The following is an excerpt from World Mizrachi Director-General Rabbi Doron Perez’s recently published book entitled “Leading the Way”, collected writings on some of life’s most important matters.
Taking responsibility when those around us do not
The Jewish name Nachshon, through the ages, has become synonymous with fearless, heroic and daring leadership in challenging situations.
We are so often in need of a trailblazer to take courageous action and initiative in trying situations.
Our sages attribute one of the greatest miracles in Jewish history, the splitting of the Red Sea, to the courageous actions of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, the head of the Tribe of Judah, who was the first to enter into the sea (Masechet Sotah 36,a). With Pharaoh and the Egyptian army in close vengeful pursuit, it was Nachshon who daringly risked his life and stepped into the sea, not knowing whether or not it would split. This ultimately brought about G-d’s intervention and the great miracle of “Keryat Yam Suf” – the splitting of the sea. From that moment onwards, Nachshon echoes into eternity as the father of courageous leadership in difficult situations. When the Haganah were looking to initiate a daring operation in mid-April 1948, to break the siege of Jerusalem and open the Tel Aviv/Jerusalem road which had been blockaded by Palestinians Arabs, they appropriately named it Mivtza Nachshon – Operation Nachshon – evoking the memory of Nachshon the son of Aminadav. There is a kibbutz in Israel in the Beit Shemesh area which was named Nachshon in 1950, to recall the heroism of the defenders of the Harel Brigade who took part in this operation. In Yiddish, when you want to tell someone to initiate a leadership stand and to be a trailblazer, you say to him: “Be a Nachshon.”
I believe it is difficult to understand both the enormity and the uniqueness of Nachshon Ben Aminadav’s leadership character trait without understanding a crucial element of the context and circumstances within which his decision was made. The best way to explain it is through one of the most powerful social psychological phenomena heavily researched over the last fifty years, known as “The Bystander Effect”.
The murder of Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect
On 13 March 1964, a 28-year-old New York woman, Kitty Genovese, was making her way home after work at 3am, to her apartment in Queens. She was mercilessly attacked and stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer by the name of Winston Moseley. Remarkably, the attack lasted for about half an hour, during which Genovese screamed and pleaded for help. The murderer fled the scene, not wanting to attract attention to himself. He returned 10 minutes later to complete the assault and murder, leaving Genovese lying dead in a pool of blood. The media reported that up to 38 people had either heard her screams for help or seen her from the safety of their apartment buildings while the event had taken place. It has been proven in later years that this number of 38 bystanders was somewhat exaggerated by the media at the time, but it is clear that many people either heard or saw the event taking place and could have done something about it. Many social psychologists, beginning with John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968, began studying the Genovese murder and similar cases. They formulated what has become known as “The Bystander Effect” or “The Genovese Syndrome”. This is a powerful social psychological phenomenon which refers to cases in a desperate or emergency situation where many people are present. Amazingly, the repeated findings in many of the research experiments are that the probability of an individual to help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders present. In simple English, that means the greater the number of bystanders, the less one is likely to offer help to a victim. Incredibly, the mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases our likelihood to take action.
Many different reasons are given as to why we are less likely to act when others are present, such as the fear of failure or the belief that others are more competent than us to act, to mention but a few. However, the most salient of all reasons seems to be the fact that when we are the only person present in an emergency situation, we understand that we have to take full responsibility for action, as we are the only ones there. The moment there are others present, we tend to devolve and diffuse responsibility. Simply put – a person is likely to say, “why should I do it if others around me can and should themselves”. In Israeli slang, this phenomenon is known as “The Freier Syndrome”. The Freier is the person who gets lumped with burdens and responsibilities that many others could have been lumped with, but somehow he or she is the one who ends up bearing the burden. Nobody wants to be the Freier, especially in situations which demand taking on risks or responsibilities which others could. Why should I do it if you can?
The greatness of Nachshon
I believe the phenomenon of The Bystander Effect and diffusion of responsibility is the key to understanding the greatness of Nachshon. When the children of Israel arrived at the sea and saw the Egyptian army with the horses and chariots galloping close behind, they were struck with fear. The truly did not know what to do. They saw a sea in front of them and Egyptian hordes behind them and the expanse of the Sinai desert on either side. Not even Moshe and Aaron knew what to do, as Hashem had not yet shared with them that the sea was about to split. No one knew what to do. Everybody stood by not knowing what the solution was. Nachshon somehow intuited that if Hashem had brought them this far, he wanted them to continue into the sea, as it was indeed the only way forward. Perhaps if they did so with faith and conviction, Hashem would miraculously assist them. There was no other option.
Nachshon’s greatness lies in the fact that he was prepared to risk his life and commit to the daring act of going into the sea at this crucial time. Anyone could have done it, but nobody did. Nachshon was certainly not the greatest person present. There were certainly many more competent to take a stand and assume a leadership position during this compromised situation. But nobody did. Everyone got lost in the crowd and The Bystander Effect took place. Only one man stepped forward to be the trailblazer and the one whose actions would forever echo into eternity as the courageous leader heroically taking a stand and assuming full responsibility for a situation when others around him would not.
Social bullying and the innocent bystanders
One of the greatest challenges facing educators and parents today is the phenomenon of social bullying. The repeated unkind behaviour of socially marginalising members of the group and rallying other people against them in both an overt and covert manner is unfortunately commonplace among children and teenagers in schools and social groupings around the world today. It is a universal phenomenon which is being heavily studied and requires ongoing intervention. It is so often incredibly difficult to pin down the bully, as these acts are often done distant from the eyes of parents and teacher. The victims are often frightened to speak up about their circumstances in the knowledge and fear that it will further victimise them. They cannot see a way to break the cycle without committing social suicide.
It seems the most effective way to combat this unfortunate phenomenon is through the innocent bystander. When such bullying takes place, there are invariably bystanders present who form part of the social group and who witness this unkind behaviour either in person or on social chat groups. They are the ones who can stem this tide if they dare to stand up and say, “No more!” It is most challenging for them as they risk sacrificing their social currency and isolating themselves from dominant personalities in their social group. It is risky. However, if none of them will stand up and say, “You cannot spill our brothers blood in front of us,” so to speak, and will not be prepared to be a Nachshon and try and alter the unkind social milieu within which bullies operate, then the phenomenon will continue. They must then bear partial responsibility for this scourge. There is a great need for Nachshonim to take a stand in this important area of social interaction.
Leadership belongs to the descendants of Peretz
Nachshon’s remarkable leadership quality can be traced back to his great, great grandfather Peretz, the son of Judah. The birth of Peretz and the extraordinary circumstances around his birth lays the foundations for his courageous trailblazing attributes and those of his descendants. We are told at the end of chapter 38 in the Book of Bereishit of the birth of Peretz and Zerach, the twin boys born to Tamar and Judah. As Tamar is giving birth to her twins, one of the children puts out his hand and emerges from the womb first. The midwife ties a scarlet thread to his arm to identify him as the firstborn. Amazingly, somehow, his hand returns into the womb and all of a sudden his brother, who should have been the second born, comes out first. The midwife proclaims, “Ma paratzta alecha Paretz? How is it that you have burst forth (Paratz) with strength?” She then named him Peretz or Paretz, reflecting the fact that he burst forth and superseded his brother Zerach.
There is an incredible Midrash where our sages describe that even though both of them were righteous, Zerach was the greater Torah scholar of the two. His name Zerach means “to shine” and he shone with the light of Torah and was supposed to lead and emerge first. At this crucial moment, as he was about to enter the world, Zerach hesitated. Perhaps he was innately drawn to the comforting protective walls of the womb within which our sages say that the young child studies Torah and somehow intuits the great innocent and pure message of Torah. While he hesitated and stood by, he forfeited his leadership right to Peretz, who burst forth and emerged as the trailblazing leader.
It would only be a few generations later that his direct descendant would be Nachshon. Nachshon’s grandson would be Boaz, himself a trailblazing creative leader, and Boaz’s great grandson would be King David, the greatest of all Jewish kings and the one who the ultimate and future leader, Mashiach, will directly descend from. Zerach, the greater of the twin brothers, stood by, hesitated and waited. As it was Zerach who stood by, both he and his descendants have played a minor role in Jewish leadership and destiny. Peretz, the lesser of the two, who burst forth with creativity, passion, and exuberance, gave birth to the character trait of heroic and courageous leadership, of taking full responsibility when those present stand by. This trait would continue for generations among Peretz’s descendants and indeed until the end of days. We evoke this character trait every Friday night in the Lecha Dodi song, where we sing about the future Messianic leader of Israel, who is referred to as “Ish Ben Partzi” – a man from the house of Peretz.
To whom the world belongs
The most gifted, talented people who are born to lead will not succeed if they behave as bystanders when life requires them to take a stand. The world of leadership belongs to those who refuse to diffuse responsibility; who cannot stand by, while others do, but rather choose to take heroic stands with daring courageousness for the benefit of those around them. Fate and destiny calls on every one of us at some point in our life and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves to step forward and be a Nachshon. When we do this so often, unexpected seas split, impossible becomes possible, and seemingly irrevocable fate becomes transformative destiny.