Faith, Fear, and the Story of Nachshon and the Red Sea
I'm in one of those places: stuck, prickly, at the very edge of letting go, trembling with the effort to not tip over the edge into the abyss of the unknown, desperate to take that final leap of faith and soar towards light and wholeness. I am astounded, as always, when I think how inextricably intertwined my fear and my faith have become. I have heard that fear is an absence of faith, but I don’t think so. I am too intelligent – and God is too intelligent – to demand blind faith like that, to insist that faith is a guard against fear.
Fear keeps the lights on at night and smells of sweat and tension and anxiety, sharp and unpleasant. If the fear is great enough, it can keep me rooted and curled in on myself, covers pulled tightly over my head – moving, paralyzed, and invisible.
Faith is sweet and sure and graceful. It wraps around me like light. It sometimes moves mountains. More often than not, it is just enough. It is not enough to beat back the darkness or vanquish my demons, but enough to put one foot in front of the other and to walk – however falteringly – forward. Faith is to know that, no matter what, I will be OK.
And so, faith and grace being what they are, I think of my fear, and my stuckness, and I am reminded of this week’s Torah portion, parashah B’shalach, and I know that in the midst of my darkness, there is also redemption, and release.
The story of Nachshon is my favorite midrash. Nachshon was a slave with all the other Israelites who found redemption at the hand of God. He was Let Go, with a capital L and a capital G, brought out with a Mighty Hand. He packed and didn't let the dough rise and ran, breathless and scared and grateful, away from the land of Pharaohs and pyramids and slavery. Nachshon ran into freedom.
And then he got to the sea. He and some 600,000 other un-slaved people, stopped cold by the Red Sea. It was huge and liquid and deep. They couldn't see the other side. It was so big they couldn't see any sides. Just wetness from here to forever.
And behind him, when he and the 600,000 others dared to peek, were Pharaoh and his army of men and horses and chariots, carrying spears and swords and assorted sharp, pointy things. Even at a distance, the sharp, pointy things loomed quite large in the eyes of Nachshon and his recently freed landsmen. They were caught between the original rock and a hard place – or, I guess, between water and sharp, pointy things. At that point, I don't think anyone involved cared much about getting the metaphor exactly right; what they cared about was getting out from that perilous middle – and fast.
Moses went to have a chat with God, and just like that, he got an answer--- a Divine Instant Message. All the Children of Israel needed to do was walk forward into the sea, that big, wet, deep forever sea. God would provide a way. "Trust Me," God seemed to say, "I got you this far, didn't I? I wouldn't let you fall now!"
Nachshon and the 600,000 stood at the shivery edge of that sea, staring at that infinite horizon in front and the pointy, roiling chaos of death and slavery behind them. They stood, planted – and let's face it: not just planted, but rooted in their fear and mistrust and doubt. They may have felt reassured by the image of God as a pillar of smoke or fire – impressive pyrotechnics, to be sure – but the soldiers and the sea were so there, present and much more real.
Then, in the midst of that fear and doubt, something changed. Nachshon – recently freed, trapped between death by water and death by bleeding – did the miraculous. He put one foot in front of the other and walked into the sea. The 600,000 held their collective breath, watching the scene unfold before them as Nachshon did what they could not: He decided to have faith. And though the water covered first his ankles, then his knees, then his chest, then kept rising, until he was almost swallowed whole, Nachshon kept walking, kept believing. And just when it seemed that he was a fool for his faith, that he would surely drown in that infinite sea, another miracle: The waters parted.
The sea split and Nachshon, so recently in over his head, walked on dry land. The 600,000 breathed again, in one relieved whoosh of air, and they found their own faith and followed Nachshon into the dry sea to across to the other side. And then the journey truly began.
I pray to have faith enough to walk into my own sea – of doubt and fear and darkness. I want to walk and feel the waters part, to be released from the tangled web of thought that holds me immobile and disconnected. I have learned, again and again, without fail: When I take that step, when I find the faith to put one foot in front of the other and to trust, as Nachshon did, I am carried forward. I am freed from my self-imposed bondage. I am enough, and I can walk again on dry land to freedom.