This is my 20th consecutive blog post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
This week’s parasha, Naso, describes the offerings made by each of the twelve tribes, a day at a time, for the dedication of the altar of the Mishkan, tabernacle. The offerings are made by the heads of the tribes. ‘Let them present their offerings for the dedication of the altar’, God said to Moses ‘one chieftain each day’ (Numbers 7:11).
The first offering was made by Nahshon ben Amminadav of the tribe of Judah. Day by day, the men responsible for bringing the offerings are introduced as the ‘chieftains’ of their tribes. Except for Nahshon ben Amminadav (hereafter NbA), who in this context (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:10), needs, as we say about important people, no introduction.
In popular Jewish imagination, NbA is known for a single courageous act. According to some rabbinic traditions (Mekhilta Beshallah, Vayehi, 6), he was the first to step into the Reed Sea, and it was on his account that the waves parted, allowing the Israelites to flee from Egypt. This is how he’s typically remembered – for that one big thing.
But actually NbA pops up all over the place in the Tanakh, often in pretty high places. He’s here in this week’s parasha making the first offering to the Mishkan’s newly dedicated altar on behalf of the tribe of Judah. And, as we learn from a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 2:9-10, his relationship to Judah is a story in itself.
Judah’s oldest son, Er, died married but childless (Genesis 38). Following the practice of Levirate marriage, according to which a childless widow marries her dead husband’s brother, and their first son is raised in the dead brother’s name, Er’s widow, Tamar, married her brother-in-law, Onan. But Onan too died childless. He didn’t want to donate his seed to his brother.
Fearing that the deaths of two of his sons were somehow connected to Tamar, Judah withheld his third son, Shelah. When Onan died, Shelah was not yet old enough to marry. But even when he came of age, Judah failed to contact Tamar. Determined to get what was due to her, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked Judah himself into fathering her child. That union yielded twin boys, Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38:27-30).
Nahshon was the son of Amminadav, who was the son of Ram, who was the son of Hezron, who was the son of Perez. In other words, NbA was a great-great-grandson of Judah, and he owed his existence to the ingenuity and persistence of his great-great-grandmother, Tamar, the woman Judah tried and failed to brush aside.
NbA makes his next appearance in relation to another illustrious family. His sister, Elisheva, married Aaron, the High Priest (Exodus 6:23).
So NbA is descended from Israel’s prestigious first tribe, and connected by marriage to the first High Priest, but that’s not all. NbA’s own son was called Salma (or Salmon). Salma’s son was called Boaz, who married Ruth, whose story we are about to read at Shavuot.
Ruth the Moabite was a widow when Boaz married her. She had come from the land of Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi, the mother of Ruth’s dead husband, Mahlon. The marriage between Ruth and Boaz enabled Naomi to reclaim the property she lost when she went to Moab with her husband and two sons, all three of whom died there. Their marriage also restored Mahlon’s family line, as Boaz confirmed when he married Ruth (Ruth 4:10).
Affirmed by her friends – ‘a son has been born to Naomi!’ (Ruth 4:17) – Naomi claimed Ruth and Boaz’s son as her own. She even took him to her breast (v. 16). There’s a strange transgenerational symmetry at work here. Judah is the father of twin boys for whom he should have been a grandfather. Naomi sees herself and is seen by others as the mother of the boy for whom she should have been a grandmother.
But in the end, it’s not Mahlon’s family line but Boaz’s that’s preserved in the genealogy at the end of the book of Ruth.
Ruth 4:18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19 Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21 Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22 Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
Oved, the son Boaz had with Ruth, was the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David. And the great, great, great grandfather of King David was – we have to sound out his name this time – Nahshon ben Amminadav!
So here’s the question. Is it better to be known for one simple, big thing – being the first to step into the waves at the Sea of Reeds as Israel left Egypt? Or is it better to have a reputation based on many prestigious and colorful but less dramatic appearances in Israel’s history – being the great-great-grandson of Judah and Tamar; the brother-in-law of Aaron, the High Priest; and the great, great, great grandfather of King David?
That question is not a million miles from Isaiah Berlin’s famous contrast between the hedgehog, who knows one thing, and the fox, who knows many things. It also resonates with a dilemma facing the organizers of Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
After 20 weeks of being on the streets, Israelis are starting to lose heart. They need encouragement. At the same time, they are infuriated by the Government’s budget, in which loyal members of the coalition are being rewarded, or bought, with payouts for their personal projects and priorities.
Especially galling for many is the money that will be spent on Haredi schools and yeshivot, and on welfare for the many large Haredi families without serious breadwinners. This week, 200 Israeli economists warned the Government about the devastating impact this will have on the economy.
It’s tempting for the demonstration organizers to embrace other causes to rejuvenate the protests. To an extent, that’s been happening organically. But new causes could alienate some demonstrators. In the case of the budget payouts, protesters may have Haredi family members and don’t want to protest explicitly against them. Or perhaps they were originally motivated to demonstrate against the planned Judicial Reform and don’t want attention to be diverted. One big crisis versus many intersecting smaller crises, a kind of hedgehog and fox dilemma. For the benefit of us all, I hope the protest organizers can resolve it. We can’t stop now.