Parashat Beshalach: The Nachshon ben Aminadav Effect

How can we explain the juxtaposition of Nachshon Ben Aminadav’s leap into the Red Sea and our annual Tu B’Shvat (Jewish Arbor Day), and who has been following in Nachshon’s footsteps in the last few generations?

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev is the Director of Israeli Programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum

“Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are astray in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.’”

Immediately after the Children of Israel leave Egypt, Pharaoh understands that the Jewish people have gotten themselves into a bind in the desert. He organizes his vast army and starts to pursue them. Having reached the shores of the Red Sea, they now lift their gazes and make out an enormous dust cloud rising into the sky. The Egyptian army was on their tails. Frightened and horrified, they now understand that they are caught in a dead end. The sea barred their way ahead, and behind them was the army of the biggest superpower at the time. There was no way out, and no way to rechart their course.

It is taught in a Beraita: Our forefathers split into four factions at the sea: One was for lunging into the sea; another, for returning to Egypt; another for fighting against them; another, for crying out against them.

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Taanit, Chapter 2, Halacha 2), our sages tell us that during those extremely tense moments, the Jewish people formed four groups. The first group suggested mass suicide.  The second group believed that the people needed to surrender and revert to being a slave nation. The third group suggested going to battle. The fourth preferred to stand and pray.

These four groups represent two different approaches.  The first two reflect a passive and defeatist approach characterized by desperation and loss of hope. The first group, which wanted to jump into the sea, was completely desperate, while the second group was slightly less pessimistic, thinking that the only way to stay alive was to capitulate and go back to being slaves. The last two groups represent a more active approach, suggesting that action must be taken. The third group proposes going to war, though their chances of success were minimal. How could slaves, who had never wielded weapons, vanquish such a large and experienced enemy? We can assume that this approach is also based on desperation, recalling Samson’s proclamation of “Let my life perish with the Philistines”.  The fourth group, which suggested praying, promoted taking spiritual action, recalling the verse “(Even if) a sharp sword is placed on a person’s neck, he must not lose hope in Hashem’s mercy”. Which of these groups was right, and how should it have proceeded?

Nachshon Ben Aminadav makes a surprise move. While the entire nation was horror-stricken and under great stress, he starts walking towards the sea, despite all odds. Our sages tell us that once his feet touched the water, the sea started to part, revealing a new and unexpected option of averting disaster.

I am certain that Nachshon Ben Aminadav wasn’t associated with any of the pessimistic groups. He might have thought that the people of Israel should stand and fight, though he, himself, had chosen to pray, but what made his solution great was that he took the initiative, choosing to think outside the box and act against all odds, and despite what reality might dictate. At first, what he did may seem no less hopeless than the mass suicide proposed by the first group. Yet there is a significant difference between them. Nachshon Ben Aminadav was a faithful individual with a positive attitude. He believed that a new option could evolve, one that would provide new hope. He saw both the sea and the horizon that lay beyond, unlike the others who couldn’t see the horizons in their lives.

Every year, we read these chapters on distress and redemption as part of the weekly portion, and it always falls just before the holiday of Tu B’Shvat. It therefore comes at no surprise that the almond tree, which begins to bloom in the wintertime, symbolizes this holiday. Though we are at the coldest time of the year, when everything around us is still grey and gloomy, a budding flower suddenly appears, a harbinger of spring. It symbolizes the idea that though the world around us may seem gloomy, deep down, there is always hope and a better future. We just need to be able to believe and sense this hope and this future in our mind’s eye.

One of those who followed in Nachshon Ben Aminadav’s footsteps was Benjamin Zeev Herzl, the visionary behind the State of Israel. At a time when the Jews, a people without a safe piece of land of their own, were being accosted throughout Europe, the thought of adopting a Zionist vision and establishing a state for the Jewish people seemed outrageous and hopeless. However, Herzl sensed a hopeful future, and with a bit of daring and thinking outside of the box, he went from city to city and from country to country, trying to persuade leaders and peasants to share his vision. Many thought he was a madman, but he paid them no heed, and in so doing, he extended the Nachshon Ben Aminadav effect. The rest is history.

We too, in our private lives, can sometimes fall on hard times. It seems as though life doesn’t offer us a way out, materially, financially, or emotionally. What would we do, if we were to be pushed back to the shore?  Which group would we join?  Who would we identify with?  Nachshon Ben Aminadav seems to offer us a solution. When trouble comes, he beseeches us not to fear, but rather to muster our courage and think outside of the box. To be devout and creative, and to look for solutions that may seem rather unrealistic to us. We believe that when we take that first step into the horizon, we’ll discover, to our surprise, new opportunities and options that will take us down new roads that lead to hope, freedom, liberty, and a better future.


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