A few years ago, I was asked to help with a Passover gathering at a local synagogue where I had a good fortune of portraying Moses as a way of entertaining the gathered community before the Seder, and also imparting some wisdom.
The wisdom was the Biblical story of Nachshon, which went something like this:
When the Israelites were about to leave Egypt, after the last plague, three million of them reached the Red Sea. Standing at the shores of the yet un-split sea, their options were to go forward into the sea, or back to Egypt. The sea is cold, unknown, and foreboding. Egypt is warm, familiar, and comfortable.
As Moses called on God’s help in leading the way, Pharaoh’s chariots thundered closer, and the Jews panicked. After all, Moses had promised they would find the way out of slavery, but with an un-split sea before them, few saw a way out.
At that moment, it was Nachshon, from the tribe of Yehuda, who stepped foot into the sea. But the sea did not split. Undeterred, Nachshon continued as the water reached his ankles; then up to his knees. Nachshon forged deeper: Up to his waist, his chest. Still no split.
Nachshon’s mind raced: Maybe we should return to Egypt?
Then he reminded himself that life is about growing … leaving the place of confinement behind… moving forward into the unknown. The alternative — to stay in the small space of warmth and comfort — is to choose stagnation and, ultimately, death.
Egypt, Nachshon knew, was no option at all.
By now the water had reached his neck. Nachshon was challenged to his limit. Yet he continued into the sea. As the water reached his nostrils, at this last possible moment… the Red Sea split. The Jewish People all rushed in after him.
Nachshon “entered the water first” (Exodus 14:22); the others “entered first on dry land” (14:29). Although every other Jew passed through on dry land, in one sense, they were disappointed in themselves for not having Nachshon’s courage and faith. The future had issued its challenge, and he confronted it, head-on. Slavery was not an option; rather, slavery was the baggage he chose to leave behind. Forging ahead could have meant death, but it could have also meant freedom. In either case, for Nachshon, it was better than the alternative.
He was liberated, both body and soul.
One of the lesson from this is that we sometimes have to stretch ourselves outside our own boundaries to become free from the things that enslave us. These can be harmful beliefs about ourselves and the world, dogmas, other people’s opinions, our fears, childhood traumas, and so on. As we look around, most of us carry some type of baggage — yet, many continue to feel trapped and often unable to let go.
Furthermore, the lesson is also that we should summon the courage to lead others with our example into something better. In Yiddish, there’s a saying “to be a Nachshon,” which means to be the one who initiates something. Thus, we should not sit idle, freeze or complain in the face of obstacles–as insurmountable as they may seem; instead, we should push boldly ahead to find a solution to a problem. Push boldly to advance a cause or enhance a program or a product that may help others. Our actions need not be tremendous as those of our hero Nachshon, but they can and will make a difference.
So let us renew our resolve to relinquish the chains of inner slavery through bold action and help those around us do the same. It is only when we are no longer enslaved that we can truly flourish, personally and professionally.