Parshat Beshalach: The Nachshon ben Aminadav Effect

The Nachshon ben Aminadav Effect

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev is the Rosh Midrasha of the Israeli programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum

After the Israelites leave Egypt, Pharaoh realizes that the People of Israel are walking in circles and assumes that “they are entangled in the land [and that] the wilderness has shut them in.”  Hence, he gets his great army ready and sets out to chase them.  When the Israelites stand at the edge of the sea, they lift their eyes and see a huge cloud of dust on the horizon.  Behold, the Egyptian army is closing in on them.  They are terrified, understanding full well there is nowhere to go.  Before them lies the sea; behind them – the army of the largest empire of the time.  There seems to be no feasible escape route.

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit, chapter 2:2), our Sages tell us that in those petrifying moments, the Israelites divided themselves into four factions: “One said – let us jump into the sea; the second said – let us return to Egypt; the third said – let us fight them in battle; the fourth said – let us cry out (in prayer).” 

The first group is basically suggesting suicide (“let us jump into the sea”).  The second group believes they must all surrender and go back to being slaves (“let us return to Egypt”).  The third group suggests going out to battle and fighting, while the fourth group preferred standing in place and praying (“let us cry out”).   

These four factions actually represent two opposing worldviews.  The first two represent a subdued approach, one of passivity, despair and hopelessness. The first, that wants to jump into the water, is in total despair and has no hope.  The second group is a little less pessimistic – it believes that the only way to stay alive is to surrender and go back to being slaves. 

The other two groups display a more dynamic approach by proposing to get up and take action.  The third proposes going out to battle and fighting the Egyptians, despite the slim chances of victory.  However, how could people who had been slaves until the previous day and had never picked up a weapon in their lives suddenly face a big and experienced army?!  One can only assume that this approach, too, contains an element of despair, in keeping with Shimshon’s “let my soul die with the Philistines”.  The fourth group that suggests praying is, in fact, calling for an act of the spirit, in accordance with the notion of “even if one has a sharpened sword on one’s neck, he should not despair of mercy.”

So, which group was right?  What would be the right course of action?

Surprisingly, when every individual Israelite was busy dealing with his/her fear and anxiety and contemplating what s/he could do in the terribly complex situation that suddenly presented itself – one man stood up and started walking toward the sea against all odds.  His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav.  Our Sages tell us that the minute his feet touched the water, the sea started splitting and a new and unexpected escape route presented itself. 

I am quite certain that Nachshon ben Aminadav did not belong to one of the pessimistic groups.  He may well have thought it was appropriate to fight the Egyptians, and maybe even engage in prayer concurrently.  However, his true greatness was in that he chose to take initiative, think outside the box and choose an option which seemed completely hopeless.  On the face of it, it appears he chose the same option as the group that proposed suicide by jumping into the sea.  However, there was one main difference between him and those who wanted to jump into the sea.  Nachshon ben Aminadav was a man of faith.  He was an optimist who believed that a new option may present itself, one which would create a reality of hope; one which would look at the sea and see a new horizon.   In other words, Nachshon ben Aminadav saw not only the sea, but also the horizon beyond it.  Those who wished to fall into the sea, saw no horizon and no hope. 

The verses describing the moments of utter distress and the glorious redemption which followed are read year after year in proximity to Tu B’Shvat.  This special day in the Jewish Calendar is often associated with the almond tree that starts blossoming in the middle of winter.  In the midst of this grey and dreary season, during the coldest days of the year, a blossom appears signaling the coming spring, symbolizing that even when our external reality appears to be dire and miserable, deep inside there lies a seed waiting to bloom into hope.  One only has to know how to have faith and to imagine the hopeful future. 

Throughout the history of our nation there were long periods of anguish and helplessness.  Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl – the man who first envisioned the founding of a Jewish state – followed in the footsteps of Nachshon ben Aminadav.  At a time when the Jews of Europe – a minority group with no safe haven – were subject to constant pogroms and persecution, the Zionist vision and the establishment of a state for the Jewish People were nothing short of madness and seemed utterly unfeasible.  Until a man of great fortitude and unrestrained thought stands up and dares to dream of a hopeful future.  He makes his way from city to city, and from country to country, and tries to convince both the leaders and the simple folk to be partners to his vision.  Many thought him crazy, but he persevered in his “Nachshon-ben-Aminadav-ness”, and the rest is history…

Oftentimes, we, too, find ourselves in distress – be it financial, emotional or physical – and feel there is no way out.  At such times we should ask ourselves the following question:  If we were standing at the edge of the sea with the Israelites after they had left Egypt, which of the groups would we join?

Nachshon ben Aminadav offers a solution.  He teaches us that at such moments of utter despair, we should have no fear.  Rather, we should dare think outside the box and be true believers.  We should be creative and find solutions even if these seem unrealistic.  We should have faith that if we take that first step towards the horizon, new opportunities and options will suddenly present themselves and lead us to a place of hope, freedom and a better future. 

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