don’t harbor hatred in my heart, but I am angry and I am scared. We are like the Israelites: trapped between our enemies, an unforgiving wilderness, and the merciless sea. Have faith, our tradition teaches. Not a naive or passive faith, but one grounded in the understanding that the way things are right now are not the way they need to be tomorrow. The only way for things to change is to believe that change is possible – and change is possible. We, standing here today, are a testament to that fact. We are the descendants of people who made impossible journeys to make this moment a possibility. To follow in their footsteps is to resist the paralysis of distrust and despair, and instead take that next forward.
And I believe that first step begins within us. I imagine that before Nachshon stepped out of the crowd and into the sea, he first had to lift his heart from the pit of fear and uncertainty to a place of courage and hope. This was not to deny the reality of those other feelings – but to choose, between that seed of Amalek that is the root of despair and the seed of Israel that when nurtured blossoms into hope. This is how we remember the command to remember to forget. We erase the memory of Amalek, by erasing Amalek within ourselves: To find where hatred has embedded itself within us, which it can happen in small and subtle ways, and choose to act out of kindness instead. To recognize where apathy has dulled our compassion and work to create space for empathy, particularly toward those we have a hard time seeing as our friend or our neighbor. To understand where the comfort of being right has limited our curiosity and seek out voices that challenge us, that make us uncomfortable, that help us learn. To have courageous conversations with each other – and with ourselves, knowing that this work is for all of us. Because Amalek is also the voice who says this work is for everyone else but me.
But this is not a journey we have to make alone. We can’t. Nachshon may have been the first to step into the water, but he crossed to the other side surrounded by his people. And it was only in community, that he and the others were able to make music, to hold each other, and to dance.