Photo: “The Crossing of The Red Sea” by Nicolas Poussin, 1634
Each year on Passover, Jewish people the world over gather to recount the story of our exodus from bondage in Egypt. Around the seder table, we rejoice in the presence of close family and read the often-quoted passage from Deuteronomy 15:15:
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you.
The wine overflows, spring optimism abounds, and we etch into our collective consciousness another bold, if vague, commitment to helping those who still are not free in the world today – and then many of us go home and return to our regular lives. For another whole year.
I am not suggesting that Jews have not been at the forefront of the fight for equality and social justice throughout history: nothing could be further from the truth. In March of 1965, a dozen Rabbis marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. through Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. From a newspaper report the day after the major march:
Hundreds of Negro freedom marchers today wore yarmulkes (skullcaps), in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations in Alabama as Jewish participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery…The Alabama Negroes called the yarmulkes “freedom caps.”
Dr. Abraham Heschel, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was asked by the Rev. Martin Luther King to take a position of honor at the head of the marchers…
Rabbis jailed by Selma police during the weekend for participating in demonstrations conducted Friday evening services in the Selmar Jail, it was learned. Five rabbis recited Hebrow prayers behind prison bars.
At every step along history’s long arc towards justice, Jews have played a pivotal role. When Occupy Wall Street erupted in lower Manhattan in September 2011, thousands of young Jews held Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services on Wall Street. When police attempted to shut down the movement’s protest encampment, Jewish leaders erected a traditional sukkah tent in bold defense of the occupation – and the police backed off.
Bold and radical action is as Jewish as matzoh ball soup, even if our conventional seder Haggadah doesn’t say so. While we all recognize the name of Moses – a fiery activist in his own right – less repeated is the name of Nachshon, son of Amminadab. When the Israelites arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, they saw Pharaoh’s army racing towards them in the distance. Moses pleaded to God to part the sea and lead them to salvation, but Nachshon took a different approach: he jumped into the water. A Passover midrash recounts what happens next:
He jumps into the rolling sea. The heaving waters rise higher and higher; but he does not care. He wants to die for the Almighty in selfless love. To His glory he offers his most precious possession, his life.
After Nachshon, the entire people jumps into the sea. Exultantly they shout: “Hail our youth, the pride of our old age!” The roaring of the stormy eastwind turns into crashing thunder. Like the call of a clarion sounds the voice from heaven: “To life, not death!”
Only then does the sea part and the Israelites march on to freedom. To this day, the popular Yiddish saying “to be a Nachshon” means to be an initiator, an agitator for change: in short, a leader. If our great faith teaches us anything, it is that prayer without action is ineffectual. In fact, action to heal the world of injustice (remember that phrase tikkun olam?) is the greatest form of prayer. When Selma marcher and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked how he remained spiritual in the chaotic fray of the protests, his response was “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
I will be the first to admit that at times I have become complacent, or even worse fearful, in the face of the mounting injustices in our world today. At times, I have waited for the older and wiser Moses’s to raise their staff and part the waters of injustice, rather than pledging myself as an example to lead my people. The Pharaohs of the world today approach with their armies, and the waters are high and their waves mighty. Too many people teeter on the edge of a storm that won’t subside until we Nachshons dive in to part the sea.
It is tempting to believe that, in our country at least, freedom has already been obtained and thus the struggle is over. Didn’t the civil rights movement succeed? Don’t we have the first African-American president and more opportunities than ever? Perhaps Nachshon felt similar elation as he arrived to the Red Sea: his people had just been liberated from painful bondage. Yet, Pharaoh changed his mind, a reminder that hard-won victories must be defended and expanded through time. Nachshon channeled his newfound freedom into strength to break the wall of the sea. (The 18th-century Gaon of Vilna notes that Exodus 14:22’s “and the water formed a wall [choma]” is spelled without the Vav when recounting the people who followed Nachshon, changing its meaning from wall to anger (Chaima): was God angry that more Israelites had not shown such bravery in jumping into the sea?)
Back here in Detroit, we are on the shores of the Red Sea again: liberated from a painful municipal bankruptcy and decades of steep decline, on the verge of tasting freedom. Yet Pharaoh’s army looms in the distance, threatening water shutoffs and tax foreclosures and deep suffering to thousands of poor families that are also our brothers and sisters. This Passover, will you be a Nachshon and dive in to the mighty sea?
Justin Wedes is Co-Founder of the Detroit Water Brigade. A graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in Physics and Linguistics with High Honors, Justin has taught formerly truant and low-income youth in subjects ranging from science to media literacy and social justice activism. A founding member of the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA), the group that brought you Occupy Wall Street, Justin continues his education activism with the Grassroots Education Movement and Class Size Matters. He founded the Paul Robeson Freedom School in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more at justinwedes.com