Take the first step

As some of my readers might know, I sit on the board of a small Jewish organization here in Stockholm. Within the auspices of the larger official Jewish Community we offer as an alternative to the other religious services here, a Reform/Progressive service. During Corona times we do our services via the Zoom app. Since the beginning of autumn we have been doing regular Friday evening services, called Kabbalat Shabbat services. For our services, we use the relatively new prayer book that one of our board members Eva Ekselius compiled, translated, wrote, and designed. I helped with the production of the book by creating it in InDesign from Eva’s design.

This past Friday, January 29, 2021, I had the honor of giving the short sermon that our one hour service usually includes. A sermon usually should relate in some way to the portion of the Torah that was read the same week on Saturday morning. Since this blog is the place where I put most of my short written pieces, I figured I would include this speech here too. 

This week’s parashat  tells the story of how after leading our ancestors out of Egyptian slavery, Moses finds their way blocked by a great sea. In the Torah version, Moses obeys God’s command to “lift up his hands and the sea will part” – thus leaving dry land for the Israelites to walk across, on their way to finding freedom.

Now, that’s the Torah ’s version of events, the one we read aloud at our Passover seder tables. A spectacular miracle, to be sure, but something totally passive; missing the element of human purpose.

A different story is offered by the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud. Here, in this version, the Israelites gathered at the water’s edge, Moses lifted his hands as God commanded… and nothing happened. The sea remained still.

Can you imagine the fear of the people at that moment? They were expecting another miracle by Moses to save them – and they get nothing bubkes.

Then, out of the crowd, walked a solitary figure:

The Talmud continues: Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, stepped into the water. Everyone looks at him, thinking him mad. The water remains. He walks forward, one step at a time up to his knees, his waist, his chest. The second the water came up just over his nose, the second when he is fully submerged, at that moment and not a second before, the sea split. And our ancestors can take their first steps to a new life.

This Talmudic version resonates with me. I feel it is both my own story and the story of my people. It is about being brave enough to start over again and begin a new life without knowing for sure that everything will work out. It’s about having faith in one’s own abilities and not just relying on God to take care of things for us.

This week we commemorated the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Together, the story of the Israelites slavery in Egypt and the Holocaust are the two most important events in the history of the Jewish people. But, I don’t think these two events should only be remembered for slavery and inhumanity. Instead they should be remembered because after each of these catastrophes, the Jewish people picked themselves up and bravely started a new life.

Like Nachshon taking his first step into the water, the survivors of the camps, who came to this country, had to gather up their bravery and take a first step and a second step and keep taking those steps towards their new lives. Nachshon and his children and grandchildren had to leave behind the memory of their slavery. The holocaust survivors have had to leave behind the memories of unspeakable horror so they could create a future for their children and grandchildren.

I too left behind a life when I moved here 30 years ago. It wasn’t a life of slavery. It wasn’t a life filled with horror. My life in New York City was a life I was happy with, filled with family and friends and work I enjoyed. Unlike Nachshon, It took me six years to work up the bravery to make that first step to move here.  His first step took but a few moments, but perhaps he had been working up to that first step his entire life and when the moment came, he was ready. And after 30 plus years here in Stockholm I can say that my first step was worth it.

This week was also the week we celebrated tu Bishvat , technically the Jewish New Year for trees. And as hard as it is to believe, when looking outside our windows, at all the snow, it also celebrates the beginning of spring. And like this week’s parashat, it’s another story of beginning new life.

So this week begins with remembering darkness. It continues by celebrating the return of light. And throughout , we can contemplate the story of Moses and the crossing of the great sea. Our futures are determined by being brave enough to take that first step.

Shabbat Shalom.


One Response to “Take the first step”

  • Ronald Pavellas Says:

    Hilarie, Thank you for this important addition to my knowledge of the history of the Jews. When I was around 10 years old I was in a Sunday School class of the local Methodist church. While the adults were attending services upstairs, we youngsters studied the Old Testament, under instruction. At some point there was a sort of contest where we were told or asked to write an account of our favorite Biblical character. I wrote on Moses, seeing him as a great leader. I won first prize: a Bible and one dollar!

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