Nothing in the Pesach Seder is as it appears. Each symbol, midrash, story, vignette, poem and song reveals our people’s values, aspirations and worldview.
One example lies in the midrash when God scolds the angels for singing praises at the destruction of the Egyptians who drowned in the sea. That midrash teaches us Jews never to be cruel. Another example is the story of Nachshon ben Aminadav (not mentioned in the traditional Haggadah, but noted in Exodus 6:23 and 1 Chronicles 2:11). Nachshon looms large in rabbinic literature because his alleged actions at the sea were transformational for who we are as Jews and how we interact with the world:
Rabbi Judah says: When the Israelites stood at the sea, one said: “I don’t want to go down to the sea first.” Another said: “I don’t want to go down first either.” While standing there, and while Moses prayed to God to save them, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped up, went down and fell into the waves.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 36a, Mechilta Parashat B’shalach)
What is the meaning of this midrash?
First, Moses’ prayers were insufficient to persuade God to split the sea. Only when Nachshon jumped into the waters did God respond and open the sea for them to pass on dry land to safety. Second, at an early stage in Israel’s history there was an understanding that, though the people might have felt alone and abandoned, God was with them all along. And third, Nachshon’s “leap” represents a turning point in the historic experience of the Jewish people. His willingness to take history into his own hands became a tenet of Jewish moral activism and a character trait of the Jewish hero.
Another example: Several years ago, J Street published a piece written by Rabbi Richard Levy, who reflected on the symbolism of the karpas:
“…When our karpas represents Nachshon…the salt water no longer suggests tears, but the grit of heroes. Nachshon represents those willing to stand up against the raging waters of intimidation, to state what is right and just and reasonable. In our time, Nachshon might say: ‘Israel can be freed of her occupying status and survive as a just, peaceful and secure state only alongside a just, peaceful and secure Palestinian state.… If enough people, ordinary citizens like Nachshon, speak enough to the leaders who represent them, they too will understand that the waters can part, that the just and practical solution — a two-state solution — can emerge out of the depths and the freedom and peace of two peoples can be assured.”
Our hopes may be subdued in these times in which there is an absence of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading toward a two-state solution, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has just been re-elected with an even more right-wing government likely. But our hopes need not be dead. A resolution of this conflict can be achieved even now with visionary, courageous and bold moral leadership that is unafraid to do what should have been done years ago — to end the demoralizing, disheartening and destructive conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.
Let Pesach this year renew our faith in the possibility of peace and our hopes that new Nachshons will take history into their hands and lead us to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rabbi John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood since 1988. He is the immediate past National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) where he served on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). He returns to his position as a co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet (2012-2016, 2019-). He is the author of Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove (Jewish Lights, 2017) and of the upcoming book Why Israel and Its Future Matter – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020). He writes a regular blog for The Times of Israel. John is married to Barbara and the father of two sons, Daniel and his wife Marina, and David, and he is a new grandfather.