The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (36b) records two different opinions among the Tanna’im regarding the events that unfolded before the Sea of Reeds split to allow Benei Yisrael to escape from the Egyptians who pursued them. Rabbi Meir tells that after God ordered Benei Yisrael to journey into the raging waters, every tribe wanted the distinction of being the first to show their faith and jump into the water. In the end, the members of the tribe of Binyamin jumped in first. Rabbi Yehuda disagrees, claiming, “Lo kakh haya ma’aseh” – “This is not what happened.” According to Rabbi Yehuda, whose view represents the more famous version of the sequence of events, none of the tribes wanted to jump first. They were all frightened, and each tribe waited for others to jump in first to see what would happen. Finally, Nachshon, a prominent member of the tribe of Yehuda, jumped first into the sea, and the waters then miraculously split.
Rav Yaakov Galinsky offered a creative reading of the Gemara’s discussion, suggesting that in truth, there was no debate between these two Tanna’im. When Rabbi Yehuda responded, “Lo kakh haya ma’aseh,” Rav Galinsky explained, his intention was not to dispute Rabbi Meir’s account, but rather to add that the argument among the tribes suddenly changed at the stage of “ma’aseh,” when the time came to put their words into action. Initially, they all vied for the privilege and distinction of jumping into the waters first, but when the moment came when they needed to move forward, they all changed their tune, and nobody wanted to go first until Nachshon finally jumped. He was the only one who translated his words into action – not only speaking of his desire to lead and show courage, but going ahead and doing it.
If so, then the Gemara’s discussion teaches us the valuable lesson that words mean far less than action. It is generally easy to speak in lofty terms, to talk about values and ideals, and to sound principled and altruistic. But the true test of our commitment to the values we speak about comes at the moment of “ma’aseh,” when those values need to be put into concrete action and require courage, strength, faith and resolve. Many of us speak of jumping into the sea, of our desire to make an impact, to lead, to inspire, to set an example for others to follow. But it is only the rare “Nachshon” among us who actually follows through on his words and has the courage to take the difficult steps required to lead. The lesson being taught is that we need to be prepared to act upon, and not merely speak about, our values and principles, to rise to the occasion when we are called upon to put in the work and make the sacrifices to uphold our ideals.