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The True Honor

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, concludes with the lengthy and detailed listing of the twelve identical offerings that the chieftains of the twelve tribes of Israel brought to the newly dedicated Mishkan, the portable shrine that served as our people’s holy place from the early years of the desert wandering until Solomon’s construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah goes to great pains not to discriminate among the twelve tribes and their leaders. Each tribal leader is mentioned by name. Each gift is meticulously and identically described. Each tribe is given its own day to present its offering. The twelve tribes, the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons, made up one family, the Children of Israel.

But despite all these efforts, someone had to go first and someone had to go last, and it was Moses’ task to make these difficult choices. Not surprisingly, the Torah does not reveal Moses’ reasoning. After telling us of God’s charge to Moses that he pick one leader for each day, our portion informs us that on the first day Nahshon the son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah presented his offering. We are left with the challenge of figuring out why Nahshon was the tribal leader chosen to go first.

Using subtle hints in the biblical text and drawing on ancient legends, the teachers and sages of the Talmudic period answer this riddle by presenting a short but powerful portrait of a leader who knew that the trappings of leadership are insignificant compared to the actions of leadership. The scholars create out of the biblical text a picture of Nahshon ben Amminadab as an ideal leader who bravely acts on behalf of his people but claims no special honor or reward for what he does. They contend that Moses chose Nahshon to be first because Moses knew that Nahshon was not a person for whom being first was important.

We know from the Bible that Nahshon was a significant figure. He was the hereditary chief of the tribe of Judah and, as such, an ancestor of King David. He was also the brother-in-law of Aaron, the High Priest. He was, above all, a highly placed, highly privileged individual. Yet, he plays a cameo role in the Torah’s account of the Exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the desert.

However, in the Midrashim, the collections of the interpretive legends based on the biblical accounts, our sages of old show us a very special human being. It was Nahshon, they teach us, who led the Israelites into the Red Sea just as Pharaoh’s horsemen and chariots were about to catch them as they were fleeing Egyptian slavery. According to the legend, the sea did not split until the Israelites, inspired by Nahshon’s bravery and faith, followed him into the breakers. Because he was the first to enter the Red Sea, he was given the honor of being the first to enter the Mishkan.

One would expect such a person to be proud of his accomplishments and his honors, but, based on a careful reading of the Torah portion, the rabbis of old note that Nahshon claimed no special privilege or honor. They emphasize his modesty. Unlike the other eleven tribal chiefs, Nahshon is identified only as a member of his tribe, not as its leader (Numbers 7:12). He did not, they claim, consider himself any better or any more important than any other member of his tribe. Being able to contribute was honor enough for him.

Our sages also note that the Torah emphasizes that Nahshon brought “his own offering.” (7:12) He did not take the gift, as he could have, from the tribal treasury, but used his own resources. He understood that although the honor of going first was being given to him because he was the leader of his tribe, it was now his turn to make his personal contribution to the Mishkan just as all ordinary Israelites had already done.

The question of leadership and the characteristics of a leader are important themes in the Book of Numbers. In the weeks ahead, as we read the Book of Numbers, we will see Moses’ leadership ability challenged and questioned by jealous people concerned with their own positions and status. In this light, to the sages of old, Nahshon ben Amminadab was a positive model of an Israelite leader who, like Moses, came forward to meet the challenges that faced his people and, having accomplished what was necessary, modestly took his place among his fellow Israelites. Nahshon was chosen to go first because Moses knew that being first was not the first thing on Nahshon’s mind.

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