By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
April 2nd, 2021 – כ’ בניסן תשפ”א
Rabbi Meir said: When B’nei Yisrael stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another, each wishing to descend into the sea first. Then sprang forward the tribe of Binyamin and descended first into the sea; as it is said, … Thereupon the princes of Yehuda hurled stones at them; … For that reason, the righteous Binyamin was worthy to become the host of the All-Powerful (the Temple was erected on the territory of Binyamin, (Yoma 12a).
Rabbi Yehuda said to [Rabbi Meir]: That is not what happened; each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon the son of Amminadav (of the tribe of Yehuda) and descended first into the sea; … For that reason, Yehuda was worthy to be made the ruling power in Israel, as it is said, Yehuda became God’s sanctuary, Israel God’s dominion (the Temple was in the kingdom of Yehuda. ‘His dominion‘ is understood as Yehuda’s rule over Israel). (Sotah 37a:1-6)
Tomorrow morning, we will stand together to read the cathartic and climactic passage culminating our people’s narrative of leaving Egypt. As we passed through those narrow places fleeing from bondage on our way to freedom, we came to our first existential crisis as a people. Standing at the shores of the Reed Sea, its vastness posed a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. It’s hard to imagine that at the edge of the sea only one person went forward. According to legend, the Midrash tells of Nachshon ben Amminadav being the first to step forward and wade into the sea thus causing it to split moments before submerging.
This phenomenon, known as the “Nachshon Syndrome,” has been popularized in modern Israel. A unique attribute of Israeliness is when infantry officers say “Acharai!” (After me!) as they lead their troops into battle. Some say this is at the heart of the Israeli ethos dating to the days of Israel’s independence. It means leading by example – only when one takes the lead can one call on others to follow in step.
We learn from the midrash (Talmud, Sotah 37a) that Nachshon was not alone. There were others also who charged forward into the water, such as the tribe of Binyamin, and possibly more. Of course, with 12 tribes and close to 2 million souls (the number is probably far fewer), there had to be many who wanted to claim the leadership and have everyone follow them. After all, Moses was busy raising his staff, and others needed to step in. What happens when more than one person steps up and wants everyone to follow?
Well, in a democracy, majority wins. In an Israeli democracy, plurality plus the ability to entice others to join in coalition wins (in the short term). Netanyahu and the Likud party, while losing mandates, still maintained a healthy plurality. Now he is trying to persuade others to follow him. His corruption trials and coddling of the extremists have been off-putting and alienated many voters with the result that Likud declined from 36 to 30 seats.
The real Nachshon test is for Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid. As the distant runner-up with 17 mandates, he will need to work the hardest to repair relationships with old foes – namely Benny Gantz and Naftali Bennett – and make a compelling case for support.
As Lapid wades into the water – now above his knees – and looks to his right and to his left, he sees others trying themselves to be the Nachshon that history remembers. The anti-Netanyahu leaders on the right, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, as well as Benny Gantz and Islamic party leader Mansour Abbas are cluttering the field of “Nachshonim” and not making it easy for Lapid. The problem is that turning back is not an option. Going to a 5th election, which the Prime Minister may be willing to do, will be disastrous and the Israeli public may not take that sitting down.
It is the task of the leader to empower and delegate, but a leader must also inspire. No political achievement is without obstacles. Now the major challenge is to lead with inspiration, not just talk about what we are against but articulate a compelling vision for moving forward.
There were those who trudged through the dregs and mud of the Reed Sea maintaining their gaze downward at the muck around their feet. They missed seeing the majesty and the possibility of the moment and were, shall we say, uninspired. A leader will lift their chins and remind them what the prophet said:
“Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars, the One who leads forth their host by number, calls them all by name; because of the greatness of God’s might and the strength of God’s power, not one of them is missing.” (Isaiah 40:26)
In today’s world, every leader wants to be a Nachshon. Every leader is saying “Acharai.” But, just as it was for the Israelites standing at the sea, time is of the essence, and Israelis are facing political and democratic threats from within. Nachshon’s greatness was not merely that he took the plunge, but that he got everyone to follow him. It was for this reason that his tribe became “the ruling power in Israel.”
Hopefully, we will come out of this liminal period with a strong coalition and avoid devolving into perpetual political paralysis.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!