Just before the sea split, the Israelites stood on the shore in abject terror. Behind them the Egyptian chariots gave chase, driven by vengeful horsemen who whipped their galloping horses as fiercely as they were known to beat their slaves. Before them the sea sparkled in the morning light, its calm surface concealing unknown terrors of the deep. In the midrash, the fleeing slaves are analogized to a dove pursued by an eagle that enters a cranny in the rock, only to find that a snake is nesting there (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:14). The Israelites could turn neither backwards nor forwards, and yet there were those who suggested both – at least according to the Talmud’s account, which offers insight into how a religious sensibility might come to our aid in moments of fight or flight.
According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Y. Taanit 2:5), Moses was confronted by a cacophony of suggestions as to how to proceed in that decisive moment at the shore. The Israelites were divided into four factions: One suggested jumping into the sea in an act of mass suicide; one suggested returning to Egypt; one suggested going to battle against the Egyptians; and one suggested crying out to God. These four responses may be read as four ways of responding to adversity – surrender, submission, struggle, and spirituality. Moses, as we shall see, rejects them all.
Standing with his people on the shore, Moses said to them: “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of God which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. God shall fight for you, and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:13). The Talmud breaks down Moses’s response into a rejection of each of the four factions: To the desperate Israelites who wanted to jump into the sea, Moses assured them that salvation was imminent: “Fear not, stand by and see the deliverance of the Lord.” To those who advocated returning to Egypt, Moses insisted that Egypt was a thing of the past: “For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever.” To those who wanted to put up a fight, Moses assured them that this was not a time to take up arms: “God will fight for you.” To those who advocated prayer, Moses put his finger to his lips: “You shall be silent.” What, then, was the appropriate response?
Perhaps the answer can be found in God’s words to Moses just before the waters split: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to go forwards” (Ex. 14:14). God did not want His people to look back toward Egypt, or up to the heavens, or down into the depths of despair – God wanted them to march forwards. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) celebrates the valiance of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to do just that. According to the Talmud’s account, upon hearing God’s command, each tribe refused to be the first to step forwards. At that point, the leader of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, took matters into his own hands. He did not jump into the sea in surrender, but simply put one foot in front of the other. He pushed aside his fears like walls of water as if defying the sea to engulf him. At the same time, he entreated God to save him – the Talmud attributes to Nachshon the following verses from Psalms: “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–3, 16). Nachshon prayed while simultaneously taking action. As such, his response was neither suicidal surrender nor spiritual stasis. It was not fight or flight, but faith and fortitude.
One small step for Nachshon turned out to be one great leap for the Israelites, who followed suit and were redeemed by God. The rest of the tribe of Judah, and then the rest of the Israelites, also walked into the water. Like Nachshon, they did not yet know of the miracle that awaited them. Unlike the ten plagues, which God had foretold, the Israelites had no way of knowing that the waters would split for them and then close in upon Pharaoh and his horsemen. They simply walked forwards, come what may. They, like Nachshon, may have also been calling out to God as they plunged into the waters. According to some commentators, the “Song of the Sea” recited by the Israelites—chapter 15 of the book of Exodus—was not a victory song but an expression of faith that God would deliver them. As Sforno puts it (on 15:19), “The Az Yashir occurred when Pharaoh’s horses went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and God, the Blessed One, drowned them while the Children of Israel were still walking on the dry land in the midst of the sea. Before they came out, they began to sing.”
According to Sforno, the Israelites did not know that they would survive when they began singing. For all they knew, the waters that had begun to engulf the Egyptians would then creep up upon them. After all, they were used to a Pharaoh who was notorious for his changes of heart; why should their new Ruler be any different? And yet they believed in His steadfastness, at least enough to begin singing a song of thanksgiving even before there was anything concrete for which to be grateful. Perhaps it was in fact their very singing that brought about their deliverance, in the same way that God’s utterances created the world. The people sang that “He cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea,” and lo and behold, God cast Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea. And then they sang, “You made the wind blow; the sea covered them,” and lo and behold, the wind blew and the sea covered them. Their very expression of faith was what enabled God to stretch out His mighty hand and bring His people forth on dry land.
Wallace Stevens depicts a similar scenario in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a poem about a woman who walks beside the sea and sings a song that creates the reality around her:
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
The woman in the poem is the maker both of the song and of the world, just as the Israelites’ singing may have brought about (rather than merely recounted) the circumstances of their salvation. This is evident even visually in the Torah scroll, where the words of the song are printed in the shape of a brick wall, as per the words of the song: “And the water was for them a wall, to their right and to their left” (Exodus 14:22). According to this reading, the Israelites at the sea have already begun learning what it means to be liberated. They do not have to sink into despair, or return to servitude, or surrender all their agency and await God’s deliverance. To be free is to realize that we are the authors of our own story – we are the artificers of the world in which we sing. We hope against hope as a sign not of foolishness, but of faith and fortitude. It takes courage to walk forwards singing of a world of which we can only dream – but as we learn from Nachshon, it is a crucial first step.