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A Leader for Our Time

At Passover, one of my favorite stories is about a little known biblical character by the name of Nachshon ben Amindadav. According to the midrash,* the Red Sea didn’t part when the Israelites first arrived fleeing the Egyptian army. Instead, it wasn’t until Nachshon had waded into the water up to his chin that the seas finally parted. 

Imagine the situation: terror behind in the form of the Egyptian army (and the slavery we sought to escape), blocked from moving forward by an unpassable barrier – the Red Sea.I can envision the group frozen in terror, literally unable to move forward or back. In the midst of the terror, the chaos, the paralysis, one man (Nachshon)steps forward. He wades into the water as if he is going to traverse the Sea –as if no barrier can stop him. 

Who is this courageous (or perhaps foolish) man? Nachshon is not a prophet, a Priest or an elected leader. He is simply one of us. I believe that part of the lesson here is that you and I also hold the power to change the world. Nachshon may not have certainty about the future, but it’s obvious that he has an unshakeable belief. Belief in G-d certainly, but also important,belief in the future. 

It seems obvious to me that Nachshon also has a deep sense of empathy.  He was a slave himself, so he understood. What’s more, he put himself at risk to prevent his people from returning to that horrible fate.

I imagine him thinking, “I do not know what the future holds, but I know that the future is not behind us.  I do not know how we will survive but I cannot see my people returned to suffering. Since we can neither stay here nor go back, we must move forward.”  In one moment of clarity, he understood: we must move forward as a people.

Nachshon is a leader for our time. Our community does not face the terrible circumstances faced by our forbearers. Indeed, we are generally accepted in American society as equals, and can look to the East and see a homeland that few of our early 20th century ancestors would have imagined possible. Even so, the Jewish people and our community do face significant challenges. Many with whom I speak fear that Jewish values are being supplanted by a set of modernistic values, that the very nature of our faith and our connection to our core values is changing. 

Despite these worrisome ideas, I see leaders around us who move forward, undaunted by these fears.Leaders like Nachshon, who may not know exactly where we are headed, but who understand that the future lies before us and must be faced by believing in the values that have guided us for so long.  Leaders who are guided by empathy – by their understanding of suffering and our fundamental commitment  to help repair what is broken in our world.

Each of us holds within us the power to be Nachshon  –  a leader by example, who leads with empathy for those less fortunate and the courage to move forward when others seem paralyzed. As we sit around the Pesachtable this year, let us remember those among us who are oppressed and faced with modern day forms of slavery: the slavery of addiction, prejudice, mental illness, homelessness, domestic violence, or life threatening illness.Let us acknowledge that change can be scary, but also that we must have the courage to always move forward as a people.

 Chag Pesach Sameach –a happy and joyous Passover to all!

 

* Midrashim (or Midrash in the singular) are interpretive stories about events in the Torah that can help distill the meaning of the text or in some cases fill in narrative gaps that are only hinted at in the biblical text.  They are often wildly imaginative and typically have important moral or ethical meaning embedded deeply within the narrative.

    Michael Johnston is the President and CEO of the Jewish                Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.




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