Originally delivered as the d’var Torah, Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, Shabbat Va-era, 5783, January 21, 2023.
Between Moshe’s initial failure to win over the Israelites to his leadership and the start of the plagues, the Torah interrupts with – genealogy? And an incomplete one at that, listing only the sons of Reuven and Shim’on, and three generations of Levi. It seems to be setting up the yichus of Aharon and Moshe, because the verse immediately after the genealogic information reads, “The same Aharon and Moshe to whom Hashem said, ‘Take the children of Israel out of Egypt.’”
Buried in the genealogy, however, is foreshadowing of several later stories that occur during the wilderness years, including Korach and Pinchas. But the line that caught my attention concerns a figure whose big moment, according to the Gemara, is coming very soon: Nachshon.
Shmot 6:23 reads, “And Aharon took Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav, sister of Nachshon, for his wife.”
Bava Batra 110a wonders why this line is there: “Rava says: One who marries a woman needs to first examine her brothers so that he will know in advance what character his children will have, as it is stated: “And Aaron took Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nahshon” (Exodus 6:23). By inference from that which is stated: “The daughter of Amminadav,” do I not know that she is the sister of Nahshon, as Nahshon was the son of Amminadav? What is the meaning when the verse states: “The sister of Nahshon”? From here one learns that one who marries a woman needs to examine her brothers. The reason is as the Sages taught: Most sons resemble the mother’s brothers.”
Rava is suggesting that, contrary to the genealogies which list only fathers and sons, we really ought to be including mothers as well, because it is they who determine the characteristics of their sons. Now, maybe Rava means that the sons really do resemble their uncles in physical appearance, or perhaps the character of a maternal uncle passes to the nephews. What kind of a character was Nachshon?
Many of us probably know the aggadic story of Nachshon. It doesn’t appear in Torah, but rather in Gemara Sotah 37a. In the midst of a discussion of the blessings and curses on Har Gerizim and Har Eival, much of which has to do with the position and character of the tribes (see where this fits in?), there is a digression regarding the tribes as they stood ready to cross the Sea of Reeds. Rabbi Yehudah says to Rabbi Meir, “this tribe said: I am not going into the sea first, and that tribe said: I am not going into the sea first. Then, in jumped the prince of Judah, Nahshon ben Amminadab, and descended into the sea first, accompanied by his entire tribe.”
Nachshon’s name in Jewish folklore with one who is bold, who takes the risk no one else is willing to take, the risk which, frankly, might save the people from recapture by the Egyptians and a return to slavery. If we are saying that Nachshon’s character passes to his nephews through Elisheva, we have to assume that it is this character trait, his most salient and certainly most well-known feature, that shines through in them.
Importantly, Nachshon is decisive at a time when there is no clear way out of the predicament. The waters have not yet fully parted, and the Egyptians are gaining on them. The text in Sotah imagines that after he dives in the water, he prays, “Save me, God; for the waters are come in even unto the soul. I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing…let not the water flood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up.” A different tradition I was taught in elementary school imagines that he is the one who initially began shouting, “Mi khamokha…” and that when he went to say the second line had to change from the guttural consonant kh to a hard k, “Mi kamokha,” because the water had already reached his chin and had he opened his throat to make the kh he might have drowned. Just at that moment the waters receded.
So far, so good. You could hardly ask for a better uncle. Unless you are a priest.
Elisheva’s children may be Judahites on their mother’s side, heirs to the bold, decisive character and insight that characterized their progenitor seven generations ago, but on their father’s side they are priests. Long before Montesquieu conceived of separation of powers, three thousand years before they were enshrined in the US Constitution, Torah recognized what are referred to as the “three Crowns,” according to the following passage from the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, in Hilkhot Talmud Torah chapter 3:
“The people of Israel were crowned with three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty. The crown of priesthood was acquired by Aaron, even as it is said: “And it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of everlasting priesthood” (Num. 25.13); the crown of sovereignty was acquired by David, even as it is said: “His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me” (Psalms 89.37); but the crown of the Torah, behold it, there it lies ready within the grasp of all Israel, even as it is said: “Moses commanded us a Law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33.4), Whosoever wants it may come and take it.”
David, as we remember was a descendant of Judah – through Nachshon! – but long before his time, especially in the words of Ya’akov to his children before his death, the tribe of Judah has already been singled out for the monarchy. When Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discussed this idea of the three crowns in his essay on Parshat Shoftim in 2008, he emphasizes the secular nature of the kingship – knowledgeable in statecraft, tasked with keeping the people safe both from without and from within. A king of Israel is constrained by a higher law than divine fiat – the Torah itself. But it’s easy to imagine a leader like Nachshon or his descendants fitting the bill: he is leading by his personal example of how to trust Hashem to do what has been promised, drawing people – his entire tribe – after him in fulfilling a divine command.
Nachshon had four nephews through Elisheva: Elazar, Itamar, Nadav and Avihu. You may remember that these last two, Nadav and Avihu, don’t fare very well. In Parshat Shemini, Vayikra verses 10:1-3, they offer “strange fire” before Hashem: “they offered before Hashem alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Hashem.”
I always imagine Nadav and Avihu having the status of medical interns – technically kohanim, sure, licensed to practice sacrificial Judaism, but in over their heads. When they entered with strange fire, they were brimming with enthusiasm right up until the minute of the “calamity on the day of dedication,” as it is called in Megillah 10b. In fact, ibn Ezra looks at Vayikra 10:2 and observes, “they died before God thinking they were doing something acceptable.” Just like medical trainees of today, they suffer very literal burnout for trying to do the right thing.
Knowing that they are the nephews of Nachshon helps us to understand that conflict better. Royal wisdom was meant for dealing with situations that were nebulous and unclear, like Shlomo’s handling of the dilemma of the baby. Moshe is confronted with a seemingly endless string of such situations – and is, frankly, not so good at it, perhaps owing to his Levite origins. The continuation of the Aggadah of Nachshon tells us, “At that time, Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me? Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? God said to him: “Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand” (Exodus 14:15–16).” In other words, Moshe was still praying and deliberating when Nachshon said to his tribe, “Let’s go! Last one in the water’s a rotten egg!”
The crown of kehunah, priesthood, depends on order, sameness, and separation. Everything has to remain pure, be done at the proper time, and be cleaned up in the correct way. There is no room for initiative, no room for urgency, no room for zeal. We will never know what the brothers thought to achieve during that moment, only that it failed miserably.
When they failed, the difference between the family of Amram and that of Aminadav is again apparent. The response of the Levites, Moshe and Aharon, to the deaths of the two brothers is, “Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what יהוה meant by saying: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent.” Contrast this to Ellen Frankel’s midrash from her Five Books of Miriam about how Elisheva reacts to her son’s sudden death: “If I was to be forbidden entrance to the holy altar, forbidden to accompany my dead sons outside the camp, forbidden even to seek comfort with my husband and two remaining sons, then I would not refuse the comfort of my community.” The other women respond by drawing near to her and lifting her up.
Frankel’s reading is the personalization of what the Tanchuma Buber, a midrashic work by the grandfather and teacher of the 20th century philosopher Martin Buber, says about this episode. “How confused was the laughter, when Divine Justice laughed over Elisheba bat Amminadab, when she saw four joys in one day. She saw her brother-in-law (Moses) a king, her husband a high priest, her brother (Naashon) a prince (nasi), and her two sons deputy high priests. When they went in to offer sacrifice, they came out destroyed by fire; and her joy turned into sorrow.”
About 6 weeks ago I wrote about Ya’akov being of “two heads” when he rested on the rock the night of the dream of the ladder. The ancestry of Nadav and Avihu also represents this same internal split, not between a yetzer tov and a yetzer ra, a good and bad inclination, but between two competing yetzarim tovim, two conflicting good intentions. The crown of priesthood would have us stick to the program, stay in our lane, do our own jobs by the book and let everything else take care of itself, because we were put here to fulfill this specific purpose. The crown of royalty would have us take matters into our own hands to make sure things don’t just “take care of themselves,” because God tells us not to sit around waiting for someone else to do it. Finding the balance between these competing impulses is actually the point of getting to know God, trying to find out which one of these things he wants us to be in which situation.
Unfortunately, there are not two competing impulses, but many, too many to number. The balance point among them is not the fulcrum of a seesaw but resembles a German animation I saw in the late ‘80s. A few dozen people are standing on the perimeter of a platform in midair, and there is a briefcase of something valuable in the middle. One after the other moves to take the briefcase, but each move causes the platform to lurch out of balance, requiring the others to either shift their own positions or be thrown off into space. The reactive shifts sometimes work to stabilize the platform – and sometimes make it worse.
In our practical lives we can think of plenty of further examples that are less abstract than artsy German animation. A candidate running for office is ebullient with supporters and merciless to her opponent – then she gets elected and realizes that governing requires different qualities to be successful. A football coach faces fourth down and has to weigh whether to be aggressive and go for it, or safe and kick a field goal or punt – and relying on ESPN’s handy cheat sheet won’t cut it. A doctor has to decide whether a particular patient’s situation calls for an all-out, spare-no-expense workup and treatment plan to make a heroic save, a judicious use of a handful of resources, or simple reassurance and a good night’s sleep (for the doctor and the patient).
In general, we are too human to do what we’d really love to do, which is be able to hold both, or all, of our competing impulses in our minds at the same time, even meld them into some sort of powerful alloy like in Rings of Power so they can guide us magically toward the right thing. We have to choose one crown, or the other, to wear at each moment. Trying to wear both at once is dangerous, both for us as people and for our society. The Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai tried to be both king and Kohen Gadol; in Kiddushin 66a, we learn that when the sages tried to challenge his power, a slanderous advisor convinced him to destroy the sages wholesale, nearly wiping out the teachers of Torah.
And speaking of Torah, remember that Torah is the third crown. And unlike the other two crowns, which were handed down in a patrilineal, hereditary fashion, Torah belongs to everyone, like Rambam said. Torah is the guide to how to balance, how to know which competing imperative to follow in which situation, how to avoid turning Elisheva’s four joys into Elisheva’s devastated tears. In short, it is the only way to keep us from seeing everything the world throws at us and yelling, “Uncle!”