“Where is Nachshon the Son of Aminadov When We Need Him?”
(Updated and revised from B’shalach 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, describes G-d’s miraculous salvation of the Jewish People by splitting the Red (Reed) Sea.

Scripture dramatically describes the Egyptian forces as they close in on the Israelites. The people, consumed with dread and fear, cry out to Moses and say (Exodus 14:11): הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us?… It is better that we should serve Egypt, than perish in the wilderness!”

G-d tells Moses to do what he must do. The Torah, Exodus 14:21 reports, וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַיָּם , that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea. G-d made the sea move with a strong East wind all that night… and the water split. The Children of Israel enter the sea on dry land, the water serving as a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians persist in chasing the Israelites into the sea, and there G-d confounds the Egyptians. G-d tells Moses to stretch his hand out once again over the sea, and the water returns to the sea, covering the chariots and the horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh who were chasing after the Israelites. Scripture, Exodus 14:28 records, that not one of the Egyptians remained alive.

When the people of Israel see the great hand of G-d, they express reverence for G-d, and declare their faith in G-d and Moses, his servant. In joy and ecstasy, the people begin to sing the great song, אָז יָשִׁיר , the song of Israel crossing the Red Sea.

The Talmud, in Sotah 36b and 37a, recounts an interesting dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Meir maintains that when the 12 tribes stood at the edge of the sea, they strove with one another, each vying to be the first tribe to enter the sea. Rabbi Judah disagrees, and says that that’s not the way it was at all. Rather, each tribe was unwilling to go in first. As they were standing disputing who would not go first, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, the Prince of the tribe of Judah, entered the water. He continued to walk forth with great faith, and only when the water reached his neck, did the sea begin to split.

One of the most remarkable things about the physical world in which we live and its nature is its orderliness. From the structure of the tiniest atomic particle, to the behavior of the raging sea, even the winds in the sky, there is always logic, constancy and orderliness. This orderliness allows the experts to predict the weather and to reckon the half-life of a radioactive element. Nature implies predictability. Obviously, G-d purposefully created the world in this predictable manner. Today, scientists maintain that even those things that appear to be unpredictable will eventually be shown to be entirely predictable, as we gain a deeper understanding of the incredible variety of factors that impact on the behavior of these seemingly unpredictable elements and processes.

A “miracle” then may be defined as an instance in which nature ceases to be predictable, departs from its natural order and behaves in an unexpected manner. The splitting of the Red Sea is certainly a prime example of such behavior.

The controversial scientist, Immanuel Velikovsky in his Worlds in Collision argues that the Ten Plagues were basically predictable natural occurrences. He theorizes that, at the time of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, a great comet broke off from the planet Venus. The comet’s tail, containing red dust, caused the waters of the Nile River to turn red. Hence, the plague of blood. As the planet Earth went deeper in to the comet’s tail, the dust turned into small stones, and a hail of gravel pelted the earth. Each one of the plagues, Velikovsky argues, was predictable. However unlikely Velikovsky’s theories may be, they do not really controvert the possibility of a Divine miracle. After all, even if the event was not a miracle, the timing was certainly miraculous! The fact that it happened at the particular time that Moses had predicted that it would happen, renders the event a miracle. Velikovsky also argues that the so-called splitting of the Red Sea was caused by a great hurricane and unusual tides that caused the seabed to dry up and the waters to suddenly return. Thus, according to Velikovsky, the poor Egyptians had the great misfortune of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In light of this, the Midrash of Nachshon the son of Aminadav is revealing. The Midrash implies that Nachshon was able to affect G-d’s hand, and make the sea split at a particular point in time.

I have previously argued (Bereshith 5762-2001) that the Torah maintains that G-d created the world entirely good, and that it was the human who, by defying G-d, introduced evil into the world, by eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of good and evil. By defying G-d, Adam and Eve introduce death, sickness, and pain into the world. But, G-d has given humankind the antidotes to cure all illness. In fact, all that is necessary to find these cures to end all sickness, illness, pain and travail is for the human species to resolve to do so.

I would argue even further, that even those things that seem most unpredictable, those occurrences that insurance companies often call “Acts of G-d,” are indeed predictable, and are, in fact, controllable.

It is already well known and widely accepted that it is folly to build homes on geologic faults where the likelihood of earthquakes is well established, or, to erect mansions on edges of cliffs that are prone to erosion and mudslides. And yet, scientific knowledge is unable to convince our human emotions to act responsibly. And so, we continue today to build homes in dangerous locations.

Eventually, science will most likely gain a much fuller understanding of the geothermal and seismic factors that cause volcanoes to erupt and earthquakes to occur. Not only will inhabitants be entirely forewarned, but, it may very well be possible for Earth dwellers to actually change the course of nature by developing technologies that will release the explosive pressures in a safe and secure manner before eruptions and prior to quakes. None of this is really that farfetched.

But, for all this to happen, we need a Nachshon the son of Aminadav, who is prepared to jump into the water up to his neck and declare, “I am going to cause the water to split. My profound faith will change the course of nature. My profound faith will inspire scientists to find the factors that cause nature to change. My profound faith will convince G-d that He must be my partner to help me find the answers to these seemingly impenetrable questions.”

This Shabbat when you listen to the Song of the People of Israel crossing the Red Sea sung in your synagogues, think of Nachshon. He may very well be sitting next to you, perhaps he is already inside of you, waiting, for a little encouragement to emerge and do his thing.

May you be blessed.