You know the old joke: the story is told of an a man who was traveling on an ocean liner when the ship sank. The crew offered him a life vest, which he declined, saying "God will provide." Likewise, he refused a seat on the lifeboat, insisting "God will save me." As he paddled in the water, he was approached first by a navy frigate, later by a yacht, and finally by a fishing vessel. In each case, he refused their help, and ultimately he drowned. Standing before the Throne of Glory at the gates of heaven, he faced his Maker, and said "I have just one question. Why didn't you save me?" A great voice boomed, "Who do you think sent all those ships?"
We may laugh at the tale of a man whose faith was so misplaced that he failed to see his role in his own salvation. Passively waiting for God, his folly blinded him to the miraculous opportunities that came his way.
This week's Torah portion contains a similar insight, coming directly from God! After 10 miraculous plagues finally forced Pharaoh to free the Israelites, our ancestors are trapped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian soldiers and their chariots closing in on them. Sometimes it seems we are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Terrified, the people turn to God and Moses, and Moses himself turns to the Almighty in lengthy prayer. God rebukes Moses: "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward". (Ex. 14:15)
God’s intent is clear: faith should not remain passive in the face of crisis. The great commentator Rashi understands God to mean: Now isn’t the time to prolong prayer. There will be a time for singing and praying and rejoicing. Now is the time to act. Now is the time to do something! “Why do you cry out to me?” It is the people who must act, and God will act through them.
I think Jewish tradition is quite clear on this point: loving God and turning to God with faith and trust is a high virtue but faith does not remove our need to be the vessels for God’s actions in this world. Quite to the contrary. We become God’s hands in caring for those in need. We become God’s feet in standing with those who are oppressed. We are God’s heart when we share the sorrow and burdens of those in mourning, in pain, in distress.
We are often caught between what was, is and what can be. Afraid to move, to take the first step, we hang back. Unlike Nachshon ben Amindav, who steps forward into the breach, we dare not put our toe into the water. We wait too long for the miracle without being aware that we are partners in the enterprise.
Dr. Abraham Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. He famously said: “My feet were praying”. Like his Hasidic forbearers, Heschel had the gift of combining profundity with simplicity. According to Brandeis professor Edward Kaplan, Heschel not only looked like the prophets of old, he was imbued with the prophetic spirit to be an activist.
The young Heschel, in a tender Yiddish poem which foreshadows so much of his later life, wrote:
Set me at the head of all the dying
With a greeting, a message from You.
The desolate call to You, and You don’t come.
So send me, and any others You may chose.
I cannot curse as justly as did Jeremiah.
People are poor, weak and it seems to me
That their guilt is Yours;
Their sins, Your crimes.
You are meant to help here, Oh, God!
But you are silent, while needs shriek.
So help me to help! I’ll fulfill Your duty
Pay Your debts.
Judaism recognizes the cosmic power of human action. Indeed, when it comes to social action and social justice, perhaps we should act as though there is no God, as if justice were solely dependent upon us, trusting that God will, indeed, support our efforts for justice and healing.
We have the tools and the ability to heal this broken world – to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to educate our community, to provide the poor with dignity, to welcome the stranger, to repair the ozone layer and the ocean and the air, to bring security and peace to the world’s people.
You are meant to help here in our community! Be like Nachshon. Have the courage of your convictions, the courage to take risks, the courage to make choices, the courage to embrace change and the courage to lead the way.