Today is the penultimate day of Passover, and the day that commemorates the miracle of God splitting the Red Sea.
The Torah tells us that when God took the people out of Egypt, he took them the long way, instead of the more direct route:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 13:17–18)
This might seem strange. After all, Egypt represented slavery and pain. Why would they want to go back there?
The Impulse to Go Back to a Place of Pain
Of course, it doesn’t seem strange at all when we consider our own experiences with leaving the familiar for the unknown.
Human nature favors certainty over the unknown, even when the certainty is a painful situation. We will choose a known “pain” over an unknown “pleasure.” So we stick with something that is causing us pain, or not working, because it’s familiar. We at least know how to navigate it.
It is the nature of humans to get comfortable in our discomfort.
If you’ve ever stayed too long in a relationship or a job that was no longer serving you, a home that no longer gave you joy, or even if you’ve held on to material possessions past their useful life, you know the feeling of this. You desire to leave, or let it go, but the mystery of what will unfold once you do so is a pain that is difficult to bear.
We take comfort in the familiar, in what we know.
The Israelites had an established routine in Egypt. They knew where they would sleep at night. They knew what was expected of them.
This journey was unknown. What would happen? How would they survive the desert?
And when things get hard, as they invariably do, we reach for the familiar.
So this was God’s plan: God took the Israelites the longer way so they wouldn’t face too many difficulties early on.
At the Threshold
The pivotal moment came when they were facing the Red Sea. As the story goes, Pharaoh had a change of heart and sent his army to capture the Israelites and bring them back. The chariots were closing in on them.
By all appearances, they were trapped between the life they were leaving behind that was chasing after them to pull them back and the vast sea of the unknown that lay ahead.
With the chariots approaching, and the sea in front of them, all signs seemed to tell them to surrender and return to Egypt, to the comfort of the familiar.
Life in Egypt wasn’t that bad, was it? They had food to eat. They had their routines. What’s the difference between slavery and hard work, anyway?
We know this part of the story in our lives as rationalization.
In the face of fear of the unknown, we rationalize and diminish the pain we felt about what we’re leaving behind. With a little distance, suddenly we convince ourselves that it wasn’t so bad.
This is a great trait when we are holding a grudge after we perceive someone did us wrong. It can help repair relationships. A little distance makes us forget.
But when it comes to changing what’s not working, this tendency to diminish the emotions and forget the pain doesn’t serve us. It deprives us of the leverage we need to change course and sustain a new way of being.
So this was their situation: the fear of the unknown in front of them. Seemingly stuck in a place with no way forward, the place they left behind exerting a stronger pull as it comes closer.
How many times have you tried to leave a situation, a relationship, break a habit, chart a new course, only to be pulled back to the old way when your path forward seemed to disappear?
Thresholds demand fortitude and courage. The smallest step forward can feel like a giant leap into the sea of the unknown, and the fear of drowning swallows you.
Clearing the Path
And then, the miracle. Moses held out his hands and raised his staff, and God split the sea, creating a path forward.
Pharaoh’s men eventually follow them on the path of dry land. And as the last Israelites exit the sea, God closes up the waters, drowning Pharaoh’s men.
It is worth noting that what Jews view as one of the greatest miracles of the Exodus, was, from the perspective of the Egyptians, a tragedy – a natural disaster that killed many many. Once again showing us that the difference between a plague and a miracle is a matter of perspective.
Once they were on the other side of the Red Sea, it was clear that there would be no going back to Egypt. The only option was to continue to forge ahead, into the vast unknown of the desert. Witnessing this miracle gave the people a touchstone for their trust that they would be protected and taken care of on their journey.
What Can We Learn From This?
We face many moments in our lives, individually and collectively, when we are at a threshold: when we know its time to step forward into the vast sea of the unknown but we feel the pull to the familiar tugging at us. Our inner voice tries to rationalize the pain of what we know, telling us its not that bad.
This is the ego, trying to keep us safe. The fear of the unknown never goes away.
The only antidote is faith.
All threshold demand us to expand ourselves, to rise up to what is demanded of us in the moment.
If you stand in your resolve to move forward, daring to take that first step into the unknown, the path will clear. And once you take that first step, know that there is no going back. If you stand in the threshold you will drown. You must keep moving forward, even if it’s one small step at a time.
There’s No Going Back
Collectively, we are at a threshold. The institutional structures are falling. The current pandemic has revealed cracks and fissures in the way we’ve been living and working, in the systems that have held us for generations.
When we come through this — whenever that will be — there will be new ways of working and living. New structures and systems.
If you’re riding this out trying to prepare for when we “go back” to “business as usual” you might find yourself under water. This is a time to prepare for the future, to finally leave behind what hasn’t been working and to embrace what’s next. The way we’ve always done it is over.
This is an awakening moment. We are crossing through the vast sea of the unknown.
There’s no going back. It’s time to leap.