Nothing in the Seder is as it appears. Each symbol, midrash, vignette, poem, and song evokes layers of meaning that help fashion the Jewish heart, mind and soul. The Seder carries such deep religious, cultural, moral, historical, and political significance that Passover is among the richest and most observed rites in Judaism today.
A little known figure in the Haggadah is worth mention especially in light of the President’s journey to the Middle East this week. His name is Nachshon, the son of Aminadav.
Nachshon is not mentioned in the Biblical exodus story per se (he is cited in Numbers 1:7 as the chief in the Tribe of Judah), yet he looms large in rabbinic literature as a critically important figure in the narrative at the Sea of Reeds.
It is written that as the Israelites fled Egypt they faced before them the impassable Sea and behind them in the pursuing Egyptian army. Terrified, they turned on Moses and cried, “Why did you bring us here to perish?”
“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 they were standing there, and while Moses was praying to God to save them, Nachshon the son of Aminadav jumped up, went down and fell into the waves.’” Talmud (Bavli, Sota 36a), Mechilta (Parashat B’shalach)
What is the meaning?
First, that Moses’ prayers were insufficient to convince God to split the sea. Only when Nachshon took the initiative and jumped into the waters did God respond.
Second, at a very early stage in Israel’s history there was a basic understanding about the mutual relationship between God and humankind, that though the people might have felt alone and abandoned, God was with them all along.
Nachshon’s “leap” was a significant turning point in the Jewish experience. His willingness to take history into his own hands became a fundamental tenet of Jewish religious activism and a defining element in the character of the Jewish hero.
This past week, J Street, a pro Israel pro peace Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C., published an insert on the symbolism of the Karpas. It was written by my teacher, Rabbi Richard Levy, and intended for family Seders this year. What follows is a portion of Rabbi Levy’s moving text:
“On the nights of Passover we celebrate Israel crossing the …Sea from slavery to freedom. In this light, karpas has other overtones: we remember the heroic example of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to step into the salty sea. As the Israelites faced the raging waters, Nachshon alone plunged in. Because of his courage, the Midrash tells us, God divided the sea in two so that all the people of Israel could walk across. 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.”
At this critically important moment when hope flickers still that peace can be achieved, I offer my prayers for the success of American efforts to assist Israel and the Palestinians in arriving at a two-state solution leading to an end of conflict peace agreement.
I pray that President Obama and Secretary Kerry will utilize all their wisdom, resources, strength, and stamina to do what must be done.
And I pray that the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority may seize this opportunity together to achieve what should have been done years ago to end this bloody and demoralizing conflict once and for all, thereby allowing two states to flower and thrive side by side in security and peace in a new Middle East.
Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will and ours.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Pesach sameach.