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Monday, January 21, 2013
True Leaders: Nachshon, and Martin Luther King
The world is full of people who aspire to positions of power and authority.
There are very few completely uncontested positions of political power and authority in the United States, but the kind of leadership for which one must compete is only one kind of leadership. Many of the people in our country or in our lives who have most deeply and successfully exercised leadership were actually not competing or racing with anyone. In fact, they held roles that no one else wanted.
One Torah passage that focuses on different models of
leadership is the passage from the Book of Exodus describing
the events leading up to the Splitting of the Red Sea (Parashat
Beshalach, to be read in Jewish communities around the
world on January 26).
Of course, Moses is the most prominent leader in this Torah
portion. Interestingly, however, discussions of leadership in
this Torah portion rarely focus on Moses. Instead these
discussions focus on the Israelites, and the decisions they
had to make as they saw the sea in front of them, heard the
Egyptian armies running behind them, and then heard the
completely irrational instruction from Moses: “God says: go
through the water and it will part and you’ll walk through on
The rabbis of the Talmudic era apparently were curious about
the thought process of the Israelites at this moment. Were
they eager to walk? Were they scared? Were they divided?
And one of their responses to this story was to create
midrashim--creative expansions of the stories in the Torah.
Midrashic literature gives us two different versions of what
took place on that day thousands of years ago.
One story is found in Midrash Tehillim, a midrashic
collection on the Psalms: “When the Israelites reached the
sea, they began to fight each other over which tribe would be
the first to descend [into the sea]. They even descended into
the water before it parted.... as it is said, “and the Israelites
went into the sea--on dry ground.” The tribe of Benjamin
said, “We will go first!” The tribe of Judah said, “We will go
first!” Similarly, the tribes of Zebulun, and Naftali--all the
tribes, until they picked up stones and pelted them at each
other..... [and the tribe of Benjamin prevailed].”
This story echoes the competitive paradigm of leadership that
we see so often today. All the Israelites wanted to be leaders,
and they even threw stones at each other to try to prevent the
others from succeeding. (Sadly we see many examples of
such stone-throwing in our own political discourse today as
people compete for positions of political leadership.)
But it interests me that this is not the only midrashic story
about this episode. And in fact, it’s another story about the
splitting of the sea that became much more famous. This
story is found in the Talmud: “Each one said, “I will NOT be
the first one to go into the sea,” until Nachshon the son of
Aminadav descended to the sea first.” (Tractate Sotah 37a).
In this version of the story, the leadership task is terrifying.
No one is sure that the sea will, in fact, part as Moses and
God are promising. The leader must expose himself to
danger. The leader in this circumstance must show a level of
courage and fortitude that is far beyond that displayed by
those who are competing for a position of power and glory.
The leader is not the one who outruns everyone else, but the
one who realizes that if he does not step forward, no one else
The Midrash identifies Nachshon, son of Aminadav, the
chieftain of the tribe of Judah, as this kind of leader. And in
fact, Nachshon’s name is connected etymologically to
Hebrew words that describe his outstanding qualities--
outstanding qualities needed by leaders today as well.
“Nachshon” is related to the Hebrew word le-nachesh,
meaning ‘to attempt,’ ‘to guess,’ ‘to predict,’ or ‘to
conjecture.’ A leader cannot afford to move forward only at
a moment of certainty; a leader must be talented at predicting
or conjecturing about the future impact of his or her
decisions. And the Hebrew name ‘Aminadav’ is related to
the Hebrew word mitnadev, meaning ‘volunteer’ or
‘one who makes a free-will offering.’ Nachshon is
remembered because he stepped forward to volunteer when
no one else would.
The American civic calendar marks exactly one holiday in
honor of a religious leader: Martin Luther King Day, which
we celebrate today month. While there is no doubt that Martin
Luther King was a person of personal ambition, his
biographers have agreed that he certainly did not set out to be
a national leader. In his late 20’s, he became the public face
of the civil rights movement in part because it was a
hazardous role that many other people did not want, and he
was in the right place at the right time.
He himself was hesitant, according to the account in his autobiography
describing how he became the leader of the Montgomery Bus
Boycott: “Leaving Mrs. [Rosa] Parks's trial, Ralph
Abernathy, E. D. Nixon, and Rev. E. N. French,-then minister
of the Hilliard Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church,-discussed the
need for some organization to guide and direct the protest. Up
to this time things had moved forward more or less
spontaneously. These men were wise enough to see that the
moment had now come for a clearer order and direction. As
soon as Bennett had opened the nominations for president,
Rufus Lewis spoke from the far corner of the room: "Mr.
Chairman, I would like to nominate Reverend M. L. King for
president." The motion was seconded and carried, and in a
matter of minutes I was unanimously elected. The action had
caught me unawares. It had happened so quickly that I did not
even have time to think it through. It is probable that if I had,
I would have declined the nomination. They probably picked
me because I had not been in town long enough to be
identified with any particular group or clique.”
King was a Nachshon figure, who stepped forward to do what
needed to be done, what others hesitated to do. And each of
us can find our own personal ways to be leaders in the model
of Nachshon -- people with the courage to step forward.