The earliest occurrence of “between a rock and a hard place” in 1921 America denotes being bankrupt — “common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.” (American Dialect Society, Dialect Notes V, 1921) More recently, Aron Ralston’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) was adapted into in the gruesome film, 127 Hours (2010). Ralston’s memoir recounts the 127 hours that he spent trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, after a climbing accident in April 2003. He survives precisely by opting for the “hard place” of freeing himself by cutting off part of his right arm.
Aside from these common usages of the expression, from Arizona and California to Utah, this week we turn to the Israelites who are feeling quite constricted as they are now trapped “between a rock and a hard place” — between Pharaoh’s armies rapidly approaching from behind and the ominous Reed Sea ahead of them. How will they respond to being “between the devil and the deep blue sea”?
Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are “between a rock and a hard place,” and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.
Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.
The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.
– Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: This week’s collage-like illustration depicts the rock at Horeb during the night, with water still pouring forth from the place where Moses struck it. “You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it.” (Exodus 17:6) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.