I grew up as a very precocious child of the 1950’s. I was as comfortable in the company of adults as I was with my peers. And I seldom shrank from conversations where I often held a contrary point of view. I would frequently push back against my family or their friends spoke and acted on the wrong side of social justice. I was seldom shied away from calling out those whose language or points of view I found offensive. I guess you could say I felt comfortable speaking truth to power, a Quaker concept first coined in the mid 50’s as a non-violent political tactic employed by dissidents. I didn’t know about this phrase at the time and I certainly never thought of myself as a dissident. I simply behaved instinctively to take a position or stand up for a principle I felt strongly about.
Throughout my childhood my father would often try to caution me from speaking up or speaking out saying “don’t be a Nachshon”. He wasn’t a scholarly man and I have no doubt that he was unaware of what it meant to be a Nachshon or where that phrase came from. He must have heard it from others and placed his own meaning on those words. I have no doubt that he believed being a Nachshon was a pot-stirrer or a trouble maker. I’m sure he had no understanding that Nachshon was actually an Israelite slave in Egypt who, together with 600,000 recently un-slaved Jews fled Egypt and reached the Red Sea. With Pharaoh’s chariots behind them and the sea in front of them it was Nachshon who summoned all of the faith and courage he could muster to enter the sea only to watch the waters part allowing the Israelites to cross to the other side where they would watch as Pharaoh’s army drowned as the parted waters came together again.
Nachshon was no pot-stirrer or troublemaker. He was a humble man who exhibited extraordinary courage to save a nation. I wish my father had understood the difference which I would only come to learn about later in life. Only when I discovered what being a Nachshon meant was I able to think of his admonition differently. Only then did I realize that I was exhibiting the slightest glimpse of courage as I took a firm stance for what I believed in and what I thought was right.
The world has always depended on the Nachshons who, in every generation, have fought injustice and behaved courageously to do and say what was right at the time by speaking truth to power.
America has had countless Nachsons from the time of the nation’s founding, through all of its battles and wars, through times of economic calamity and when the fate of the democracy was imperiled. Each of them, in their own way, has helped save the nation. Sometimes from outside aggressors and often even from within. That courage comes from many places. One’s own sense of right versus wrong…good versus bad…a moral compass that always points to true north. Those who have taken various oaths of allegiance have pledged themselves to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
In good times, the oath is a lovely sentiment. But in times of strife, when our democracy is on the line, the oath is the very embodiment of the courage required to use everything in our individual and collective power to protect and preserve the nation.
America has been blessed with millions of courageous heroes. Some wore stars on their shoulders…some wore stripes on their sleeves…some have been known to us all…more were only known to their family, friends and comrades in arms.
And from time to time, courage has been seen and heard in the halls of Congress.
In 1950, as McCarthyism began to divide Congress and America, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, issued her “Declaration of Conscience,” asking for bipartisan cooperation to protect national security. “It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections,” she said, “and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.” Senator Smith and others in Congress put their own reputations and careers on the line to put a stake in the heart of McCarthyism, a courageous action that helped preserve our freedoms and democratic way of life.
Two decades later, on March 21, 1973, then White House Counsel John Dean, told President Richard Nixon that as a result of the cover ups associated with the Watergate break-in that there was a “cancer growing on the presidency” and that if it was not cut out it would kill Nixon’s presidency. Dean’s willingness to testify before Congress about what he knew, and what he himself was implicated in, contributed to the end of the Nixon Presidency.
The end, of course came, on August 7, 1974, when Republican leaders, Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., made it clear to the embattled Nixon that he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office in connection with the Watergate scandal. The next evening Nixon addressed the nation and announced his resignation.
Courageous heroes are people who put others before themselves. Courageous people have good moral ethics. They do things for the sake of being good, and not just a means to an end or to be rewarded for their good deeds. Those with courage are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They are like Nachshon, often a humble person who reaches within themselves to save their nation and their way of life.
Today, America is at a crossroads. Will we take a courageous path that will lead to the preservation of our democratic way of life or will fear of retribution overtake us as we succumb to the lesser angels who would take us on a path of havoc and morale implosion?
Who will be today’s Nachsohn? Who will be brave enough to tell us that our nation’s values are in jeopardy? Who will show the courage necessary to help stop us from what might be an inevitable future of isolation, intolerance, divisiveness, and hate? Who from places of power are the unlikely voices who will speak truth to power? Who will have the courage to do what it takes to bring an end to a regime that is endangering our democratic way of life. Who will do what it takes that will help us hear the echo of Gerald Ford’s words when he said “our long national nightmare is over”? When will the best interests of the nation become more important than political self-preservation?
We urgently need that courageous voice. We need a modern day Nachshon and we need him or her now. Nothing less than the ethos of our nation, the characteristic spirit of our culture, our beliefs and our aspirations depends on it.