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COURAGE IS CONTAGIOUS

Thursday, 25 April, 2019 - 9:23 am

Winston Churchill was a man of great insight. He once said, “Of all the virtues, courage is the greatest virtue because, without it, you can’t have any of the others.” What good is it to be kind, honest, charitable or just, only when it’s easy? You cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing courage into play.

There’s a classic study, conducted by psychologists Charlan Nemeth and Cynthia Chiles, demonstrating that one act of courage supports another. Each participant in the study is matched with three other people, and a researcher shows each group a series of 20 slides. After each slide is presented, the researcher pauses to ask each person what color the slide is. It’s an easy task: All the slides are blue, and all four say “blue” all 20 times.

Then, the group breaks up and the participants are put into a new group of four. Same task. This time, though, the first slide is red. Oddly, three of the group members call it “orange.” (The three people are secretly working for the researchers.)

If you are the fourth participant, what will you call it? It certainly looks red, but could you be wrong? This happens 19 more times—your group-mates always call the slides “orange” and, each time, everyone looks at you to hear your answer.

If you think you would stay strong in this situation, you might be right, but you’d be in the minority. Seventy percent of people in the study caved and conformed to the majority’s incorrect answer.

Now here’s where the research gets really interesting: Another set of participants were ushered through the sequence above, but this time, the researchers added one fellow to the first group who called all the blue sides “green.” Let’s call him Mr. Green. The participants were probably puzzled by his seeming color-blindness, but they easily stuck to their guns, calling all the blue slides “blue.”

The striking change came when this group was then shown the red slides. As before, the three people are secretly working for the researchers and consistently call the red slides “orange.” This time, though, the participants stayed strong. They defied the majority almost every time, labeling the red slides as red.

Note that they hadn’t practiced courage themselves; they’d only witnessed it.

Mr. Green was willing to speak up for himself — even though he was mistaken about the color.  

That act of dissent bolstered the participants’ resolve. When even one person was brave enough to defy the majority, the rest were emboldened.

And this is exactly what the Midrash tells us happened in the biblical story of the parting of the sea. We all know the tale. It is one of the greatest miracles in Jewish history. In the iconic Charlton Heston film version, The Ten Commandments, the sea parts when Moses lifts up his rod and the water rolls back.

But the Midrash says that’s not really what happened.

Instead, it says, the Jewish people stood in terror on the shore of the Red Sea. Behind them, the Egyptians were closing in, and ahead of them loomed deep and dangerous water. The Jews were terrified. Many turned to G-d in prayer. And what did G-d tell Moses?

“Tell the Jewish people to ‘move out’ into the water.” But no one moved. Everyone was afraid of drowning. Each tribe protested: “We are not going into the water first.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, came a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav. Without hesitating, he mustered his courage and leap into the raging sea, and then, his tribe, emboldened by his courage, leap into the sea after him. It was only then that the waters parted and the Jewish people were saved.

The Midrash, like scientific research, conveys the truth about the human character: when one person acts with courage, it inspires others. In a tweet: Courage is contagious.

When you stand up for a principle or a right action, or for Judaism, as Nachshon did, others will join you. Passover is a time to stand up! To jump. To take the road less traveled. We all need to take a leap and miracles will happen. Your moment of courage might be a defining moment for someone else — a signal to them that red is red, that a sea can split if we have the courage to march with G-d.

Chag Pesach SAMEACH and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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