Photo Credit:
Crossing of the Red Sea. Rylands Haggadah, 14th century.

There are two ways to lead: by instruction and by example. While much energy is devoted to the former, it is rare that people truly concentrate on the latter. This, even as there is more than a little truth to the adage that actions speak louder than words.

There are those who might ask why leading by example requires our attention altogether. Yet, we know from experience that even when it comes to trivial matters, people seem to have a natural inclination to follow rather than to lead. To take an example as mundane as it is common: Why is it that so many party buffets are delayed because no one wants to be the first to serve themselves?


Exactly what happened when the Jews left Egypt and crossed the Reed Sea (yam suf) is not clear: The Talmud presents a disagreement between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah.(1) Rabbi Meir believes that all the tribes wanted to be the first one to jump in; whereas, Rabbi Yehudah is of the opinion that none of the tribes wanted to be first. According to this opinion, it was Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of Yehudah, who was the first to go in and show the rest of the Jewish people what needed to be done.

If we read the latter opinion carefully, we see that it wasn’t that the Jews didn’t want to go into the waters, but rather that they didn’t want to be first. In other words, they weren’t afraid of drowning in the waters – they were simply afraid of being the first ones to jump in. It is an interesting facet of human nature that creates a fear of being the first to do something.

Presumably, when we do something first, we take a certain risk of being the last as well, even if everyone else knows that we are doing the right thing. We take the risk that if our example is not accepted, we may likely end up being the butt of ridicule and even scorn. As a result, there are many things that everyone knows to be right that simply don’t get done.

Of course, if we want to lead by example and not simply engage in unusual behavior, we need to look more carefully at Nachshon’s leadership. What is most significant about Nachshon is his willingness to be the only one out of hundreds of thousands of people all standing at the same location and in the same situation to pursue his course of action. The social pressure against his act must have been tremendous. While it may have been logistically impossible to find a secluded spot to try out his adventure, it would certainly have made it a great deal easier. Had he failed in seclusion, no one else needed to be the wiser. It is the very public nature of his act, however, that made it so courageous and, even more importantly, so effective.

Thus, leading by example must be calculatedly visible, not only from a point of view of where it is done, but even when and how it is done. Doing something privately is not an act of leadership. By nature, since it is not known, it cannot be repeated by others. Likewise, if we write a letter or article meant to change the status quo, we completely undermine our own efforts by signing it “anonymous.”

While the actual Torah tells us little about Nachshon, it does inform us that he was the leader of his tribe and the brother-in-law of Aharon. So, it gives us more than enough grounds to assume that he was someone of outstanding moral character. A second critical component of leading by example is cultivating a character that will inspire imitation. If we wear a clown suit, no matter how impressive a feat we perform, our appearance will have undermined the example that we are trying to promote.

If we are trying to accomplish change, it must be done by putting ourselves on the line, by attaching our good reputations, which have taken so much work to develop, to the change that we are trying to promote. Of what purpose is a good reputation if it is not used for the general good? A person’s example will only be followed if it can be stated, “If so and so is doing it, it may be worth emulating.”

As Nachshon led the way through the Reed Sea, he can also lead us in our efforts to provide leadership for the Jewish people. Those who really want to lead need to accept a difficult road – one that calls for publicly doing what’s right precisely when no one else is doing it. At the same time, such courage will be pitifully wasted if these future leaders don’t make sure that they have spent the needed time and energy to refine themselves into the impeccable men and women who will inspire imitation.


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.