Parsha Bamidbar: Leadership according to Nachshon

Greetings from the BSA’s National Annual Meeting in Nashville. This week we honor Rabbi Peter Hyman, former chairman and current national chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. Rabbi Hyman received the first ever Nachshon Fellowship Award from the International Forum of Jewish Scouts (IFJS). It was presented earlier this week at the by the IFJS’s president Alain Silberstein, of France, and secretary general Ruth Ouazana, of Israel.

Dear Scouts:

We begin the book of Bamidbar  (which means “In the Desert” but is usually called “Numbers” in English referring to all the counting that goes on) with the parsha Bamidbar. This parsha is all about organization; it’s the proverbial meeting before the campout. The Jews get counted. They get organized by tribe and family. They get placed in camps around the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The members of the Tribe of Levi (like the troop service patrol) get their own count and instructions.

Around the Mishkan were four large encampments. Each encampment had one leading tribe (which gave its name to the encampment) and two accompanying tribes. At the front of the procession is the encampment of the tribe of Judah, and the leader of that tribe is Nachson ben Aminadav. Nachshon was not physically at the front of the entire nation as we traveled through the desert, but he was certainly at the front spiritually. How did he merit such an important position?

Way back in the book of Shemot (Exodus), when we left Egypt and came to the Yam Suf (Red Sea), there was fear and confusion. Some wanted to fight the Egyptians, some wanted to pray to God, some wanted to go back to Egypt. The Talmud in Sotah 37a teaches that Nachshon ben Aminadav went with the fourth approach: Go into the sea. The plan was that God would split the sea and we would go through it, but the sea hadn’t split yet, so people didn’t go in. Nachshon said, “God says the sea will split? I’m goin’ into the sea.”

It didn’t matter to him that the water didn’t move when he put his foot in it. It didn’t bother him when he was waist-deep in water that still hadn’t split. It didn’t bother him when he had to close his mouth to keep the water out. He kept moving forward with faith in God, and when the water came to his nose, the sea suddenly split before him to reveal dry land. The Talmud teaches that in his merit, the kings of Israel would always come from the tribe of Judah.

What does leading people into the sea have to do with kingship? Faith in God does not make someone qualified to execute law or organize armies.

Though Nachshon was in charge in the march leading the Mishkan, God decided where to go, when to go, and how to get there. That’s how Israel works. For other nations, kings are in charge of things like laws, trade, and war. For us, God is in charge of the stuff. Our job as individuals and as a nation is to have faith and glorify God by living according to God’s Torah.

Nachshon had none of the things that we think make a leader – no army or palace or tax wealth. However, he was just like his great-great-grandfather Judah, who refused to leave Egypt without his brother Benjamin even though the prime minister said Benjamin had to stay. They both did what was right even when it looked impossible. That’s what it takes to be a great leader, whether leading people through the sea or ruling them every day.

Shabbat shalom,

Jordan and Nelson Block

© 2014 Nelson R. Block