Operation Nachshon and the street jews

Parshat B’Shalach

Nachshon, was a biblical character associated with the splitting of the Red Sea, in whose name a record three Israeli military operations were named.

The most well known Operation Nachshon was a Haganah operation in the 1948 War of Independence. The Arabs had succeeded in blockading the road to Jerusalem, preventing essential humanitarian supplies as well as ammunition from entering the city. At the end of March, convoys were no longer able to get through, and the situation in Jerusalem became critical. On April 3rd David Ben Gurion insisted on the largest possible operation, forcing Haganah commanders to plan and execute the first brigade sized operation they had ever undertaken. The operation involved about 1,500 troops taken from the Givati and Alexandroni brigade and some others, including the Gadna youth cadets. (see Operation Nachshon).

The second, lesser known, Operation Nachshon, documented in Six Days of War by Michael Oren (p. 168) and named Operation Nachshon 1, was commanded by Moshe Dayan and initialized “the conquest of the Sinai front … the opening of the Abu ‘Agheila – Rafiah-al-‘Arish axes, and the destruction of the Egyptian army in this sector.”

The third Operation Nachshon .. called Nachson 2 included the second phase of the Six Day War and was created by the IDF General staff to influence the final outcome of the post war borders. (ibid p. 237)

For some reason, the founding father of Israel, its most decorated generals and one must assume, the citizens and soldiers of Israel, had a visceral understanding of what Nachshon represented. So did HaShomer HaTzair, the Socialist-Zionist, anti-religious, youth movement who in 1950 founded Kibbutz Nachshon in Central Israel.

What was it about this biblical Nachshon that so captured the imagination of these secular Zionists?

The Nachshon we meet in the Bible bore an unflattering name (lit. snake), and as the descendent of Perez, the son, out of wedlock, of Judah and the harlot, Tamar… didn’t have the most prestigious provenance. Nachshon is nonetheless associated with the critical moment of life or death at the banks of the Red Sea.

The story of the original Operation Nachshon is the uniquely Jewish version of the iconic “Crossing the Rubicon”. (Ironically, The Latin word rubico comes from the adjective “rubeus”, meaning “red”.) It is a story that defines how we Jews chart our course and draft our destiny.

We all know the story… Pharaoh had second thoughts about letting the Israelites go and the Egyptian First Army were positioned to push the Jews into the sea …. Moses exhorts his flock to have faith in God and prepare to be delivered, whereupon he begins to pray. “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:5 – 20). The Biblical Text does not actually provide an account of Moses’ prayer, nor does it provide a record of Moses’ answer to God’s rebuke.

Surprisingly for such a well known legend.. the Biblical text does not mention Nachshon. Nachshon enters history in one opinion cited in the Midrashic Literature. (Nice to know that there was a time, not so long ago, when all Jews, knew their Midrash!)

R. Judah said to [R. Meir]: …. each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon the son of Amminadab and descended first into the sea; ….  At that time Moses was engaged for a long while in prayer; so the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and thou prolongest prayer before Me!’ He spake before Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?’ He replied to him, Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward. And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand etc. For that reason Judah (of which Nachshon was a Prince) was worthy to be made the ruling power in Israel, as it is said: Judah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion.  Why did Judah become His sanctuary and Israel his dominion? Because the sea saw [him] and fled. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 37a)

Nachshon was not only a man of action. His action represented a repudiation of Moses, and, by association, his brother Aaron. A repudiation of the entrenched leadership and the prayers and rituals of the Clergy. Nachshon was neither a scholar nor a saint, he had a humble name and lineage to match. He is mentioned rarely in scripture. He is not known for a lifetime of piety or fealty. Nachshon is a one act wonder.. he is the proverbial dog who has his day.

For generations, Nachshon represented a popularist myth in Judaism that the future of our people does not depend on the scholars or clergy, but rather on one man or woman, at the right place, at the right time who does the right thing.

Was not this the message of the most secular story in the Hebrew canon? Ester, the beauty queen… the original sleeper cell … also known as Hadassah (Megillah 2:7) is living in the Palace with a Persian king and she’s having a ball. She has been told not to reveal her true identity. At the critical moment when only Ester can intercede with the King on the Jew’s behalf.. Ester has a Nachshon moment. Mordecai, her mentor tells her: “Don’t imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place…. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position.” Megillah 4: 13-14

Note: If the malicious software program, known as Stuxnet, designed to disable Iranian centrifuges was created by Israel then the fact, as reported by Symantec, the virus specialists, that the worm/trojan creates a directory called myrtle or Hadas, it means that the Israelís who named it, were following in the Operation Nachshon tradition and honored Ester, the original Jewish Virus in Persia by nameing a software virus after her. Every virus has its day!

In recent times, the popularist Nachshon tradition reapeared with the Baal Shem Tov and the Hasidic Movement.  The Hasidim rejected the elite scholars of the Lithuanian Talmudic Academies and celebrated the simple faith of the common Jew of the shtetl street. The great Hasidic Rebbes taught that every simple Jew could merit redemption and the world to come in a single act, at a single moment.

According to Hasidic thought, when the Bible writes: “Surely, this Mitzvah (singular) which I command you today, is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11) it means that God promises us that we, like Nachshon, can find our single mitzvah at a single moment and find salvation. Or to quote Mishneh Avot “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov taught: When a person performs a single mitzvah, he acquires an advocate for himself…”, (4:13) “This was a favorite teaching of his: Repentance and good deeds in this world, even for one hour, are better than eternal life in the world to come…” (4:22).

Or as the Talmud says:

A person should always perceive himself as though he were half-guilty and half-meritorious. If he performed one Mitzvah, he is fortunate for he has tipped the balance for himself toward the side of merit. If he committed a single transgression, woe to him – for he has tipped the balance for himself toward the side of guilt … R’ Elazar the son of R’ Shimon says: because the world is judged on the basis of the majority of its inhabitants, and the individual is judged on the basis of the majority of his deeds, if he performed a single Mitzvah, he is fortunate for he has tipped the balance for himself and for the entire world toward the side of merit, if he committed a single transgression, woe to him for he has tipped the balance for himself and for the entire world toward the side of guilt” (Kiddushin 40a).

Many Hasidic stories celebrate the simple, many times ignorant and unobservant Jew who through the simple purity of a single word or deed reaches the highest rung.

See for example the very typical story of: A HEAVENLY PARTNER
where the Baal Shem Tov finds that his future study partner in heaven lives in a city without Jews, observes not one commandment and on Shabbat eats, drinks, smokes, dances and generally whoops it up with his friends. Not able to contain himself any longer the Baal Shem Tov asks this player to explain his actions to which his future havruta responds: “When I was a small child, I was taken away from my Jewish home and brought here. I know absolutely nothing about Judaism. I only remember that my father used to always teach me that we are commanded to rejoice on Shabbos. I still remember the many people that came to our house every Shabbos. So to follow in the tradition of my family, I have the custom of making a great feast every Shabbos and inviting my neighbors to rejoice with me.”

Today, the Nachshon approach to Hasidism is most closely followed by Chabad. It is accepted wisdom that Chabad is successful because they are non-judgmental.. and this is probably true.. but the reason that Chabad Rabbis do not insist that their followers perform every mitzvah and refrain from all that is forbidden, is not, in my opinion because they are so tolerant. It is because the Rebbe z’l understood the power of a single mitzvah at a single moment: “Every Jew has a mitzvah to which he finds an affinity. Don’t argue with him. Find that mitzvah and encourage him in it.” — Rabbi Schneerson, Chabad.  That’s why putting on tephilin on a stranger or lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat are so important to Chabad… they represent the Nachshon moment that we, the street Jews, can all achieve.  (Ever get the feeling that Chabad Shlichim would rather mix it up with street jews then hang out in Monsey or Bnai Brak… that’s why.)

Returning to the secular Israeli pioneers who lived and breathed Nachshon and who are justly credited for the rebirth of the Jewish nation …

To these secular Zionists, and the rest of us street Jews.. before we turn over the high ground and pass the keys of statehood and public policy to the so-called religious camp.. the self proclaimed modern-day Zionists and latter-day pioneers… let’s remember that it was the street Jews, not the religious ideologues who created Zionism and began to rebuild the Land. It was the followers of Nachshon who saw the signs of the Holocaust and acted on their own rather than listened for a sign from God or a proof text before they acted.

So as for me, I may go to Moses and his students to study Talmudic texts, and I may follow Aaron and his latter day clergy for advise in ritual choreography, but when it comes to issues of security, peace and the future of the People of Israel.. I’ll follow Nachshon’s example and join other street Jews who know what it means to be a Jew in their gut and are willing to seize the day whether to fight a war or sue for peace.

 ————-

A hint at a Jewish Popularist Movement in the Rabbinic Period

A precursor to a Jewish popularist movement may have appeared not among any of the well know sects around at the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism. Not by the Rabbinic Pharisees, not by the Priestly Seducees, not by the ascetic drop-out Essenes and not by the early Christians. Rather a radically anti authoritarian popularist platform was held by the Am HaAretz… literally, people of the land, but pejoratively translated in Rabbinic sources as ignoramus.

The mutual intolerance and animosity between the simple Jew of the land and the Rabbis were no less extreme in the 2nd – 4th Century Rabbinic period then they are today.

Our Rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar. ….. but let him not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-arez, because they are detestable and their wives are vermin, and of their daughters it is said, Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast. …. R. Eleazar said: An ‘am ha-arez, it is permitted to stab him [even] on the Day of Atonement which falls on the Sabbath. Said his disciples to him, Master, say to slaughter him [ritually]? He replied: This [ritual slaughter] requires a benediction, whereas that [stabbing] does not require a benediction. R. Eleazar said: One must not join company with an ‘am ha-arez on the road, because it is said, for that [the Torah] is thy life, and the length of thy days: [seeing that] he has no care [pity] for his own life, how much the more for the life of his companions! R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Johanan’s name: One may tear an ‘am haarez like a fish! Said R. Samuel b. Isaac: And [this means] along his back. (Babylonian Talmud; Pesachim 49b)

It is clear from this text that the Am Ha’aretz was not simply an ignorant Jew.  he was a Jew who had a strongly anti-Rabbinic bias and opinion.  It is no surprise that strong feelings of animosity became mutual… The most famous ex-Am HaAretz; Rabbi Akiva is reputed to have said: “When I was an ‘am ha-arez I said: I would that I had a scholar [before me], and I would maul him like an ass.”

Clearly the Am Ha’aretz were not apathetic, detached Jews.  To the contrary.. they appear to be extremely opinionated and opposed to Rabbinic controls and opinions.  Unfortunately, we have, to my knowledge, no record of their opinions, other than recorded in the rabbinic sources.  Just goes to prove that it’s easier to pass on to the next generation.. an answer, rather than to pass on a question! No one said it was easy being an Am Ha’aretz.  (possbily… The great Zionist thinker Ahad HaAm aimed to reinvent the thought of the Am Ha’aretz.. will have to research further….)

We are seeing this type of bifurcation between ideological Jews and street Jews today.. I fear… maybe it’s time for still another operation Nachshon….

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7 responses to “Operation Nachshon and the street jews

  1. shelly kassen

    Kol HaKavod, Geoffrey!

  2. RavYossi

    RavYossi: why the division? Why not praise the Jews who learn Torah AND support the Zionist enterprise? What about the religious kibbutzim that were there before the state? What about Rav Kook? You’re right that Chabad are on the street…while today more and more secular Israelis are leaving Israel behind…Rav Riskin and Rabbi Weiss are just as much the “Nachshons” of today as the Chabadniks!

    Madliik: I have no problems with religious zionists, but I do have a problem with religious zionists who claim the mantle of Zionism and question why someone who is not religious would want to stay in Israel. And to that point, where is the data that the hilonim are leaving Israel? I also have a problem with the many hilonim I talk with who have drunk the religious Zionist kool-aid and have begun to agree that the only remaining zionists are of the religious variety. I also am not a fan of the observant and not-yet-observant patronization approach. If Rav kook valued the hilonim as holy period, I am with him. If he saw the hilonim as holy tools…. I’m not. The Be’SHT didn’t value the street Jews as not-yet-lamdim or tools, but valued their sweet joy and bitter lives as the holy of holies. I mean less to denigrate the religious zionists and more to give Chizuk to the hiloni zionists.
    Ultimately, i suppose that what I am arguing is not to necessarily focus on exporting reform, conservative and American modern orthodoxy to israel, but to focus on emerging efforts along the lines of Reboot see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/fashion/16REBOOT.html Elul etc where we strengthen the inherent Zionism of the hilonim and challenge the presumption of the religious zionists. I also think that it is absurd to ask or follow a rabbinic authority qua religious authority on issues of state.

    RavYossi: I spoke about Reboot’s Sabbath manifesto at shul a couple of times…I think what they’re doing is great, I just don’t believe in “Flavor of the Month Judaism” and I fear that Reboot heads in that direction. I more or less agree that American denominational labels are starting to outlive their usefulness and don’t necessarily fit in Israel.

    Hiloni Israelis leaving-I recently saw a stat (have to try and find it) that there are well over 100,000 Israeli expats in America. I also want to give chizuk to the chiloni Zionists (though as many have drunk the post-Zionist kool-aid as the religious Zionist kool-aid) but it is difficult-As I (and many greater than me) have pointed out, it is wonderful that we have a Jewish state-but there is very little agreement about what the “Jewish” part of Jewish State means. And this is not helped by statements like the ones coming out of the Conservative movement recently that the Rotem bill of last year “was an attempt to delegitimize Diaspora Jewry” or something to that effect-as we discussed then, it was nothing of the sort, it was an attempt to solve a major challenge to the Jewish state re: immigrants and citizenship…the way it was done can be legitimately criticized but Rotem was trying to get a law passed, not delegitimize anyone.

    • madliik

      Rav Yossi shared with me the below d’var Torah which is from a thouroughly enlightened religious zionist Rabbi.. who gets it and rejects the certainly and presumption of the religious zionists, I condemn…. in favor of a Theological Uncertainty Principle, which I embrace. Thanks!

      Needed: A New Orthodox Theology
      Rabbi Herzl Hefter
      Yeshivat HaMivtar- Torat Yosef

      The recent racist “letter of the rabbis” forbidding the renting of flats to Arab citizens of the State of Israel once again uncovers the vulnerable underbelly of Religious Zionist Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, we have been witness to numerous embarrassing declarations by rabbis presenting their positions on various social and political issues in recent years. For example: in 2007 a leading Rabbi ruled that the State of Israel should not allow refugees from Darfur to enter its’ territory on account that Sudan fought against Israel in the 1948 War of Independence. Back in 2005 another prominent rabbi, with a very large following in the religious Zionist camp, declared confidently that the disengagement from Gaza simply would not happen. As someone who is privileged to live in Israel, I must admit that it has come to the point that when I hear a religious functionary being interviewed on TV or the radio I raise my voice to heaven with the simple prayer, “Please God, I pray he doesn’t say anything stupid (or worse).”

      There is a disturbing common denominator to these pronouncements. While the intellectual acumen and proficiency in Halacha of many of these rabbis is undeniable, there is much knowledge but very little understanding. Their approach is fundamentalist (traditionally very uncharacteristic of Talmidei Chachamim, students of the Halacha);the world is seen in terms of black and white, good and evil, friend and (mostly) foe, right and wrong. We sense no hesitation, no self scrutiny. Grey simply doesn’t exist. The so human characteristic of grappling with uncertainty, opening oneself up to the possibility that perhaps the situation before me is novel and that the world may actually have something to teach me, is totally absent.

      Beyond the particular content of this letter or that statement, what I find particularly pernicious is the tone; the certainty and presumptuous condescension of he who knows the Truth.

      Religious Zionist orthodoxy requires a theological paradigm shift, a new way of thinking, which would pre-empt many of the phenomena we have been witness to in recent years.

      The shift I propose does not concern particular articles of faith such as the existence of God or the Divine origin of the Torah. The acute issue at hand is not what we believe but rather how we believe. We are accustomed to thinking that our core beliefs as derived from the corpus of tradition, point in a clear way to objective metaphysical truths. This is what I mean by how we believe.

      I fervently believe that our tradition possesses the strength and resilience to face the challenges of those who would corrupt it from within. I contend that if we adopt what I refer to as the Theological Uncertainly Principle, enlightened (here I must be the one to apologize for the pretentious tone) Zionist Orthodoxy will confidently be able to reject and disassociate itself from the noxious mix of fundamentalist religiosity and ultra-nationalism.

      The Theological Uncertainty Principle

      The Theological Uncertainty Principle emerges from the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1800-1854) (henceforth RMY) and his son Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner both of Ishbica.
      Let us consider the following commentary of offered by RMY in his work the Mei HaShiloah (henceforth MH) on Parshat Yitro:

      “I (Anochi) am the Lord your God”. The verse does not state “Ani”, for if it stated “Ani” that would imply that the Holy One Blessed Be He revealed then the totality of His light to Israel, precluding the possibility of further delving into his words, for everything is already revealed. The letter “kaf” (of Anochi) however, denotes that the revelation is not complete rather an estimation and comparison to the light which God will reveal in the future.”

      The “kaf” of “Anochi” is the “kaf hadimayon”, the kaf of comparison. The correct translation of the verse would be “I am as the Lord…” [!] Even the revelation at Sinai, the paradigm of all subsequent revelations, must be comprehended as a partial and incomplete picture of the divine, as “as if”.

      This came to me a true shock, given my previously held belief that the revelation at Sinai was perfect and that subsequent Jewish history is an effort to recapture the clarity of that pristine and intimate moment with God. The MH not only claims that God’s revelation is imperfect, but that it must be so.

      “The reason that Commandment of Thou shall not make for yourself a graven image [follows the commandment of anochi]…is because a graven image is cut according to specific dimensions, perfect, lacking nothing. …this is to teach us that nothing is revealed to man completely.”

      If one were to claim perfect clarity and understanding they would essentially be transgressing the second commandment of constructing a graven image. Certainty and perfect understanding exist only in the idolatrous world view where the gods are of distinct and finite dimensions. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef equates certainty with idolatry. Total comprehension of the Divine leaves no room for human development and is a distortion of the revelation. This is because God and His Will are infinite and we mortals are finite with limited capacity to understand. Insisting upon perfect knowledge of God and His Will is necessarily idolatrous in that the “perfect perception”, at the end of the day, turns out to be but a projection of ourselves. The words of the Tanya are particularly relevant here:

      “…for man visualizes in his mind all the concepts which he wishes to conceive and understand- all as they are within himself. For instance, if he wishes to envisage the essence of Will or the essence of Wisdom or of Understanding…and the like, he visualizes them all as they are within himself. But in truth the Holy One blessed be He, is “High and exalted” and “Holy is His Name”, that is to say , He is holy and separated many myriads and degrees of separations ad infinitum above the quality, type or kind of praises which creatures could grasp and conceive in their intellect.”( Sha’ar HaYichud VeHaEmunah, chapter 8)

      We will be guilty of creating God in our own image.

      In his commentary above on parashat Yitro, RMY draws a sharp distinction between “God as He is” and “God as He is perceived”. The space between those two is occupied by uncertainty. I refer to this as the “Theological Uncertainty Principle”. Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner states this very clearly.

      “Creation is merely a veil generating an appearance of a world distinct from God. The Blessed One established a shield and a barrier concealing His light in this world… in order that people should experience themselves as separate and autonomous creations. To this end God created the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that is the tree of uncertainty which envelops the entire world in which the Divine light is concealed to the extent that it is possible to doubt the very existence of the Creator.” (Beit Ya’akov, parashat Bereishit 6)

      The ramifications of the Ishbica approach are monumental on both the individual-religious and national-narrative planes. On the individual-religious plane, prior to this approach we generally equated certainty and steadfast faith as being more “religious”. In fact, according to the “Theological Uncertainty Principle” of the MHS and R.Ya’akov Leiner the exact opposite is true. Uncertainty is an essential part of the God- created spiritual topography which we inhabit. It is precisely in the landscape of uncertainty where we develop as religious beings.

      On the national-narrative level, Ishbica teaches us that a system with pretensions to explain all in the most certain terms must be naïve and ignorant of the complex and constantly changing world in which we live. The Theological Uncertainty Principle renders a Jewish tradition not obsessed with reconstructing eras of perceived perfection, rather engaged in the constantly changing present with its’ infinite possibilities and surprises. But even more importantly, the uncertainty principle provides an opening for authentic humility and a more profound faith in God.

    • No, hell and eternal tourtre as punishment are both pagan’ concepts from Hellenic salvation religions. They’re not part of Judaism in any way.Christianity thinks of Israel as the Holy Land because they’ve been treating everything Jewish as if we were little more than characters in their play for a couple of millenia. Many of the Christians who get the most excited over Israel as the Holy Land expect to see all but 144,000 Jews perish horribly and the land utterly destroyed during Armageddon. Same word’, same location, different roles in different stories.

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