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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Nachshon ben Aminadav

Shevi'i shel Pesah is the traditional anniversary of the splitting of the Red Sea.  On that day this year, my son asked me to explain the extra-biblical tradition which has Nachshon ben Aminadav jumping into the sea before it parted.  Below are the major midrashic sources for this tradition and some preliminary analysis regarding their origins in Scripture.  This turns out to be an excellent example of how aggadot on biblical figures evolved from a careful reading of words and phrases within the Bible itself.

A version of this aggada is found in the Talmud, Sota 36b-37a:

אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא א״ר שמעון חסידא: יוסף שקידש שם שמים בסתר ־ הוסיפו עליו אות אחת משמו של הקב״ה, יהודה שקידש שם שמים בפרהסיא ־ נקרא כולו על שמו של הקב״ה. . .
יהודה מאי היא? דתניא, היה ר״מ אומר: כשעמדו ישראל על הים, היו שבטים מנצחים זה עם זה, זה אומר אני יורד תחלה לים וזה אומר אני יורד תחלה לים, קפץ שבטו של בנימין וירד לים תחילה, שנאמר: (תהלים סח) שם בנימין צעיר רודם, אל תקרי רודם אלא רד ים, והיו שרי יהודה רוגמים אותם, שנאמר: (תהלים סח) שרי יהודה רגמתם . . . אמר לו רבי יהודה: לא כך היה מעשה, אלא זה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים וזה אומר אין אני יורד תחילה לים, קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב וירד לים תחילה, שנאמר: (הושע יב) סבבוני בכחש אפרים ובמרמה בית ישראל ויהודה עוד רד עם אל, ועליו מפרש בקבלה: (תהלים סט) הושיעני אלהים כי באו מים עד נפש, טבעתי ביון מצולה ואין מעמד וגו׳ (תהלים סט) אל תשטפני שבולת מים ואל תבלעני מצולה וגו׳ . . .לפיכך זכה יהודה לעשות ממשלה בישראל, שנאמר: (תהלים קיד) היתה יהודה לקדשו ישראל ממשלותיו, מה טעם היתה יהודה לקדשו וישראל ממשלותיו? משום דהים ראה וינוס.

I  have highlighted the biblical quotations, none of which are from Exodus, to show how the midrash draws on several verses from seemingly unrelated contexts (Hosea, Psalms) to supplement the biblical narrative.

Here are the aggada's main elements:

  1. Judah and Joseph committed great acts of kiddush Hashem; Joseph's act was private, but Judah's was public. 
  2. The kiddush Hashem performed by the tribe of Judah took place at the Red Sea.  
  3. Rabbi Judah claims that while the tribes were bickering over who would enter the Red Sea first (each tribe refusing to be the first), Nachson ben Aminadav, the prince (nasi) of the tribe of Judah, jumped into the sea.  Rabbi Meir claims that each tribe wished to enter first, and that it was the tribe of Benjamin, not Judah, that acted while the others argued.
  4. In R. Judah's view, the tribe of Judah earned the right of sovereignty as a reward for sanctifying God's name at the Red Sea.  

    Note the following with regard to the Scriptural derivation of the aggada:  
    1. Although Nachshon is said to have entered first, no verse is cited in this version to prove this.  The verses here only support the idea that the tribe of Judah was the first to enter.
    2. The implicit connection between Judah's kiddush ha-Shem and the splitting of the Red Sea derives from three contiguous verses (semikhut pesukim) in Psalm 114.  The first verse, בְּצֵאת יִשְֹרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם is followed immediately by הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ (verse 2).  Thus, the tribe of Judah sanctified God's name immediately following the exodus, i.e., at the Red Sea.  And, just after the verse mentioning Judah's kiddush Hashem, we read  הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס (verse 3) -- implying that the sea parted as a result of Judah's act in the previous verse.  (This reasoning is alluded to in Midrash Tehillim 114, ed. Buber, p. 474).
    3. Psalm 69 is the prayer of a very desperate man -- הושיעני אלהים כי באו מים עד נפש. Hazal heard in this prayer the cries of someone who is literally near drowning.  Aside perhaps from the Book of Jonah (which has its own undersea prayer), the most appropriate context for this Psalm was at the Red Sea. 

    The version of the aggada quoted above has a parallel source in the Mekhilta (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshalah 5, ed. Horowitz-Rabin pp. 104-105).  It is a midrash on the following verse (Ex. 14:22):

    וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חוֹמָה מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם

    There are no major variations between the Bavli and the Mekhilta, but the opening verse in the Mekhilta's version is significant.  Note how בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה -- "in the sea on dry land" --  is an oxymoron.  One might therefore read the two phrases, instead, as sequential events:  "The children of Israel entered the sea, which then turned to dry land."  So the idea that someone entered the Red Sea before it parted derived, at least in part, from the structure of this verse (See Shemot Rabba 21:10 - אם בים למה ביבשה ואם ביבשה למה בתוך הים? אלא מכאן אתה למד שלא נקרע להם הים עד שבאו לתוכו עד חוטמן ואחר כך נעשה להם יבשה). 

    But what motivated R. Judah to identify Nachshon as the hero of the story?  One could argue that it is reasonable to assume, once it had been established that the tribe of Judah entered first, that its leader would have personally set the example.  But is there any indication from the biblical text which singles out  Nachshon?

    As background, here is the biblical profile of Nachshon ben Aminadav:

    Nachson was the brother-in-law of Aaron (Ex. 6:23).  In the opening verses of Numbers (1:7), he is named as the nasi of his tribe.  Most significantly, he is the first of the twelve nesi'im to offer sacrifices at the dedication of the tabernacle (Num. 7:12):

      וַיְהִי הַמַּקְרִיב בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן אֶת-קָרְבָּנוֹ נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן-עַמִּינָדָב לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה

    Nachshon is also named in Ruth (4:20) and I Chronicles (2:11) as a direct progenitor of King David.

    The source for Nachshon's role at the Red Sea is made explicit in the following passage from Bemidbar Rabba (13:7):

    נחשון בן עמינדב למטה יהודה. למה נקרא שמו נחשון? על שם שירד תחלה לנחשול שבים. אמר רבי שמעון בן יוחאי: אמר הקב״ה למשה מי שקידש את שמי בים הוא יקריב תחלה וזה היה נחשון וכן עשה הה״ד (במדבר ז) נחשון בן עמינדב וגו׳

    The Sages took note of the fact that in Numbers it was the prince of Judah, rather than Reuben, who made the first dedication offering.  Nachshon must have done something outstanding to merit this honor.  An aggadic tradition developed, here represented by R. Shimon bar Yohai, which  identified Nachson as the man who first entered the Red Sea; the same Nachshon who sanctified God's name after the exodus was invited to step ahead of the other tribes at the dedication of the tabernacle.

    Also, this midrash makes a linguistic connection between the name נחשון and the word נחשול, a large wave or sea-storm (נחשול is of rabbinic, rather than biblical, origin; like many word or name associations in the literature of Hazal, this analogy should be treated as a thematic link, not as true etymology).  Note that a variant of the Mekhilta/Bavli version (e.g., Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, ed. Epstein-Melamed, p. 63) uses the following expression:

    קפץ נחשון בן עמינדב ונפל לו לתוך הים וגליו
    This rendering seems to echo the נחשון / נחשול association.

    It is very interesting to note that both R. Judah in the Mekhilta/Bavli version and R. Shimon bar Yohai in the Bemidbar Rabba version assume that Nachson is the one who had jumped into the Red Sea.  They do not feel compelled to prove it.  This points to a relatively early origin of this tradition.

    I would add that there may be an implicit connection underlying this aggada between Nachson's sacrifice at the hannukat hamishkan and his self-sacrifice (i.e., kiddush Ha-Shem) at the Red Sea:

    The verse וַיְהִי הַמַּקְרִיב בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן אֶת-קָרְבָּנוֹ נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן-עַמִּינָדָב לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה conjures the phrase וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב (Ex. 14:10), describing Pharaoh's pursuit of Israel just before the parting of the waters.  Recall Rashi on this verse -- מהו הקריב? הקריב עצמו ונתאמץ לקדם לפניהם.  It is possible that Hazal "heard" a linguistic and thematic connection between the self-sacrifice of Pharaoh and the first sacrificial offering of Nachson.  This may have contributed to the idea that there was an unnamed character at the Red Sea on "our side" who also engaged in self-sacrifice, especially in light of all the hints in Psalms pointing to Judah's kiddush ha-Shem at that event.

    The main point of this discussion is that aggadot are not fanciful creations of Hazal.  They were developed over centuries to fill gaps in the biblical narrative by drawing on parallels and suggestive language within the Bible itself.  (The seminars and writings of James Kugel are my inspiration for this approach to reading midrash).

    Nachshon is not mentioned in Parshat Beshalah, nor is there any hint there of a debate between the tribes as to who should (or should not) enter first into the sea.  But after reading the parsha, it remains unclear what exactly happened before the sea split.  After all, before the waters part, God first tells Moshe דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ (Ex. 14:15) and only in the next verse commands him to use his staff to perform the miracle (14:16) -- 

     וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת-מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה אֶת-יָדְךָ עַל-הַיָּם וּבְקָעֵהוּ וְיָבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה

    As mentioned, the phrase בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה seems deliberately worded as if to say that they must enter the sea before it splits.  To underscore the point, the phrase is repeated verbatim after they crossed (14:22) -- וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה.  This may have suggested to Hazal that God expected the Israelites to demonstrate their faith before Moshe split the sea miraculously, and that they indeed did so.  Hints in verses elsewhere, such as in Psalms, contributed other details to the aggada, i.e., that a single individual -- Nachshon ben Aminadav from the tribe of Judah -- was the man who took the initiative and thereby sanctified God's name.  Collectively, all of these hints and suggestions formed the basis of a supplementary narrative to the story recorded in the Bible.  

    There is, of course, an ethical statement in this aggada having to do with bitahon and human effort, especially individual effort.  The sea did not split until someone, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, took a single step for a man; one giant leap of faith for his people.  We will leave that theme aside for another discussion.

    1 comment:

    1. I've always understood the events at the Red Sea as a demarcation between the abject helplessness that hallmarks the slave mentality and the beginning of self-determination. For example, in describing actions performed by the fugitives from Egypt surrounding their actual exodus, the text uses a fair amount of causative language imputed to Moshe at the beginning of the story. As the drama of the Red Sea unfolds, the text shifts to bits of transitive language, as it begins to animate the action of a new nation, that must shed its downtrodden psyche.

      In light of this theme of a new nation being coaxed out of its slave cocoon, it makes sense to give prominence to the aspect of the Nachshon story that highlights his ability to decide and act independently. This would also account for the thematic trait of leadership, independence and principled decisiveness, that we generally ascribe to Nachshon's tribe, Yehuda.