This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi David Fried
The splitting of the Red Sea is a classic story we have learned since childhood. The Jewish people are trapped, the sea on one side of them, and the Egyptian army on the other. They begin to cry out to God and to Moshe. Moshe assures them that they have nothing to worry about. They should just wait calmly and God will save them (Shmot 14:10-14). God, on the other hand, is not so sure of this. Yes, God will split the sea, but first the Jewish people need to take the first step and begin travelling into it (Shmot 14:15-16). The Jewish people are uncertain and afraid. Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the nasi of the tribe of Yehudah, has the courage to jump in. When the water is up to his neck, the sea splits, and the rest of the Jewish people follow in after him. Of course, that last part does not actually appear in the text. It is introduced first in the Mekhilta (Beshalach Mesekhta de-Vayehi Parshah 5 s.v. Va-yavo’u benei), and then in the Talmud Bavli (Sota 37a). One could suggest that they were recording and earlier oral tradition, but the fact that there are other opinions recorded as to the identity of the person who jumped into the sea first strongly militates against this possibility.
Nachshon, at first glance, seems like an extremely minor character. There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about his character that would set him apart from the other nesi’im. What could possibly have led the Midrash to identify him as the one jumps into the sea?
The Torah lists the tribes three times within the first two chapters of the book of Numbers. The first two relate to the taking of the census. The third is when the tribes are setting up their camp around the Mishkan. The first two lists are more or less in the order we would expect, roughly in age order with Reuven first. In the third list, when they are setting up camp and preparing to travel to Canaan, all of a sudden the tribe of Yehudah is in the leadership position.
Then something strange happens. The next time Nachshon is mentioned is in chapter 7, with the korbanot of the nesi’im on the day the Mishkan was set up. This story seems out of place, both chronologically and thematically. Exodus 40:17 states that the Mishkan was set up on the first day of the first month (of the second year in the desert). It is clear that it is occurring prior to the census from chapter 1 that took place “On the first day of the second month (Bemidbar 1:1).” Furthermore, the Torah recorded the various sacrifices that were brought at the inauguration of the Mishkan at the end of Shmot and the beginning of Vayikra. Why is the Torah suddenly returning to that topic here?
Strikingly, the order in which the nesi’im bring their korbanot is identical with the order that tribes were camped around the Mishkan. There does not seem to be any logical explanation for why the same order would have been in place a month earlier.
Understanding the significance of this requires looking at information we know from elsewhere in the Torah about the day the Mishkan’s setup was completed. Recall the events of that day from the book of Vayikra. After Aharon places various sacrifices on the altar, his sons Nadav and Avihu attempt to bring an incense offering. A fire comes out of the Mishkan and instantaneously consumes them (Vayikra 9:22-10:2). It was supposed to be a day of happiness and celebration of Divine acceptance. Instead the day was forever marred by the death of Nadav and Avihu. They desired to bring an offering in the newly inaugurated Mishkan, made some mistake in the procedure, and were struck down by a miraculous fire in the presence of the entire people. The memory of that event was no doubt indelibly etched into the collective memory of the Jewish people.
Set in this context, the offerings of the nesi’im take on new meaning. The last people to bring an offering in the Mishkan do not get it exactly right and are struck down by God. God instructs Moshe to have one nasi bring their offering each day (Bemidbar 7:11) but does not instruct him in what order they should bring them. They must have been terrified. None of them wants to risk making a slight mistake and winding up like Nadav and Avihu. Finally, Nachshon takes the plunge, so to speak, and volunteers to go first.
This story is virtually identical to the story the Midrash told us about Nachshon’s conduct at the Red Sea. The Midrash is thus able to identify who would have had the character to be the first one to jump into the sea when everyone else is afraid. This Midrash answers our exegetical questions about Sefer Bemidbar as well. As stated above, chapter 7 seems both chronologically and thematically out of place. Based on this Midrash, we can explain that chapter 7 is a flashback to explain why Yehudah was chosen to lead the people towards Canaan back in chapter 2. It was because their leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav, had the courage and trust in God to offer the first sacrifice when everyone else was afraid, which the Midrash highlights by transposing it into the story at the Red Sea. In typical Midrashic fashion, of course, it tells us a story that depends on the analysis, and leaves it up to the reader to figure out the analytical process on their own.
Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT.