Why did Nachshon jump into the sea?

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By Rabbi Fabian Werbin

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20.


The Torah portion that opens the book of Numbers, and the book of Ruth that we read on Shavuot, both mention Nachshon ben Aminadav.

Numbers opens with the list of the princes for each tribe. Nachshon, son of Aminadav, is named as the leader of Judah. Ruth ends with a list of the 10 generations between Peretz and King David. Nachshon, son of Aminadav, was right in the middle.

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So who was Nachshon?

He was Aaron’s brother-in-law. He was the first to offer a sacrifice when the tabernacle was inaugurated. Even though Judah was not the firstborn of Jacob’s sons, the tribe of Judah was in charge of opening the offerings and Nachshon was the designated person. But Nachshon is mainly known for being the first one to jump into the Sea of Reeds following the Exodus.


The midrash (Exodus Rabbah 13 and others) states: “Seven days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the sea and the vengeful Egyptian army. 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.

“At that moment Moses was standing and praying. God said to him, ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the stormy seas, and you are standing and praying?’

“Moses replied, ‘Master of the world, what should I do?’

“Said God, ‘You lift your staff and spread your hand over the seas, which will split, and Israel will come into the sea upon dry land.’

“And so it was. Following Nachshon’s lead, the Israelites entered the sea and were saved.”

The tribe of Judah led the Israelites. If Nachshon looked behind him, he would have seen 2 million people watching his movements and waiting for his reaction. He was the first person in the line, and he jumped without hesitation.

So the question is: Was it an act of courage? Or he was just doing what he had to do?

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to do what you have to do. And Nachshon did it.

If he had hesitated, if he had not jumped, all the rest of the people would have imitated his behavior.

In the book of Ruth, Nachshon represents the generation in the middle. We, too, are the generation in the middle. Our actions, decisions, omissions, silences, jumps and stillness are relevant. We are Nachshon and those who are standing behind us are waiting to see what we do. Those who come after us will benefit from our actions and will be harmed from our motionlessness.

Rabbi Fabian Werbin is associate rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda.

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