In this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, one of the greatest miraculous events of history happened, the splitting of the sea, where the Jews were saved from the clutches of the Egyptians and the Egyptian army all drowned in the Red Sea. The medrish, Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer, chapter 42, depicts how the sea originally refused to split on the command of Moshe Rabbeinu even after he showed signs of worthiness to be listened to, but only after Hashem Himself “came down” and revealed His Honor on the sea did the sea runaway in fear into the depths and then came up and congealed into 12 crystalized tunnels, one for each tribe to walk through.
The medrish then relates, “Rebbe Akiva said, that the Jews walked towards the Red Sea and then turned back fearing that maybe the waters will collapse and inundate them. The tribe of Binyamin wanted to enter into the sea as it says, ‘There Binyamin the youngest rules over them’ (Tehillim 68:28), referring to them going down into the sea. The tribe of Yehuda started to pelt them with stones as it says, ‘the princes of Yehuda pelt them with stones’ (Tehillim 62:28). Then Nachshon jumped first into the sea and sanctified Hashem’s Great Name in front of everyone. With the ruling hand of the tribe of Yehuda all the other Jews followed them into the sea as it says, ‘Yehuda became His sanctification, Israel his dominion’ [of Yehuda] Tehillim 114:2). The Egyptians started to run after the Jews but they then turned back fearing that maybe the waters will collapse and inundate them. What did Hashem do? He appeared in the split sea as a man riding a mare, as it says ‘At the gathering of the steeds of Pharaoh’s chariots’ (Shir Hashirim 1:9), and the horse that Pharaoh was riding saw the mare and started running towards it into the sea. The Egyptians saw Pharaoh enter the sea and all of them followed suit, as it says, ‘The Egyptians pursued and came after them,’ (Shemos 14:23), immediately the waters went back and deluged them, as it says, ‘And the waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen’ (Shemos 14:28).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The commentary on this medrish, Be’ur Maspik, points out that this medrish really combines both opinions found in maseches Sotah 37a, and relates that the tribe of Binyamin desired to enter the sea but Nachshon ben Aminadav was swifter (zariz) to act in order to sanctify Hashem’s Name. The Maharsha in Sotah 37a, based on a Rashi in Tehillim (62:28) adds that the reason why the tribe of Yehuda was pelting the tribe of Binyamin with stones was because they were jealous of them, so they started stoning them [as a distraction which allowed Nachshon ben Aminadav from the tribe of Yehuda to jump in first.] The Be’ur Maspik further relates that when everyone saw the tribe of Yehuda’s aggressiveness and how they took control of their inclination in order to jump into the sea, only then did the Jewish people do the same. Whereas the Egyptians, what caused them to follow in chase? The horse of Pharaoh that entered the sea first.
There seems to be identical reactions about the sea splitting between the Jews and Egyptians. They both were terrified and hesitated to enter the split sea lest the sea would collapse and drown all of them. However, what drove them into the sea were two very different approaches.
Most of the Jewish people seemed very hesitant to take the plunge, and though the tribe of Binyamin seemed willing and ready to do so but we can infer that even if they did, everyone else would still question their sanity, and not be convinced to follow suit at the threat of their demise. However, it would seem, that because of the passion and aggressive nature the tribe of Yehuda showed which created a tremendous kiddush Hashem, that inspired the rest of the Jewish nation to overcome their fears and follow suit into the Red Sea which was their ultimate savior.
On the other hand, the Egyptians were terrified for the same reason , and it would seem that even though Pharaoh gave orders to pursue the Jews, the Egyptian army refused to listen, but only after an illusion, orchestrated by Hashem, which lead to Pharaoh losing control of his horse which ran into the sea with him, did the army follow since because if their leader is doing it, they must do the same. With all their discipline and army training they still refused out of fear to chase after the enemy until their leader seemingly began the chase and only then did they feel compelled to overcome their fears which ultimately lead to their demise.
We see from here two different approaches of how a leader can convince his followers to overcome their fears. One is to show passion, commitment, zerizus, and validity for the cause which will “rally up the troops” even if they aren’t disciplined soldiers. The other is to lead by example once they are disciplined soldiers. Either way, it takes a show of courageous leadership to prevail over trepidation.