Walking with Nachshon

We are only a few weeks away from the longest day of the year, and as it so happens we also reach the longest Torah portion of the year with Naso, which has more verses than any other. Luckily, long doesn’t mean boring. There are strange, possibly misogynistic rituals for allaying the jealousy of husbands (the Sotah ritual). We find precise descriptions for how to be holier-than-thou (the Nazirite vow which mimics the restrictions placed on priests, but for regular people).

We are only a few weeks away from the longest day of the year, and as it so happens we also reach the longest Torah portion of the year with Naso, which has more verses than any other. Luckily, long doesn’t mean boring. There are strange, possibly misogynistic rituals for allaying the jealousy of husbands (the Sotah ritual). We find precise descriptions for how to be holier-than-thou (the Nazirite vow which mimics the restrictions placed on priests, but for regular people). And we read the instructions for and purpose of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:22-27):

God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

May God bless you and protect you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious with you.
May God’s face lift towards you and grant you peace.

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

All of this Torah is worth engaging with - whether to critique, ponder, or practice. But one small detail in the final chapter captures my attention this week. Numbers 7 contains an admittedly tedious list of offerings that each of the twelve tribal leaders contribute to the portable sanctuary as the Israelites prepare to put into operation all the instructions they received at Mt. Sinai and begin their trek to Canaan. There are usually two main ways that the tribes are listed: (1) by birth order of the sons, which would begin with Reuben, or (2) clustered according to the four mothers of the twelve sons, which would also begin with Reuben. Either way, it stands out that the offerings of the tribes in this chapter begins not with Reuben but with Judah, the fourth tribe by birth order. Over time, Judah will become a dominant tribe, but there seems to be no tribal reason to begin with Judah at this point in the history of Israel. Some commentators (like Chizkuni) assume the person who went first was chosen by lot, but nothing in the text itself proves that point. The chieftain of Judah seems instead to have exuberantly lined up first to make the tribal offerings. Perhaps his name is familiar to you - Nachshon.

The most famous midrashic story told about Nachshon is that when the Israelites were trapped at the seashore with Egyptian soldiers closing in, one person - Nachshon - did something startling and strange. He walked, step by step, into the sea, until he was almost buried in water. Just before he would have drowned, the sea surrenders and parts, allowing all of the Israelites to walk to safety on dry land. To call someone “a Nachshon” is to identify their willingness to jump headfirst into a new and potentially hazardous endeavor.

This Shabbat, I invite you to join me for a Mussar & Meditation gathering Saturday morning. Mussar is a Jewish virtues ethics practice, a way of asking “how should I be in the world?” There are many ways to strive to be a better human, but I love how Mussar directs us inward to study our own character as a kind of sacred text, and then directs us outward to practice flexing moral muscles around character qualities (in Hebrew, middot, singular middah) like patience, anger, gratitude, enthusiasm, and more. It is a way to experiment with your life in small ways that lead towards holiness and justice.

The masters of Mussar teach us that every human being is born with every quality (middah), but that the measure of the middah is different in each one of us. Our life’s curriculum is to discern where the right balance for us is in each middah, and then practice it!

Nachshon models a few phenomenal qualities he has already brought into balance. If he were our Mussar teacher, he might give us insight into Courage (striding into the sea), Enthusiasm (lining up first to offer his tribe’s contribution), and even Humility (alone among the twelve tribal elders, the text does not list his title, just his name).

What qualities or middot do you feel well-grounded in? What qualities do you feel are imbalanced in your life (too much or too little)? Where do you want to grow, to soften, to be curious, to experiment and play and discover?

Wishing you a Shabbat that balances the stillness of reflection and the spontaneity of jumping into action.

Rabbi Jay LeVine