Risking the Red Sea

In an essay called On Risk and Solitude, psychotherapist Adam Phillips reports an important lesson learned by a young patient who overcame his fear of the water through risk:

I knew I was safer out of my depth because even though I couldn’t stand, there was more water to hold me up.

For his patient, the risk of learning to swim was the risk of discovering that he, or rather his body, would float.  The heart of swimming is that you can float.

Ancient rabbinic voices join the conversation about risking the water at the Red Sea:

Rabbi Meir said:  When Israel stood at the sea, the tribes fought amongst themselves.  One said:  I’ll go first into the sea and the next said:  I’ll go first…

Rabbi Judah objected:  That’s not how it happened.  Rather, one tribe said:  I’m not going first into the sea and the next one said:  I’m not going first.  Then, Nahshon ben Aminadav jumped into the sea first… It is of him that Scripture explicitly speaks:  Save me, God!  The water has reached my neck! (Psalm 69:2)  (Click here for midrash)

Ani/I will, ein ani/I won’t:  An almost indistinguishable syllable marks the difference between a competition of bold contenders and a story of frightened companions, one of whom takes the risk to wade into the water beyond his depth.  Thanks to Rabbi Judah, we have a story that highlights risk rather than certainty.

Nahshon, the prince of Judah, is a champion of risk.  He ventures into the water up to his neck—only then does water displace weight; only then does possibility displace risk.  Only then does the sea part.

This entry was posted in Midrash, Parshat HaShavuah. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Risking the Red Sea

  1. Susan Breitzer says:

    I would also like to consider another dimension of all of this–most of the players in this narrative became too panicked to take the risk of entering the water, but Nahshon ben Aminadav was courageous enough to understand that the risk of disaster happening if he entered the sea was preferable to the near-certain disaster that would happen if he didn’t. As result, his reward was that much greater.

  2. David Weaver says:

    The 69th psalm alluded to by the midrash is altogether a churning, emotionally volatile experience– The tone shifts from terror, to guilt, to shame (the public face of guilt), to pleading, praise, despair, the pronouncment of angry curses, and finally ends on a hopeful and reverent note. I can almost imagine the psalm itself as being the turbulent water into which Nahshon steps, risking everything…

  3. Susan Breitzer says:

    If I may add an (uncharacteristic) additional comment, I was recently reminded of a poem by Rabbi Ruth Sohn about Miriam at the Red Sea. If I may, I would like to share a bit of it here:

    In a moment of panic my eyes go blind.
    Can I take a step
    Without knowing a destination?
    Will I falter
    Will I fall
    Will the ground sink away from under me….

    To take the first step–
    To sing a new song–
    is to close one’s eyes
    and dive
    into unknown waters,
    For a moment, knowing nothing, risking all.

    “Leaving Egypt” (in any sense) is difficult enough, having to make “the crossing” so soon after can be downright terrifying. But as long as one understands that turning back is not an option, risking the waters can prove to be every bit worth the effort.

  4. The Key to swimming is not to fight the water.

    The Key to not-fighting-the-water is breathing in the water.

    The Key to breathing-in-the-water is: breathing out thru the nose; move head so as to breathe in thru the mouth; breathe at a normal rate.

    Thus the key to being in the water is to breathe at a normal rate and only move the head to breathe in. Focus on the pleasure of mastery. Enjoy the water. Everything does not have to be a struggle.

  5. Dan Alexander says:

    Rabbi Sager prompts us to read this familiar but nonetheless remarkable story as an invitation to contemplate themes of fear, courage, and the possibility of overcoming fear through risk-taking. It all takes place at the edge of the sea, an image that evokes the borderlines of a life and especially the passages of birth and death. The Irish poet John O’Donahue, of blessed memory, used to bring retreat participants to high stone ledges overlooking the sea in Northern Ireland. There, folks would lie on their stomachs and peer down as the waves crashed up against the gray cliffs as they were guided to a consideration of birth and death, fear of what lies beyond the edge of knowing, and confidence in the possibility of buoyancy, certainty of being held.

  6. Lucy Dinner says:

    Bring on the water! Let its waves soothe the soul.

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