To many, the Israeli-Palestinian political process seems hopelessly stuck. People are fearful and cynical, lacking leadership and vision in a region and world that is increasingly threatening. It is precisely for this reason that it is worth revisiting the story of Nachshon ben Aminadav this Pesach.
You see, when the Israelites, ill-prepared as they were and chased by the Pharaoh and his army, arrived at the Red Sea, Moses was at a loss. What were they to do? The people panicked and despaired. Floundering, Moses began to pray for guidance.
But Nachshon, heeding the call to move forward, boldly stepped into the Red Sea. He pressed on, as we are told in the Talmud and Mishna, until the waters covered even his nostrils.
According to the story, God chastises Moses, “My beloved ones are drowning in the stormy seas, and you are praying?”
“But what shall I do,” asks Moses?
To this, God answers, “You lift your staff and spread your hand over the seas, which will split, and Israel will come into the sea upon dry land.”
It was only then — and only because of Nachshon’s willingness to enter the waters before they had split — that God parted the sea. Perhaps we can learn from this the critical importance of depending on our own agency. This is true even for those who hold the view that we are part of broader epics that are seemingly foretold.
Despite an awareness of the great forces moving around him, Nachshon bravely stepped forward. In Tehilim (Psalms) 69:3-16 we can hear echoes of what must have been his fears and realistic assessment of his predicament. “I have sunk in muddy depths, and there is no place to stand; I have come into the deep water, and the current has swept me away . . . Let not the current of water sweep me away, nor the deep swallow me, and let the well not close its mouth over me.” But Nachshon did not allow his fear or a loss of confidence to stop him.
So my questions to you: Can we here in Israel move forward towards peace when we have so many real doubts and fears? What are the risks if we do not? And why is this so important now?
In today’s Israel, so many of us carry a debilitating, paralyzing sense of despair at our ability to shape our future and to take proactive steps towards peace. Many have come to believe that we are threatened on all sides and lack an ability to move ourselves into a better position—to change our world. We seek guidance from a leadership that seems unable to give it.
It is as if we are dug-in by the shores of the Red Sea.
But perhaps the future really is in our hands. Isn’t this the essence of Zionism and the ongoing tale of modern Israel: that we make our own future? That you and I, through our actions — or our lack of them — change the world? Tradition holds that Nachshon was rewarded for his actions, including having the honor of fathering the messianic line. According to the story, then, our very redemption is linked to Nachshon’s — and perhaps our own–basic willingness to step forward and act.
This Pesach, I will be thinking of Nachshon striding into the waters and, through his actions, helping them to part so the people could pass through on dry land.