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Parshat Bamidbar Dvar Torah by Rabbi Mendy Eisenberg

It sometimes happens that a single verse in the Torah can spark a lot of thoughts and discussions in order to discover the deep ideas that God is communicating to us. Sometimes, however, the most fascinating biblical insights require just simple observations of the text. One such case shows up in this week's parasha, Parshat Bamidbar

Bamidbar often gets a bad rap being thought of as a parasha that just lists names, but those parshiot are the ones to look at for the gems hidden in plain sight. One such case is in the following pasuk introducing Aharon's children: וְאֵ֛לֶּה שְׁמ֥וֹת בְּֽנֵי־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַבְּכֹ֣ר ׀ נָדָ֑ב וַאֲבִיה֕וּא אֶלְעָזָ֖ר וְאִיתָמָֽר׃. Before I translate the verse, I want to point out a difficulty with translating it. The simple meaning of the verse is, "These are the children of Aharon: Nadav & Avihu, Elazar and Itamar." The difficulty with providing the exact translation arises due to the use of the modifier that I deliberately did not translate, “הַבְּכֹר”, the firstborn. It's not entirely clear who is being called the firstborn. If one looks at the cantillation marks on the fourth and fifth words, it becomes evident that it flows after the word Nadav, Aharon's eldest child: “These are the children of Aharon: the firstborn, Nadav…” So what is the problem? The issue is that if one were to look at just about every Chumash, including the online one that I used to copy and paste this verse, one will notice a line in between the words הַבְּכֹר and נָדָב. What is that line doing there?

The line was added by the Baal Haturim, a fourteenth century rabbinical commentator, and it is meant to indicate a pause, which suggests that the word "firstborn" is not modifying Nadav at all, being that he dies and his status as firstborn actually serves no practical purpose, and would therefore have no need to be mentioned. The Ba’al Haturim suggests an alternative explanation...that the word "firstborn" is actually modifying the name Aharon, hearkening back to the verse prior which mentions both Moshe & Aharon. Thus the verse would be read saying, “These are the children of Aharon the firstborn: Nadav & Avihu…” as opposed to the former translation. The remaining question is, what is the reason for this odd ambiguity?

An idea I heard from one of my rebbeim, Rav Moshe Benovitz, is that this ambiguity is here to contrast two older brothers, to highlight the effects of a firstborn, for both good and for bad. On the one hand, we have Aharon, who celebrated his younger brother’s success and served as a peacemaker to the nation, clearly a good role model. On the other hand, we are shown a tragic story of a firstborn who didn’t even reach the halachic significance of a firstborn, due to his untimely demise. This is emphasized further by the otherwise superfluous addition of the vav—the word “and”—in between the four sons of Aharon: Nadav AND Avihu, Elazar AND Itamar. This would seem to almost suggest a further effect of being the failed role model that an older brother can be. 

This is not to take away from the greatness of Nadav & Avihu, chas v’shalom. This is just an important reminder to us about how crucial our role as Hashem’s firstborns (Exodus 4:22) are. Our job as Hashem’s firstborns are to serve as role models for the nations around us and to show how to properly serve Hashem. This only works if we step up to the task, a huge responsibility incumbent on us. I give us all a bracha that as God’s firstborn, we should live up to that responsibility and serve as a good role model for the rest of His children.

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