We’ve all had “test of faith” moments (or in Jew-speak test of emmunah.) And in this week’s parsha, Beshalach, the Jews have a pretty daunting one. Just after leaving Egypt, God instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people:
Speak to the B’nei Yisrael and have them turn back and camp before Pi haChiros, between Migdol and the sea… Pharaoh will then say of the B’nei Yisrael, “They are confused in the land, the desert has [trapped] them in.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army. Egypt will [then] know that I am God.” The B’nei Yisrael did just that. (Shemos 14:2-4)
Put yourself in their shoes. You’ve been in slavery for 240 years, you’re taking your first steps of freedom then Moses says, “Okay everyone, we’re going back. And we’re going to sit between a giant rock, a hard place, and the Red Sea (actually the Yam Suf). Then Pharaoh is going to come after us with his whole army and try to kill us… but God says everything’s going to be fine.”
“Were there not enough graves in Egypt?”
As Pharaoh’s army charges towards them, what is the Jewish people’s reaction?
Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert? …It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than we should die in the desert.” (Shemos 14:11-12)
Now yes, certain death is staring them in the face. But the Jews have seen first hand God’s 10 plagues on Egypt, they have a cloud of fire guiding their way, mere months ago they were nothing but slaves and now are walking as a rich and free people. PLUS God just told them this was going to happen. What are the Jews freaking out about?
Rashi points out an insight that sheds some light. Looking above, notice the line, “The B’nei Yisrael did just that.” Rashi comments that they literally mean, “Our sole mission is to obey the words of the son of Amram [being Moses].” But they didn’t say their mission was to obey the words of God.
A Leader vs One Who Leads
There is nothing wrong with following a bold, charismatic, and inspirational leader. But there is an essential element that separates a true leader from someone who is merely one who leads. One who leads can impart wisdom, teach with clarity, and inspire people across the widest boundaries to rally for a cause. They can affect change and create movements to revolutionize the world. But as profound as those revolutions are, the real test is when that leader is no longer able to continue. At that point, does the movement endure? If one only leads, the cause most likely will not.
Because one who leads only creates followers. And if those followers weren’t there, the one who leads has nothing. But one who is truly a leader creates other leaders. A true leader doesn’t need followers because they teach for the sake of independence. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Catch a man a fish, keep him fed for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll keep him fed the rest of his life.” Where one who leads relies on unity to affect the world for the sake of an idea, they are also the primary access to it. But a true leader gives his followers the ability to connect and live with the idea themselves. He teaches them make it their own. Judaism says you have to be a true leader.
Back to the Sea
At this point, the Jewish people are followers of Moses. Moses has not yet taught them how to have a direct connection with God. Right now that connection is strictly through Moses. And in the face of an Egyptian onslaught, they lose faith in Moses and despair. Except one man. Nachshon ben Aminadav.
When the Jewish people started to panic, Moses prayed to God at which point God directs him: “Speak to the B’nei Yisrael and let them move on. And raise your staff and extend your hand over the sea and split it.” (Shemos 14:15-16) Notice, the command to direct the Jews to “move on” as in, go into the sea, came before the instruction for Moses to do any sea splitting Kabbalah action. According to a Midrash…
When Israel stood facing the Sea of Reeds, and the command was given to move forward, each of the tribes hesitated, saying, “We do not want to be the first to jump into the sea.” Nachshon saw what was happening—and jumped into the sea. The Midrash goes on to say that Moses raised his staff as God tells him to, but nothing happened. However when Nachshon was all the way up to his nose, that’s what finally caused the miracle to happen.
Though Moses had not yet gotten though to B’nei Yisrael, he had succeeded with Nachshon ben Aminadav. Nachshon had clarity to trust in Hashem because he had formed a unique connection of his own. He wasn’t just relying on Moses.
That’s why it is so crucial to take that next step when you are inspired by someone with a meaningful message. Should that “leader” come under doubt or is unable to go on, do you have the clarity and connection to continue on yourself? Do you have the ability to make the message as true for you tomorrow as it is today? Or will your connection get lost and your learning become stale? Will that transformative period of your life endure or merely become a “phase you went though?”