At first glance this week’s parashah, Bemidbar, seems rather tedious. After all, it consists mainly of the names of the heads of all the tribes, given in the context of a census of the Israelites taking place about a year after the events at Mount Sinai. However, one name in the census jumped out at me: Nachshon ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah. Nachshon is a very famous character in the Midrash even though he is barely mentioned in the Torah.
According to midrash (Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 14:22), when the Israelites were trapped between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh’s army, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon decided to take matters into his own hands and leaped into the sea. Then God said to Moses (my translation) “Stop praying already! Turn around and look at what your friend Nachshon has done. While you stand here praying he is taking some action!” Only then does God part the sea so that the Israelites can cross.
Of course, the traditional understanding of this midrash is that we need to take action before God will help us. God is not simply going to help us if we don’t try to first help ourselves. It is up to us to change our lives, and to change the world, with God’s help.
However, my colleague Rabbi Michael Cohen once suggested that perhaps didn’t jump into the sea intentionally. Perhaps he was pushed, or simply fell in. In this case his fame was due to a fluke, or pure “dumb luck.” Nachshon then becomes a reluctant hero put on a pedestal for something that he never intended to do.
I have always liked to look at Nachshon as the model of a true religious activist. He wasn’t going to sit around and wait for God or the Messiah. He had a firm belief in God, but he knew that he needed to take responsibility for his actions and for his community. But if he was actually pushed this interpretation goes out the window and Nachshon becomes a poor zhlub who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Not unlike Woody Allen’s Zelig or Groome’s Forrest Gump, God just looked down and, whadya know, there’s Nachshon!
We can see ourselves in the different possible “Nachshons.” We all have the potential to be the Nachshon who leaps, but often we end up being the Nachshon who is pushed. We want to be the fearless idealist ready to jump into the water at any moment. But often we find ourselves in situations where our choices are not so clear-cut, or where it becomes clear only later that a choice was even possible.
As we go through life we are caught between these two images of Nachshon, sometimes leaping, sometimes being pushed. But the truth is that most of the time we are somewhere in between. We are testing the water with our toes, then going in to our knees and up and up until the water is at our neck and our mouth. We just have to hope that our Sea will split before it’s up to our nostrils and we can no longer breath.
It is at those moments when we are slowly entering the water of our own Seas, when we are facing our individual and communal struggles and crises, that we need to rely on the power of the Divine within each of us to give us strength and faith so that we can continue the journey certain that we will not drown.
However one sees oneself at any given moment, whether leaping, being pushed, or slowly wading into the water, we need to remember that God is always within in us and around us. God is in our souls as well as in the water that surrounds us (even when we might fear it). With faith in our ability to use our Divine spirit to act we can split many seas in our lives and we can change ourselves, our communities and our world as well.