Passover—Pesach—starts Saturday night. This holiday, halfway into the Hebrew calendar year, invites us to consider the story of the exodus from slavery—from Mitzrayim (which means Egypt and also straits or narrow, constricting places)—as if it had happened to us, as if it were happening right now.
Every year, holiday preparations ask us to seek out and purge all that is inflated or clogging in our lives. As we retrace the journey of the liberated slaves, we hope to be blessed with the leaping, bounding energy of this holiday, which sometimes allows us to spring past obstacles, skipping the arduous task of levering them out of the way, inch by inch. Indeed, with its central story of a spasmodic, halting yet driven expulsion from constriction into freedom, Pesach seems to recapitulate the birth process, promising a fresh start.
This year, as I get ready for the holiday, I have been thinking about Nachshon ben Amminadav. After many pleas and abortive attempts, the Israelite slaves escaped from Egypt when their oppressors briefly relented, hoping the exodus of the Jews would put an end to the terrible plagues visited upon Egypt. Hastening toward liberation, the freed slaves found themselves at the shore of the Red Sea, unable to go further. The Egyptian chariots were at their back, approaching fast. Even though Moses assured the people that they would be saved, tradition has it that no one stepped into the water until Nachshon ben Amminadav “sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea.” It is said that while others quibbled, Nachshon stepped into the water up to his knees, then his chest, his chin and finally, when the water reached his nose, the sea parted, the escaped slaves crossed on dry land, and the slavemasters, in pursuit, drowned as the waters closed over them.
The core idea this expresses in the rabbinic literature is that taking the risk that emerges at critical, generative moments opens a flow of liberatory energy: the critical thing is to take that decisive step into waters that represent both danger and redemption.
The presidential debate Wednesday night was one of Barack Obama’s many Nachshon moments, and I want to praise him for it. In the debate, and as so often, he has faced the classic dilemma of how to deal with a bully.
Hillary Clinton unleashed a veritable Red Sea of red herrings, hoping to undermine trust in Obama by associating him with questionable people and ideas. She named almost every suspect individual and fellow-traveler who has crossed his path. In doing so, she received aid and comfort from the putative moderators, who seemed to rely entirely on Internet spam for their pre-debate research: flag pins, guns, Weatherman and the Nation of Islam were flung at Obama like so many rotten eggs, while issues of policy and values silently scorched on the back burner.
When I was a child, the unfailing advice adults gave was that when confronted with a bully, the best course was to ignore the taunts and insults, taking the high road—that a bully’s aim was to draw out your anger or pain, exposing and exploiting your vulnerability. I tried on occasion, and found it almost impossible to resist: “So are you! Everything you say is rubber, it bounces back and sticks like glue!”
Clinton’s ability to carry on slinging mud is conditioned on the knowledge that Obama will not retaliate. In truth, should a smear campaign be launched in her direction, Clinton would be far more vulnerable than Obama, having been close to any number of indictees and self-dealing politicians, having served on the Board of the mega-exploiter Wal-Mart, having been caught repeatedly in lies about her own service and experience.
By refusing to be drawn, by refusing to stoop to Clinton’s level and unleash a comparable barrage of attack by association, Obama is doing precisely what he has claimed on many occasions, appealing to voters as if we were actually capable of distinguishing distraction from the real issues. As he put it during the debate, “[T]his kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow—somehow their ideas could be attributed to me—I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.”
In his closing statement, Obama reiterated this point: “The bet I was making” when he set out on this campaign “was a bet on the American people; that they were tired of a politics that was about tearing about each other down, but wanted a politics that was about lifting the country up; that they didn’t want spin and PR out of their elected officials, they wanted an honest conversation.”
By choosing not to strike back, Obama is emulating Nachshon: walking up to his nose into the polluted waters of American politics, sustaining himself on the faith that the electorate will continue to be inspired by his courage and forbearance, forging a path to liberation with the only tool that can ever do the job, our own willingness to risk in turn.
At a pre-Passover workshop last weekend, a circle of participants discussed the way that Nachshon’s spirit does—or doesn’t—show up in our own lives. Naturally, the presidential election came up. Again and again, I hear the same story: people tell me that listening to Obama, seeing the extraordinary upwelling of social imagination his candidacy has unleashed—seeing the half million people who registered as Democrats to take part in the primary elections in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana alone, feeling their hopes rise, they have also had to acknowledge the countervailing force within themselves. Many of us carry a great weight of cynicism acquired from the many betrayals and disappointments marking the last few decades of U.S. political history. From the few lines written about Nachshon, we have no way of knowing his thoughts. Was his walk into the waters grounded in big hope and deep faith, the certainty that his risk would be repaid? Or was it the opposite, a voice sounding in his head that said “I would rather drown here than return to slavery”?
The key to our own Nachshon moments is understanding that it makes no difference: why we take the risk is far less important than doing it. In this season, I hope to see us emerge from the constriction that has for so long choked our body politic, into the liberation foreshadowed by Obama’s brave refusal to be drawn.