Parshat Naso

Torah Reading for the Week of May 25-31, 2014


“The Daring Spirit”
By Rabbi Mordecai Finley, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

One of the most famous personages in the Jewish tradition appears in our Torah portion – Nachshon ben Amminadav. In the last section of the portion, a representative of each tribe of the tribes of Israel donates an array of magnificent gifts to the sanctuary.  The representative of the first tribe to donate, the tribe of Judah, is Nachshon ben Amminadav. We know almost nothing about him, other than that his sister Elisheva married Aaron the priest (Exodus 6:23). In the Midrash (Number Rabbah 8:7), he is named as the first person to enter the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites were facing an implacable sea in front of them, and a furious Egyptian army behind them, closing in. Moses raised his staff, but the waters would not part until someone plunged into the water, essentially saying that death was preferable to slavery. The Torah, however, is silent on who that person was.

I think when the Midrash connects Nachshon to the unnamed man at the sea, we see an unwritten rule of rabbinic interpretation at work, the rule of “parsimony of personages” (this is what I call it; I am sure that someone else has come up with a better term.) You have a person who has a great honor bestowed upon him for reasons never cited, and you have an anonymous person who has done an exceedingly honorable thing. Link them up!

Another example is the Daughters of Tzelophechad (“afraid of his shadow” in Hebrew) in Torah portion Pinchas. The daughters of Tzelophechad challenged Moses and God on a point of the law of inheritance. They thought that God had not thought this one through. Moses takes it to God and God realizes the error. The law is changed, due to their challenge. Wow!  All we know about them is their dad’s name, but we have no idea who Mr. Tzelophechad was.

We also have an unnamed man at the end of Torah portion Shelach Lekha, who gathered sticks on Shabbat and is executed for his efforts. Through very slim (very slim) textual analysis, the rabbis decided that Tzelophechad was the stick gatherer. Parsimony at work.

What is driving these two Midrashim, connecting Nachshon to the Man at the Sea, and connecting Tzelophechad to the Gatherer of Sticks? Something very deep.

Elisheva is the sister of Nachshon, we are told. She is the mother of Nadav and Avihu, who broke the regulations regarding sacrifice to God, and were immolated. In identifying Nachshon the brother of Elisheva (and therefore the uncle of Nadav and Avihu) to the Man at the Sea, they are creating a biblical archetype of the daring spirit. Expressed one way, it becomes the man who breaks from the panicking crowd and enters the sea. Expressed another way, it becomes a spirit of disrespect for the holy.

The same is true in identifying Tzelophechad, whose daughters challenged God, with the Gatherer of Sticks. Each rejected the status quo. Expressed one way, this rejection of the status quo has God rethink a law of the Torah. Expressed another way, it is, again, a repudiation of the holy. In the midrashic linkup, Tzelophechad is the man who was executed for violation of the holy. His daughters achieved a unique place of honor.

I believe that the rabbis employed this delightful interpretive tool that I call “parsimony of personages” to communicate their ideas, in this case, a specific one: the force that drives us forward toward the sublime can also be the force that destroys us. There are people of intrepid and daring spirit who lead us toward greatness, and there are people of such spirit who propel us toward mediocrity, or worse. The daring spirit is volatile in its raw state; only a trained spirit can direct it rightly.

The AJR was founded by the daring spirit of two people, Rabbi Stan Levy and Rabbi Stephen Robbins. (I was honored to be invited by them to help birth this project.) The AJR is for me a shining example of the daring and trained spirit, which has drawn and inspired an unsurpassed administration, an exceptional board, a spectacular faculty, an outstanding and caring staff and crews of marvelous students to shape the Academy, to train and to dare beyond anything we could have dreamed, 14 years ago.

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