The Torah (Jewish Bible) describes the reaction of the Israelites to seeing an approaching Egyptian Army, whilst standing with their backs to the sea:
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the L-rd. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Exodus 14:10-12)
Regarding this, Ibn Ezra, comments:
One may wonder how [such] a large camp of six hundred thousand men would be afraid of those pursing after them. And why did they not fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians were the Israelites’ masters. And [so] this generation that went out of Egypt learned from its youth to tolerate the yoke of Egypt and had a lowly image. And [so] how could they now battle with their masters? And Israel was [also] indolent and not trained in warfare. Do you not see that Amalek came with [only] a small group and were it not for the prayer of Moses, they would have overpowered Israel. And the only G-d, ‘who does great things’ and ‘for whom all plots are contemplated,’ caused that all the males of the people that went out of Egypt would die. As there was no strength in them to fight against the Canaanites, until a new generation, after the generation of the desert, arose. And they did not see exile and they had a [confident] spirit…
Fear had debilitated the Israelites to the extent that, even after their physical liberation, they could not fathom acting in a way that would further their freedom and improve their lives and those of their children. They did not merely view themselves as incapable of moving forward, but as being inherently unworthy of doing so. Literal slavery (the deepest layer of indecision a human can reach) was the default preference that resulted from such fear. In response to this inaction, Moses interceded:
But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the L-rd will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The L-rd will battle for you; you hold your peace!” Then the L-rd said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” (Exodus 14:13-16)
Moses, in contrast to the people, was not stricken with distress to the extent that slavery appeared preferable to having to confront the crisis at hand. His immediate response was instead an appeal to faith and prayer. G-d, however, was unwilling to accept faith as the only reaction to such a crisis. He demanded action as well. Nahshon ben Amminadab was the one who engaged. He jumped into the still raging waters, which ultimately prompted the miraculous splitting of the sea. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) describes his response, and elaborates on the conversation between G-d and Moses:
…this tribe said: I am not going into the sea first, and that tribe said: I am not going into the sea first. Then, in jumped the prince of Judah, Nahshon ben Amminadab, and descended into the sea first… And in this regard, the tradition, i.e., the Writings, explicates Nahshon’s prayer at that moment: “Save me, G-d; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Psalms 69:2–3, 16). At that time, Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me? Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? G-d said to him: “Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand” (Exodus 14:15-16). For this reason, because Nahshon and the tribe of Judah went into the sea first, the tribe of Judah merited to govern Israel.
It is not the case that Nahshon was unafraid. He was clearly terrified and very much aware of the mortal danger he was placing himself in. However, he recognized that to advance (in both an immediate and larger sense) and to live a life of meaning and purpose, one must take risks. It is also evident that his response included prayer, but Nahshon asked G-d to assist him in his actions, rather than relying upon G-d’s actions alone.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe understood Nahshon’s deed as an intergenerational mandate:
One man named Nahshon jumped into the sea, and caused the great miracle of the splitting of the sea. Technically, he was under no obligation to do so. Nevertheless, he knew that G‑d wanted Israel to move onward toward Sinai. Therefore, he did what he needed to do. There was a sea in his way. Therefore, he jumped into the sea and ploughed toward his goal. The lesson for all of us is that we must stay focused on our life’s mission, disregarding all obstacles. (Sicha, 10 Shevat 5716)
I recently experienced an incident, which, on a superficial level, was quite comparable to that of Nahshon’s. My family and I were on a daytrip to Flinder’s Blowhole, a beautiful natural wonder that includes steep cliffs leading down to a jagged coastline, replete with rocks and the white foamy spray of the Bass Strait. Whilst there, my two year-old son suddenly and unexpectedly jumped down into the water. Without time to process what had occurred, I jumped in after him. Three days later, I was out of hospital and my son and I were miraculously safely home. I say that my experience compares superficially to that of Nahshon, because, unlike him, I had no time to think about my course of action. There was no deliberation. I am thankful for that, as not having to consider the danger I was exposing myself to was certainly a concealed blessing. What is truly heroic is not split second decisions like mine, but those, like Nahshon’s, that include a full consideration of the implications and risks involved.
To be certain, caution is often wise. Every risk taken produces a potential rejection or failure that simply did not exist beforehand. However, superficial comfort in inaction when faced with significant decisions often prevents individuals from making hard choices and never taking risks is a definitive recipe for a stunted life. How tragic it is when we are enslaved by nightmares that are entirely the manifestations of our own thoughts. Ibn Ezra highlighted that the weakness of the generation of the exile from Egypt was primarily a product of their mindset. This is echoed in the words of Rabbi Dr Abraham Twersky who understood that, “Low self esteem means that a person is unaware of one’s strengths and abilities and hence underestimates oneself.” It is far too easy to limit self-perceptions of our potential, the parameters of which we can rarely fathom. Conversely, we often greatly minimise at best, and at worse simply accept the horrors of, the consequences of submission to the status quo. Nahshon is justifiably understood to be a hero, and whilst his actions were certainly valiant, they were also measured and rational. The alternative to plunging into the ocean was not comfort and safety, but rather slavery or death at the hands of the Egyptians. It was a textbook case of Zapata’s precept, “I would rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.”
Nahshon’s descendants in the Tribe of Judah merited to govern Israel because embracing calculated risk is the only way to move a person, or a people, forward. May we all merit to carry the spirit of Nahshon throughout our lives, to weather and learn from the blows of our personal oceans, and accept that whilst the water is fraught with danger, it is also the only route to our personal and collective freedom.
Director of Jewish Life
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