Two weekends ago, many of us took to the streets with our communities to “March For Our Lives,” and last weekend we welcomed the festival of Passover, which makes this a good time to remember that the Torah tells us “thoughts and prayers” can only do so much; we need action to move forward.
In Exodus 14 we read that when the Israelites were stopped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptians fast approaching behind them, Moses began to pray. The people were distressed and feared for their lives and were demanding action — and Moses offered prayers. God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” The Torah is pretty clear that there is a time for words, but when trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea, it’s time for action.
Our sages expanded on this idea in the Talmud, which teaches us that as the Jews were standing at the shore of the sea, Moses was prolonging his prayer. God said to him, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me?” Moses replied, “But what can I do?” God said, “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand.”
There’s a midrash that imagines God saying, “My loved ones are drowning in the sea, and the sea is raging, and the foe is pursuing, and you stand and wax long in prayer?” To which Moses replied, “God of the universe, what can I do?” And this is when God replies with the words from Exodus 14.
A story in the Talmud teaches that while Moses was busy praying, one person — Nachshon — stepped into the sea and began to walk. Nachshon had faith that God would see them to safety on the other side, and demonstrated his faith by stepping into the water.
Even in a tradition that annually celebrates the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, it is clear that we can not just cry out or send “thoughts and prayers” – we must take action. Faith is not waiting around for God to do the work, but taking that first step – speaking out and raising your hand.
That is what the teens are trying to teach us: there is a time for thoughts and prayers (and often that is where we find comfort in the face of tragedy), but the Torah teaches us that when you life is in danger, you don’t stand around praying; you have to speak to the people and take action.
This is faith. Not that God will fix it, but that we have within us the power to change the world for the better; that even when it looks as if there is no way forward, we can find a way; that even when enemies are fast approaching and threatening us, we have the strength to keep going. Faith is working together to bring a future where everyone is free from violence.
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is an artist at Paper Midrash and also blogs on her personal blog.