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Motivation: Fact and Fiction (Beshalach – 01/27/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Motivation: Fact and Fiction
Midrashim are a rich part of our heritage. They embellish events and stories in the Torah giving them detail and context, and they’re quick to identify a life lesson that we may have overlooked.
Sometimes the midrashim describe scenarios that push the limits of credibility. The midrashim about this week’s crossing of the Red Sea are good examples.
The Torah is very clear about the events leading up to the splitting of the Sea.
(Exodus Chapter 14) “15 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Why do you cry to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward. 16 And you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground.
21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”
Now this miracle is a real outlier, for water forming into walls defies nature, and even when performing miracles God rarely does something that super-ordinary. Locusts, wild animals, frogs, hail, and disease all naturally occur – maybe not in the supernatural quantities of the Egyptian plagues, but they are part of natural phenomena. On the other hand, water does not usually rise and stand like a wall for a prolonged period of time.
Moreover, miracles usually assist an active protagonist. King David or Judah Maccabee attacks and slays hundreds and returns from battle miraculously unscathed. God’s part is the assistance and protection, but not in the actual slaying. Victory would not have been achieved by God alone if King David or Judah stayed home that day. But here, the waters split just because Moses held out his staff.
The midrash adds perhaps a more realistic version to the splitting of the sea: Moses was standing at the shore of the sea, not knowing what to do. God instructs Moses to stop praying and to start doing something; someone has to take action. The midrash tells us that Nahshon jumped into the sea, and then – and only then, when the waters reached his nostrils – did the waters part. It was Nahshon’s act of faith that created the context for God to perform the miracle.  However, there is an additional legend that Nahshon’s sister, Elisheva, pushed him in!
Why did she not simply jump in? Rabbi Rick Sherwin suggests that perhaps no one would have followed her, thinking that she was just a foolish woman. Maybe she thought the people will follow Nahshon, who is, after all, the leader of the tribe of Judah. According to the legend, without Elisheva’s encouragement we would still be at the shore of the sea praying, falling prey to Pharaoh. From the midrash of Elisheva, we learn to listen to the insight and encouragement of leaders, women as well as men.
Likewise, there’s an interesting midrash about Miriam: (Exodus 15) 20 “And Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took the tambourine in her hand and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances, 21 and they rang out, “Sing to God, for God is the most high…”
Now one can ask, where did Miriam and the women procure tambourines? If they just fled for their lives a few nights before, one would think they’d just grab the essentials: food, water and clothes. Why would they also burden themselves with musical instruments?
The midrash answers, “Miriam and the righteous women of the generation had faith that God would perform even more miracles and there would be a need for celebration; therefore, they packed tambourines.”  From the midrash of Miriam we learn the message of optimism.
These midrashim, whether true or not, give us hope and inspiration.
I saw an excellent movie this week called “12 Strong”. It’s about the US’s first response to Al Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers. A response team of twelve men was sent out to join forces with an Afghan warlord. The warlord knows the roads and the local villages, and before he’d attack the Taliban, the response team would call in the coordinates of the Taliban for American planes to drop bombs.
The last scene in the movie involves incredible courage by the American team leader as he passes through an active war zone to take down a rocket launcher. We all left inspired and impressed with his valor and audacity. What’s most amazing about this scene is that it’s based upon true events.
Yet, is it more inspiring than the last scene in the first Star Wars movie? “Luke, trust the force.” That was fiction, but it has inspired millions.
Perhaps it’s not the facts that make a difference but the message.
As Elie Wiesel writes in “Souls on Fire”, “My very first Hasidic tales I heard from my grandfather. He made me enter the universe of the Baal Shem and his disciples, where facts became subservient to imagination and beauty. What difference did it make that events and chronological dates no longer matched? I surely didn’t care. What mattered to me was not that two and two are four, but that G-d is one. Better still: that man and G-d are one.”
So, if the midrashim embellish a little or aren’t factual does it really matter? If the message is real, if it’s relatable, it can motivate us. Both fact and fiction can inspire us, and in the end, that’s what counts.

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