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Nahshon, Music, and Shmutz

  • Nahshon, Music, and Shmutz

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

In Parashat Naso we finally reach the completion of the Tabernacle with all of its elaborate furnishings. The chieftains of each tribe are invited to present offerings for the dedication of the altar, one chieftain per day. The one who presents his offering on the first day is Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah (Numbers 7:12).

A midrash elucidates the reason for Nahshon's being first to present his offering: Why was he called Nahshon, which means "daring"? It's because he was the first to plunge into the "billow" (nachshol) of the sea. A rabbi explained, "The Holy One blessed be He, said to Moses: 'He who sanctified My name by the sea shall be the first to present his offering'; and that was Nahshon."

Sefer Aggadah imagines details of the scene, saying that as the tribes stood before the Sea of Reeds, "one tribe said, 'I will not be the first to go into the sea'; and another tribe also said, 'I will not be the first to go into the sea.' While they were standing there deliberating, Nahshon the son of Amminadab [of the tribe of Judah] sprang forward and was the first to go down into the sea. Because it was Nahshon who sprang forward, Judah was to obtain royal dominion in Israel . . ." (The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, ed. Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky [New York: Schocken Books, 1992], pp. 72-73).

This Rabbinic legend also draws from the first verses of Psalm 114: "When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward, mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep. . . ."

Every service we sing together as congregations the Mi Chamochah prayer, the words sung by the Israelites when they safely reached the shore of the Sea of Reeds as the miraculous walls of water crashed behind them. The first line of the Mi Chamochah prayer, from Exodus 15:11, reads,Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai (Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials?), and the second line reads, Mi kamochah nedar bakodesh (Who is like You, majestic in holiness?).

It seems strange that the first line reads Mi chamochah and the second Mi kamochah. In one verse the letter is chaf, that eleventh letter of the alphabet curved like an empty lacrosse net. In the second verse the letter appears with a little dot in it, as if it has caught the ball. The difference turns its pronunciation from a clearing-the-throat sound? chaf? to one similar to that of the English letter k?kaf.

Perhaps centuries ago a stray bit of shmutz settled on a stretch of parchment on the sun-drenched table of a Torah scribe, or peeled off a printing press roller onto an early-rendition prayer book, clogging the chaf and forever changing how we chant this prayer.

Or . . .

Perhaps a dot is not only a dot, but also a miniscule drop from the inkwell of revelation. The letter chaf is shaped like a mouth wide open and singing. When the Israelites came to the Sea of Reeds, they were terrified because none of them could swim. They thought they'd rather take their chances fighting the Egyptians than try to swim in this rough sea. Only one man trusted in God enough to take the first step: Nahshon ben Amminadab. He stepped into the sea singing . . . up to his knees, his waist, and kept on singing. His mouth opened in praise as the water lapped hungrily at his shoulders, his neck, and the brave zealot did not stop chanting even as the water began to fill his mouth. At that moment, the sea opened up and the people walked through. The dot in the chaf symbolizes that moment, when faith becomes fact, when prayer receives answer.

To me, this is a story about the power of song.

The Hebrew word for "melody" is nigun, spelled nun, gimel, nun. The mystics say that the word is actually an acronym, the first nun standing for nefesh, which means "spirit," the gimel stands for Guf, which means "body," and the last nun stands for n'shamah, which means "soul." This teaches that melody affects all three aspects of man: our primal lower spirit, the spirit that makes us want to move and dance; our entire body, the body whose heart rhythm, whose pulse beats out a perfect harmony to our song, the body thatdavens and rocks like a metronome when it hears the lips sing in fervent worship; and the upper spirit, the n'shamah that connects us with God and, with every song, expands and lifts like a giant sail.

The Hebrew word for "melody" is also a palindrome, spelled the same backwards and forwards to teach that music is contagious, and so allow yourself to catch it, catch it in your nefesh, in your guf,
and in your n'shamah. Music is a sea that engulfs us and transports us in beauty, drowns us in emotion. It is an immersion that heals rather than kills, that opens new pathways even through impossible seas. Music and singing harmonize the contrasting parts of our spirit. Whereas words label things and discern this from that, music envelops both our sorrow and our hope at once, unifying us, bringing us closer to the Divine.

There is a story about Rabbi Zalman of Laida telling of an extraordinary sermon that he gave on Shabbat. However, he noticed that there was one congregant who did not understand a single word. After the service the rabbi went to the man and said, "I see that you did not understand my sermon . . . perhaps this would help." The rabbi began to sing a nigun, a melody without words, and he continued to sing it over and over, until the man finally exclaimed, "Ah yes! Now I understand!"

In our Torah portion, Nahshon is the first to bring his offering to God. Every morning we wake we have an opportunity to bring an offering to God, to be the first, by sitting up, stretching, and stepping out of our beds into the brightness of a brand-new day, immersing ourselves completely into the wash of dawn, nefesh, guf, and n'shamah, with our mouths open in song.

Rabbi Zoë Klein is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California.

The Power of Blessing
Davar Acher By: 
David A. Lipper

My colleague Rabbi Zoë Klein has written a beautiful commentary on the importance of memory and honoring people of vision. So much of our tradition is built around the blessings that fill our lives as well as the importance and power of the individual journeys of our ancestors. Nahshon is indeed a powerful figure in the Torah and in midrashic tradition. It was his vision and spirit that guided us through the sea and toward our destiny as a people.

Earlier in this portion we find more words of blessing: "The Eternal bless and protect you! The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you! The Eternal bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace!" (Numbers 6:24-26). The Sages view these words as blessings focused on financial security. Rashi goes so far as to say, "Your possessions should be blessed, and pursuers should not come after your wealth."

I have a different sense of this blessing. Every Shabbat, when our family gathers around the Shabbat table, we grasp hands as my wife and I bless our children (we were outnumbered long ago). It is a moment of supreme grace for me and something I look forward to each week. No matter how difficult the challenges of the interactions with my teenage children have been, the opportunity to bless them always makes tensions dissipate.

And somewhere along the journey of our family tradition, our kids began to say the words with us. As we've blessed them, so too, they've blessed us. Oftentimes our kids bless us through their actions. When teenagers are in the house, rarely do words of blessing flow from their lips. But here on Shabbat, that time of greatest serenity, the positive words of blessing float like clouds billowing above, covering the family in a canopy of peace.

Nahshon . . . may we too make our own first offerings. T'hiyeh b'rachah, "Be a blessing."

Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842