When our ancestors left Egypt, they were very much the product of generations of slavery. The Torah tells us, “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’” Slavery had marked them not only physically, but also intellectually and emotionally; they were suffering from what we call today low self-esteem.
When they saw the pursuing Egyptians, the Israelites’ challenge to Moses was, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” Indeed, every time a problem arose, they turned against Moses and God — complaining, resisting, and whining.
Their first challenge came at the Sea of Reeds. It didn’t take long for Pharaoh to regret letting his slaves go, so he mustered his warriors and chased after them with 600 chariots. The Israelites were caught between the sea and the Egyptians. They were frightened and panicked, not knowing whether to go this way or that.
Moses spoke to calm and encourage them: “Have no fear! Stand by and witness the deliverance that the Lord will work for you.” And what was God’s response? “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”
This is how the Talmud (Sotah 36b) describes what happened next: “Rabbi Meir said: When the Israelites stood at the Reeds Sea, the tribes were vying with one another, one saying, ‘I will be first to go down into the sea,’ and the other saying, ‘I will be first to go down into the sea….’ Rabbi Judah said to Rabbi Meir: That is not quite the way it happened. In fact, 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, Nahshon ben Aminadav sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea.”
The midrash goes further, saying that Nahshon sank into the water up to his nose, and only then did the sea divide. And since that day, the phrase k’fitzat Nahshon, the leap of Nahshon, has meant a very special “leap of faith.” Nahshon made a choice that might have meant failure, and therefore death, to win the prize of freedom and the Promised Land.
What we learn from Nahshon is that going forward, even without a guarantee of success, is better than standing still and certain failure. Sometimes there is no way to know which course is best; one can only make a choice and see what happens.
This isn’t a prescription for recklessness. Nahshon almost surely wouldn’t have jumped if the Egyptians hadn’t been closing in, but there was really no other choice.
God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” There’s a time to pray and a time to act. There’s a time to debate and a time to do. There’s a time to weigh alternatives and a time to choose.
Was Nahshon’s leap risky? Of course it was, but if he hadn’t jumped when he did, our ancestors would have died at the sea, and we wouldn’t be here to tell the story.