There is a well-known midrash (rabbinic expansion) of the Exodus story which envisions the children of Israel at the edge of the Sea of Reeds. Despite God’s promise to safely deliver them through the Sea, they stand trepidatiously as the water laps at their toes. Knowing they must enter the water to fulfill their destiny and achieve the freedom they so desire, they nonetheless are paralyzed by fear. Enter Nachshon ben Aminadav who, the Midrash says, began walking into the water until it reached up to his neck at which time the waters finally receded.
This morning I met a modern day Nachshon, Dr. Terrence Roberts. In 1957 Dr. Roberts was part of the “Little Rock Nine”, the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He shared with our Krieger Schechter Middle School students and 6th graders from Roland Park Elementary/Middle School his personal family history and how he took responsibility for his own education from his first year in school at the age of six. Nine years later, as a 15 year old young black man, he volunteered to be among the first to integrate Central. He went on to describe what it was like to walk in the doors of the school with the National Guard, then the Little Rock Police and finally the 101st Airborne division at his back.
The students asked marvelous questions, among them:
“Were you more scared of the people inside the school or outside the school?”
“Did the other students eventually behave nicely towards you as the year went on?”
“What did your parents think when they found out that you volunteered to go?”
“Are you still in touch with the other members of the Little Rock Nine?”
“How does it feel to know that you inspired so many other generations of children and adults?”
With patience, gravitas, and humor, Dr. Roberts answered the questions and engaged the students in thinking about the rights guaranteed by our laws and how the institutionalized racism in our country posed a challenge to them. He urged the students to read, to be the executive in charge of their own education, and to think back to the last time they did something for the first time.
Nachshon ben Aminadav has become a character type based on the actions of the first Nachshon who bravely strode into the waters even before they had receded. Today, two weeks before Passover and also two weeks before the first anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising, we were privileged to host in the Chizuk Amuno Main Sanctuary a modern day Nachshon who was strong and brave in spite of his fear and helped his people move forward towards realizing the freedom they so desired.