A Modern Midrash

This Shabbat I will be away from the synagogue on a Family Retreat with members of Congregation Beth Shalom. We will be spending the weekend at Camp Shai in Wisconsin, just below the North Pole, by my reckoning. This week I am sharing a dvar Torah that I gave on January 17th, 2014, but did not post. 
I often share midrash from the pulpit and in my teaching, but I rarely take the time to explain exactly what midrash is. Tonight I will do just that. Midrash is the name we use to describe the interpretive activity of the Bible as practiced by the Rabbis of the Land of Israel in the first five centuries of the common era. It comes from the root d-r-sh, which means “to inquire” or “to seek after”. There were, according to the rabbis, deeper meanings to the Biblical text than met the eye. These could be discovered by exploring the inconsistencies of the Biblical text, as well as parts of the text that virtually beg us to ask questions.  Midrash is divided by scholars into two types – that concerning legal matters is called Midrash Halacha, and that concerning stories and legends is called Midrash Aggadah.  This latter Midrash, the Midrash Aggadah, often reflected the interests and concerns of the common people who frequented the synagogues of late antiquity. Rabbis used Midrash Aggadah to make the Bible relevant and interesting to non-scholarly audiences who heard the Torah read in their synagogues.   The creation of midrash, however, did not end with the rabbis of the fifth century. I want to share with you this evening two midrashes – the first, a classic midrash from the early rabbis, and second, a modern midrash by a contemporary Jewish writer. First, the classic midrash: In the Book of Numbers, the princes of the tribes of Israel bring gifts to dedicate the Mishkan—the portable desert sanctuary.  The Torah tells us that the first prince to bring a gift is named Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah. Now, to be chosen to bring the very first gift to the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan is a great honor. What, the rabbi’s ask, might Nachshon have done to merit such distinction? Since the Torah does not tell us, the answer is given in the form of a midrash. According to the rabbis, when the Israelites were being pursued by the Egyptians, Nachshon ben Aminadav was the first person to jump into the sea, almost drowning before the sea miraculously parts to allow the people to cross on dry land. In reward for this display of faith, both Nachshon and the tribe of Judah are rewarded with a place of honor among Israel. Now, the Torah tells us that Nachshon has a sister, named Elisheva. You have probably never heard of her, because she is only mentioned one time in the Torah. Earlier in the Book of Exodus, the Torah tells us “Aaron took to wife Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” That is the last we ever hear of her in the Torah. She is the wife of Aaron the High Priest, the sister in law of Moses, the mother of the Priests of the Tabernacle, the sister of the Prince of Judah.  She must have lived a pretty interesting life, being a part of such a distinguished family, but we know nothing more about her!  Are we not curious? The contemporary poet Danny Siegel was.  He creates a modern midrash about her that fills in some of the blanks of her life.  This evening, I want to share Danny Siegel’s midrash with you. Danny Siegel says that Elisheva started out as Nachshon’s little sister.  She was a few years younger than he was, and so, like all big brothers, he watched out for her, got annoyed with her, played with her and laughed with her.  Elisheva and her brother Nachshon were very close. The years went by and Nachshon and Elisheva grew up.  Elisheva had become a young woman, who was smart, and mature, and able to take care of herself! Then came the day when the people of Israel stood in front of the Red Sea. The Egyptians were chasing after them, and the sea was in front of them, and they were trapped in between.  The midrash tells us that the people were divided as to what to do. Some simply prayed to G-d for help. Some wanted to surrender to the Egyptians and return to Egypt.  Some wanted to fight the Egyptians.  Moses didn’t know what to do, so he prayed to G-d for guidance. Nachshon hesitated and looked at his sister. She knew exactly what he was thinking. “You can do it,” she said to him, and she squeezed his hand.  “You can lead us to freedom.” At that moment Nachshon jumped into the sea. He waded out further and further, until he was up to his neck.  Seeing the brave Nachshon about to drown, G-d said to Moses, “Stop praying to me and tell the people to go!  Raise up your hand toward the sea.” Moses did so, and the sea parted. Nachshon was saved. The Jewish people followed him to freedom.  If it wasn’t for his sister Elisheva, Nachshon would not have had the confidence to follow through on his instincts to act. She knew that someone had to make the first move to freedom, and she knew that her brother was the one to do it. Who knows, were it not for Elisheva’s encouragement, perhaps we would still be slaves in Egypt! This midrash got me to think about the people in my life who encouraged me, who showed confidence in me, who said the words, “You can do it” when I needed it.  If we are fortunate, we all have had people in our lives whose words gave us the push we needed to do what we did not think we could do. This evening, in honor of Elishava, let us bring to mind and give thanks to those people who told us “You could do it” at important junctures in our lives. Let’s share some of our stories with one another at the oneg – I myself would love to hear about people in your lives who said, like Elisheva, “You could!” Shabbat Shalom Inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Jack Reimer