Parshas Bamidbar: Who Is The Torah Calling A Bechor?

There is little question that this week’s parsha is more dry than others, but this affords us the opportunity not to be distracted by an interesting storyline and to instead focus on the nuances of the text itself. Our focus shall be a particular posuk that seems to be rather simple at first-glance, but actually includes a great difficulty:

Numbers 3:1-2:

וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינָי׃ וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי־אַהֲרֹן הַבְּכוֹר נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר׃

Now these are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the LORD spoke with Moses at Mount Sinai. And these are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadav the first-born, and Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar.

The textual issue here is that the word “הַבְּכוֹר” seems to float in the middle of the verse. We have no difficulty translating the actual word, but to which other word are we supposed to connect it? Does it refer to Aaron or Nadav? Determining the correct flow of the posuk is actually quite difficult. Three possible approaches follow…

The first would be to render the verse as it appears above, reading “הַבְּכוֹר” as referring to Nadav. This is also the simple reading of the posuk and the way it is commonly found in most English editions of the Chumash. There is, however, a rather large problem with this interpretation, namely that if it is indeed correct, the wording of the posuk is quite awkward. It seems difficult to begin a list with a qualifier that only applies to the first item on said list, and further, there seem to be a number of extraneous “and”’s in the posuk as well. While one would indeed tend towards translating the verse as it appears above, it is not without difficulty to do so.

It is for this reason that we offer a second approach, specifically that of the Ba’al Ha’Turim who prefers to read “הַבְּכוֹר” as referring to Aaron. By employing a grammatical break, the Ba’al Ha’Turim suggests that we must pause after the word “הַבְּכוֹר” and only then continue with the list of children. The Ba’al Ha’Turim feels compelled to read the posuk this way as the above translation is simply too problematic in his opinion. There is a deeper issue at play here as well: The Torah would not stress the fact that Nadav was a firstborn as he did not live up to his role as such. Since Nadav failed in his role as a leader for his family, and for others, the Torah would not be stressing this fact. Aaron, on the other hand, who most certainly did live up to his role as a firstborn, exemplified this trait, and took full advantage of the opportunities provided to him, would certainly make (more) sense to be highlighted here by the Torah. Thus, for the Ba’al Ha’Turim, the Torah is here teaching us a most valuable lesson: A person must bring honor to his title, not have his title bring honor to him.

There is a third approach as well that attempts to solve the difficulties of the first approach listed above. R. Moshe Benovitz proposes that the Torah chose to write the posuk in the convoluted way that it did to highlight the effect and influence the firstborn has. The extra “and”’s are actually not superfluous at all, but instead serve to call the reader’s attention to the connection the firstborn has as a leader for his siblings. Wether or not we deserve or even desire it, we all have our own responsibilities which we must live up to. The eldest status of Nadav directly influenced his siblings, and the Torah goes out of its way to focus on this fact.

To conclude, while none of the above approaches are perfect, this fact only serves to highlight the depth and difficulty that faces us when we approach the text of the Torah. It is less important that we walk away from an engagement with the text feeling fully satisfied, and far more important that we enjoy and recognize the considerable journey past the simple way things might first appear.

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