Parshat BESHALLACH: Trust, the first point

This week we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Derech Tzofeh with a guest d’var Torah by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD.  He is founder and director of Ask Big Questions, a project created by Hillel International to help leaders in colleges, universities, and other organizations lead effective community conversations. Rabbi Feigelson is an Eagle Scout (1989) and was 1995 National Chief of the Order of the Arrow.

Dear Scouts:

The first time I remember seeing an orchestra conductor was when I was about three years old. My mom had taken me along to one of my older brothers’ band concerts, and something about the conductor just mesmerized me. For years after that, as I became a musician myself, my dream was to conduct an orchestra.

When I was 16, that dream finally came true: I had my first chance to conduct an orchestra at a summer music camp. I remember walking up to the podium, taking the baton, and stepping up in front of the 100+ other musicians. Here I was ready to fulfill my dream.

And then a doubt hit my like a ton of bricks: “What if they don’t play?” I asked myself. What if I raise up my hands and bring them down, and the musicians just sit there?  The thought had never occurred to me before. But in that instant, I learned one of the most essential leadership lessons of my life: Leadership comes down to trust. And in that moment, I had to trust three things: myself, the music, and my fellow musicians. I had to take a leap of faith.

I did take that leap, and of course the orchestra responded. They didn’t want to embarrass me. They didn’t want me to fail. They wanted me to succeed, and they wanted to play the music. But I had to remind myself of that.

Trust is the first thing we learn about as Scouts. It’s the first point of the Scout Law! That’s because, as we learn so often in Scouting, trust is at the heart of leadership.

We find this lesson multiple times in Parshat Beshallach. This parsha describes the Israelites crossing the Red Sea as they flee from the Egyptians, who want to bring the Israelites back to slavery. Most famously, perhaps, we have in this parsha the story of Nachshon, the brave leader who takes the first steps into the sea, confident that God will keep God’s promise to split the sea so the Israelites can cross safely. It isn’t until Nachshon steps in—all the way up to his neck—that the sea splits. It’s as though God was waiting for a leader to show trust, and Nachshon was that leader who trusted.

Similarly, after the Israelites cross the sea, they are attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua leads the people, and Moses ascends a mountaintop overlooking the battle. The Torah reports that when Moses raised his arms, the Israelites would prevail, but when he lowered them, they would lose. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) asks a question on this: Could it really be that it was all about whether or not Moses raised his hands? No, answers the Mishnah: “Whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would prevail; and if not, they would fail.” That is, when Israel trusted God, they would be victorious; but when they didn’t trust in God (and in each other) they would lose.

As we celebrate five years of Derech Tzofeh, this is a great lesson to carry with us. All leadership is built on our ability to trust, and to build and maintain trust with those we lead. That’s why the Scout Law begins with the word Trustworthy. Trust is the foundation from which springs all the rest of our work in Scouting and in life.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Josh Feigelson
©2017 Nelson R. Block.