Monday, February 2, 2009

Words of Torah - Find your inner Nachshon

A good friend of mine has been unemployed now for about 5 months and has had some personal issues as well. To add insult to injury, he lives in New York city, his roommate has moved out, and now he has to pay for an expensive apartment until he finds a subletter, something that he has not been successful in doing for the last couple of weeks. Years ago, this situation would not have happened. My friend would have found a job, and if he needed someone to sublet his apartment, it would have snatched up on Craigslist in 5 minutes. Yesterday, my friend had to do something that he felt was shameful: he asked his parents for financial help. When he told me this, I did not feel sorry for him, in fact, I was proud. His sense of shame, although misguided, reveals something in his character. My friend is a proud person, an independent person. My friend is an adult and his goal is to depend on himself. My friend got me thinking about the power of a free mind and the choices that we make when we are faced with difficult circumstances.

I look at the Exodus from Egypt, specifically the splitting of the Red Sea, as a good model for my rabbinate. Most people want to look at me as Moshe Rabenu (Moses), their teacher and spiritual leader, and I want to push them to look at themselves as Nachson Ben Aminadav. According to the Torah, Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord split the Red Sea. But the Rabbis had a different take on the story. In a famous midrash, the Israelites are standing in front of the Red Sea with the Egyptians to their back. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In this story, the sea had not yet split. Moses stood with his arms up, and nothing was happening. The people were standing there waiting for their leader, the one they look to as their father to save them. But nothing was happening and I’m sure the Israelites were worried. They are standing on the cusp of freedom, and yet this situation is all too familiar to them: powerlessness and despair.

But one man changed this. Nachshon Ben Aminadav, not Moses, walked into the water, he took power into his own hands and took the first steps. Suddenly, the nation followed him. According to the midrash, this is when the Red Sea split, when a normal guy led his brothers and sisters into the unknown. The Israelites were re-born when they walked through the Red Sea. They were beginning their path towards freedom, where they took power into their own hands.
This legacy is what motivates my friend, and it is a legacy that I intend to impart to my people.

Our success as a people has come from normal people doing amazing things, not from one charismatic leader at a time. My goal is to help our people find the power that they have, especially during the bleak times that we live in today. Few of us can be Moses, but all of us have the ability to be Nachshon Ben Aminadav, and in many ways, he is more important.
We are in between a rock and hard place, and we are at a crossroads. How will we walk out of the sea, as free people, or slaves? This is our challenge for the foreseeable future. It is time for our people to realize the power that they have and use it for the betterment of our people, our communities, and the world. It is time to organize our communities, to build relationships, and to build power. This is my mission in life, to help the Jewish people find what is already in them: Nachshon Ben Aminadav.