The First Upstander
February 7, 2020
By Rob Goldberg

This week’s reading from the Torah, Beshalach, tells the adventures of the Israelites as they leave Egypt, cross the Red Sea, receive miraculous nourishment in the wilderness and face their first battle.

The scene is a familiar one, recited each day in our liturgy and retold in homes each spring during Passover: the Israelites have left Egypt and follow Moses to the banks of the Red Sea.  The waters rage before them while the Egyptian army bears down upon them.  At the pivotal moment when bold leadership is required there is quarrelling and indecision.

Moses tries to console the people, saying:  “Do not be afraid. Stand fast and witness the deliverance which God will do for you today…. (Exodus 14:13).  But then a verse later God reprimands Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel and cause them to march forward!”

Moses ultimately holds his arm out over the sea and God drives back the waters with a mighty wind splitting them so the children of Israel can to safety.

The Talmud (in tractate Sotah) tells a different narrative seeking to understand why Moses was spinning out prayers rather than physically leading the people into the sea.   Our sages suggest that Moses did not lead the people into the waters but rather it was another leader.  We read: “One tribe said, ‘I will not be the first to go into the sea’; and another tribe also said, ‘I will not be the first to go into the sea.’ While they were standing there deliberating, Nachshon the son of Aminadab sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea.”

Who was Nachshon, and why do our sages suggest that he was the one who led with bold and decisive action? Nachshon was appointed by Moses, upon God’s command, as prince of the Tribe of Judah. He is the brother of Elisheba who married Moses’ older brother Aaron. His is the first of the twelve tribes to offer sacrifices at the dedication of the tabernacle. Nachshon wasn’t just anybody; he was an appointed leader with deep ties to Moses and his family.  But while others were debating and Moses was praying, Nachshon was leading, literally with his feet.

One of my grandsons bears the Hebrew name Nachshon.  My daughter Elana and her husband Seth wanted to give him a name that connected him with the time of year he was born, just prior to Passover.   They were drawn to the narrative of Nachshon, to the idea that one person can make a difference, especially when others cannot.  In their speech at my grandson’s Brit Milah, they wrote: “Nachshon wasn’t in charge, he wasn’t the most learned or the most devout, but in a moment which demanded action, he demonstrated decisive leadership. He was an upstander rather than a bystander.”

In Yiddish, there is a popular saying “To be a Nachshon.”   So as we enter this Shabbat, may we take this saying to heart and consider the actions of Nachshon, one who took the risk to wade into the waters and led by doing, a role model for us and one of our tradition’s first upstanders.

Rob Goldberg is the CEO and Executive Director of the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

The First Upstander - Jewish thought of the week graphic