Being the First

June 9, 2023

Being the first in anything comes with its blessings and its challenges. 

This is something about which Barack Obama, as the first person of color to serve as President of the United States, knows all too well. Everyone from journalists to media pundits to social media commentators to other politicians have a take on why this particular first is so significant, but President Obama himself describes his experience as one requiring a delicate balance, constantly walking a fine line between being who he is and who he was perceived to be… In his last book, A Promised Land, President Obama describes a few early examples – of what I am sure are innumerable moments! – illustrative of the push-and-pull of being the first. In the chapters dedicated to his experiences on his first Presidential campaign, even after helping people overcome the notion that electing a Black president was the stuff of fairy tales (his words, on page 126), his staff “made no apologies for de-emphasizing any topic that might be labeled as a racial grievance, or split the electorate along racial lines, or do anything to box [him] in as “The Black candidate”” (p.116), and yet he was constantly under scrutiny for being “too radical, or too mainstream or not quite Black enough”… (p.122). And that was prior to 2008! 

And closer to home, we are all familiar with stories of being the first in one’s family or inner circle to go to college, leave “the old neighborhood” or insular community, to come out (Happy Pride!), or otherwise strike out on a previously uncharted path. Which is why this week, I’m proud to introduce (or re-introduce) you to Nachshon ben Amminadav. According to biblical sources we know that Nachshon was Aaron’s brother-in-law and a leader in the tribe of Judah. In last week’s parsha, Nachson was the first of all the tribal leaders to make an offering, to dedicate the Tabernacle’s altar, and in this week’s parsha, Nachshon is the first elder to lead his tribe the next leg of the journey through the desert, toward their Promised Land. 

But, according to the midrash, Nachshon has long made a habit of being the first. Though you won’t find him mentioned outright during the Exodus narrative, according to many midrashic sources, Nachshon’s was a significant first. One compilation of midrashim, the Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, describes the scene of the Egyptian army closing in, while the Israelites stand on the shore, arguing… 

“One said, ‘I’m not going in first,” and another said, ‘I’m not going in first,” as it says [in Hosea 12:1], “Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit,” [but] Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped [into the Sea], and his tribe followed! Therefore, [Nachshon] merited to have the kingdom, as it says [in Psalms 114:1-2], “When Israel left Egypt, the house of Jacob [left] from a people of strange speech, [and] Yehudah [Nachshon’s tribe] became holy…”

The rabbis say that Nachshon’s actions serve as proof of his unwavering faith that God would save the Israelites – totally plausible explanation! – but, it’s also possible that Nachshon simply had the guts to do what others would or could not. Or, maybe Nachshon is like Queen Esther, to whom Mordechai’s famous line, “And who knows? Perhaps you have attained to [your] position for just such a crisis,” is directed; a Jewish way of saying, “you were put here for a reason!” – to pave the way, to hold open the door, to be the change… And by being the first to literally take the plunge, Nachshon and his tribe are rewarded many times over. Judah becomes a leader among its sibling tribes, from which figures like King David and Jesus descended, and eventually, according to tradition, from which the Messiah will come. It is from the tribal name Judah or, as it’s pronounced in Hebrew, “Yehudah,” that the terms “yehudim,” Jews, Jewish and Judaism are derived, symbolic of our people’s history of stepping into the unknown with the right combination of faith and/or courage and/or chutzpah to carry them forward. 

May each of us be like Nachshon, and find it in ourselves to be the first, to take that step, to take the plunge… because, who knows? Maybe that, ultimately, is what we’re here for. 

Rabbi Jennifer Queen