In 1777, the German Jewish Philosopher and leading figure in the Jewish Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, went to a lecture by Immanuel Kant in Koenigsburg. A contemporary account describes his arrival in the room:
“Without paying particular attention to those present, but nonetheless with anxious, quiet steps, a small physically deformed Jew with a goatee entered the lecture hall and stood standing not far from the entrance. As was to be expected there began sneering and jeering that eventually turned into clicking, whistling and stamping, but to the general astonishment of everyone the stranger stood with an ice-like silence as if tied to his place. For the sake of showing clearly his interest in waiting for the Professor he took an empty chair and sat. Someone approached him, and inquired [why he was there], and he replied succinctly but courteously that he wanted to stay in order to make the acquaintance of Kant. Only Kant’s appearance could finally quiet the uproar.”
The reception to Mendelssohn’s appearance is indicative of both its novelty and importance. He believed Jews both could, and should, engage in the wider world of academic discourse and contribute to and learn from the development of thought beyond the Jewish canon.
The account continues:
“At the conclusion of the lecture, the Jew pushed himself forward with an intensity, which starkly contrasted with his previous composure, through the crowd in order to reach the Professor. The students hardly noticed him, when suddenly there again resounded a scornful laughter, which immediately gave way to wonder as Kant, after briefly looking at the stranger pensively and exchanging with him a few words, heartily shook his hand and then embraced him. Like a brushfire there went through the crowd, “Moses Mendelssohn. It is the Jewish philosopher from Berlin.” Deferentially the students made way as the two sages left the lecture hall hand in hand.”
Public gestures and steps forward like this fueled the haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment) and the emergence of Jewish consciousness from the mindset of ghettos and into the freedom of modernity. Mendelssohn’s ideas were fundamental in the development of the progressive Judaism that we practice today.
In this Pesach season, the image of Mendelssohn pushing his way through the sea of students and their eventual parting is evocative of that of another character in the Jewish story whose own steps forward were necessary for our redemption.
When the fleeing Israelites reached the shores of the sea of reeds they became afraid. They knew that the promise of freedom lay on the far side of the sea, and certain death behind them, but they stood paralysed on the edge of the water. A midrash (that can be found in Sota 36b or Mekhilta to Beshallach) tells that one of their number, Nachshon ben Aminadav went forward into the sea, and in response to his presence in the water the sea parted.
Both men, though generations apart, took steps that opened up the path for their people from Mitzrayim; a Hebrew word that means Egypt, but also can be translated as ‘narrow places’ because its root is צרר meaning narrowness.
Each year in the haggadah we read a quote from Mishnah Pesachim: “In each and every generation a person must view themselves as though they personally left Egypt”. That journey, which begun with Nachshon’s steps was, according to the book of Exodus, one “into the midst of the sea on dry ground”. To Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, this description contains a paradox, for he remarks, “You can either be “in the midst of the sea” or you can be “on dry ground.” But you cannot be both “in the midst of the sea” and “on dry ground” at the same time.” And yet Passover requires us to inhabit multiple states at once- slave and free, dry and wet, now and then.
I think an answer to this paradox lies in the two stories above, and in the idea of movement. The haggadah doesn’t end with the long night’s sleep that the Israelites must have needed, but rather with a promise to be somewhere else next year, and to keep journeying. On that journey, throughout time, the Jews have oscillated between states of freedom and times in Mitzrayim, in narrow places. Our continued freedom relies on a commitment to keep moving, to a consciousness that in every generation there are manifestations of mitzrayim not just in the injustices we may see in our world, but also in our own minds and habits. Pioneers like Nachshon ben Aminadav and Moses Mendelssohn modelled, each in their own times, the necessary and brave steps that would enable their people to survive and flourish. May we draw strength from their example, and renew our own commitment to journey ahead in this age as well.
To view an animated version of this D’var Torah you can visit www.tinyurl.com/lbcnachshon
Deborah Blausten LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.