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
dry land.”

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.  

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