Debate teams
Debate teams

Dennis Miller, the famed SNL comedian, once said about the Jews: "Left to themselves in a world of peace, the worst Jews would ever do to people is debate them to death."

But for the Jews that we encounter in this week's parashah, the world was anything but peaceful, nor was that angry world going to leave them in peace. Only seven days after the tenth and most horrible plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn and the ensuing Exodus from Egypt, crisis returns with a fury:


"....And the Children of Israel looked up and Behold! Egypt was bearing down on them..."

Gcd had commanded Moses to shepherd the Children of Israel onto a peninsula jutting out into the Reed Sea; on the face of it, not the most clever of military strategies. Pharaoh quickly capitalized on this military blunder. The mighty Egyptian army, composed of thousands of foot soldiers, archers and lancers, plus hundreds of armored chariots pulled by massive war horses; indeed, the mightiest and most feared fighting force of its time, now choked off the neck of the peninsula. Check, and it certainly looked like checkmate.

The Children of Israel faced an immediate and existential crisis. How did we react to the blockade? True to form, we held a debate.

According to the Midrash there was a four way dispute: one group felt it was better to commit a Masada-style group suicide by drowning in the sea than to ever be taken back to Egypt in shackles; the second group argued that life as a slave was preferable to death as freemen and advocated surrender; the third group wanted to fight the Egyptians head-on; and the fourth group felt that prayer was the only option.

All four groups were yelling at Moses, each out-shouting the next one, each trying to convince him of the logic of their position. Finally Moses says:  "Do not be afraid. Stand your ground and see the salvation that the Lcrd will do for you on this very day; for that which you see the Egyptians today, you will never set eyes upon them again. Gcd Himself will fight your battle for you and you will remain silent."

The Midrash interprets these verses as a rebuke to all four camps: Stand your ground ...for that which you see the Egyptians today, you will never set eyes upon them again  Gcd Himself will fight your battle for you and you will remain silent

But...there was a fifth group, very small in number, perhaps just one person. (There is a dispute in the Talmud about who it was exactly, either Benjaminites or Nachshon the son of Aminadav from the Tribe of Judah.) They had the moral clarity to realize that Gcd had not led them this far only to abandon them at the eleventh hour. Pushed aside by the debaters who hogged center stage, these intrepid few bypassed the debate altogether and simply did what had to be done. 

There was no going back, to the right, or to the left, so they just moved forward, into the sea, trusting that Gcd would open the path at the moment that He chose as appropriate.

And the sea parted before them.

Today as well, diaspora Judaism is facing an existential crisis. If establishment communal leaders acknowledge the problem at all, it is by engaging in vociferous yet inconclusive debate. I hear the echoes from the banks of the Sea of Reeds. 

Some tell me that the communal hari-kari to which we are witness is inevitable, and that the most we can hope for is to keep dancing until the music stops. Others say that embracing intermarriage and assimilation is the way solve the problem of intermarriage and assimilation in America. Yet others want to fight, and others argue the best course of action is to retreat and pray.

When, as a community rabbi, I propose solutions to the pressing problems of our community, I am lectured by well-meaning Jewish leaders about what is achievable, what is fundable, what will get through the communal debate process. 

That process is designed first and foremost to never offend the donor class; second, to mitigate liability; and third, to protect the bureaucratic mandarins and their petty fiefdoms who control the purse-strings and pick the winners and losers in Jewish communal life. 

All this results in stasis, in leadership by lowest common denominator, which usually shakes out to mean 'do nothing' or 'keep doing what we did before.'

Dennis Miller was yucking it up, but we are literally debating ourselves to death. 

Crisis requires true Jewish leadership, not technocrats; men and women who have the moral clarity of a Nachshon to step forward and take bold action when the situation demands. 

Torah-based leaders are not content to allow their fellow Jews to assimilate into oblivion. The commandment "Do not stand on the blood of thy neighbor" rings in their ears, and it motivates them to act. True leaders also understand that their initiatives will never be funded by the ossified Jewish establishment, because the establishment is part of the problem, not part of the solution. So they bypass it and move forward anyway.

Be the Nachshon in your family, in your community. Be that person. Ignore the naysayers, because there are always fifty reasons not to do a good thing. Act. Take the first step, and Gcd will smooth the path before you.

Goethe expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote: "...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no (human) could have dreamed would come his way."


As surely as the sea parted for the Children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds, the sea will part for the modern day Nachshons as well, and untold lives will be saved by their selflessness and heroism.