Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Operation Nachshon

Do miracles require faith or action? Well, the answer may surprise you. According to Jewish wisdom, both elements are necessary. Obviously, miracles require faith - a recognition that God is not bound by the laws of nature. But they also require action - some sort of tangible demonstration on our part. This idea can better be understood through one of the greatest miracles in history, the Splitting of the Red Sea, which we recounted over Passover.

There is a famous midrash on the Torah's account of the Splitting of the Red Sea that gives us an insight into how God operates. During the Exodus, the Jewish people found themselves in a seemingly insurmountable predicament; they were stuck between a pursuing Egyptian army and a vast body of water. The Jewish people cried out to Moses for God to save them, so Moses in turn prays to God. But there is no response. Then, suddenly, God exclaims, "ma titzak eilai" - "why are you crying out to me?" (Exodus 14:15) - and instructs Moses to stretch his staff to split the sea. That's the general narrative. However, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Our Sages explain that while most people were worrying, complaining, and even praying, there was one man who took action. His name was Nachshon Ben Aminadav. He took the initiative by plunging directly into the Red Sea with complete faith that God - after performing the plethora of miracles in Egypt - would surely not allow the nascent Jewish people to be wiped out. And as Nachshon put himself in harm's way, God caused the sea to split. However, the rabbis ask, if God was ready to split the sea because Nachshon had showed faith by jumping in, then why was Moses required to carry out the task of using his staff to cause the miracle? They answer that God told Moses to do so in order to save Nachshon from drowning. Obviously, God could perform miracles without any human cooperation, but Jewish tradition has it that God wants us to play a role as well, and not merely sit around waiting for divine intervention.

Unfortunately, this midrash is not well-known among most contemporary Jews, but its significance is better known in Israel. Prior to the War of Independence in 1948, Arabs blockaded Jerusalem so that its Jewish residents could not receive food, water or supplies. Somehow, it had to be overcome. It was a difficult mission for the Jewish armies to carry out, and they knew that they needed to plunge into their own "Red Sea" in order to make something happen. The name of the operation to break this blockade was called Operation Nachshon. In this instance, and many others, brave people took the first step and God did the rest.

Never be afraid to take action while others are just waiting for a miracle. In both the macro and micro realms of life, we can be such people. For example, the brave men and women who serve in the Israel Defense Forces fulfill the Nachshonian philosophy every time they have to overcome an incredible obstacle to achieve their objectives. However, you don't have to be an Israeli commando in order to act like Nachshon. For example, if you happen to be at a simcha and a scenario develops in which someone is about to be embarrassed during a conversation - and you are in the position to jump into your own "Red Sea" and save that person from embarrassment - you can fulfill the Nachshonian idea as well. You don't have to know exactly what you're doing or what the results will be. Because here's the kicker . . .

Nachshon couldn't swim.

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