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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….



Filed under Judaism, Religion, social commentary