Be like Nachshon, not Shimon, this week’s parasha tells us. The Israelites, fleeing from Egypt, find themselves trapped between an impassable sea and the Egyptian army, its horses and chariots. Just to make sure Moses’ anxiety level is as high as it can be, the people call out to him with one of my favorite lines in all of the Torah: “Ha’mibli ain k’varim b’mitzraim l’kachtanu lamoot b’midbar? Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”
They were panicked, and the midrash, the rabbinic creativity of our tradition, records two very different responses. Nachshon ben Aminidav, from the Tribe of Judah, chooses the high road:
Talmud Sotah 36b
Rabbi Meir stated: When the Israelites stood on the brink of the sea the tribes contended with one another. One said: I will not be the first to go down into the sea. The other said: I will not be first to go down into the sea. While they were debating with each other, Nachshon ben Aminadav (of the Tribe of Judah) plunged — with his tribe after him — into the waves of the sea. For this reason Judah was granted preeminence in Israel.
Shimon, from the Tribe of Shimon, chose to focus on, well, the low road.
Midrash on Exodus 24
There were two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who were among the Israelites. As they walked through the sea, all they could talk about was the mud. Reuven said: “In Egypt, we had mud, and now here too in the sea we have mud. In Egypt, we had clay for bricks, and here too, we have an abundance of clay to make bricks. They rebelled at the sea, even though this was the parting of the Sea of Reeds! They didn’t notice the water, instead they saw the mud.
Be like Nachshon, not Shimon, this week’s parasha tells us. Seize opportunity rather than grumbling your way through the good as you would the bad.