Elisheva Daughter of Aminadav: From Happiness to Grief

Elisheva daughter of Aminadav is mentioned in one verse in Parashat Va’era: “And Aaron took him Elisheba, the daughter of Amminadab, the sister of Nahshon, to wife; and she bore him Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar” (Exodus 6, 23). Elisheva’s name is mentioned as part of a list of ancestors. She is related to the most distinguished families: Judah, the royal family, and Levi, the family of priests. Elisheva is called “mother of priesthood:” she is the wife of Aharon, the high priest, and her sons serve as deputy priests, and will be the ancestors of priests in generations to come.

Based on the way Elisheva’s family ties are presented, the Sages suggest that a man should become acquainted with his future wife’s brother, because the male children would resemble their maternal uncle:

Rava says: One who marries a woman needs to first examine her brothers so that he will know in advance what character his children will have, as it is stated: “And Aaron took Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nahshon”. By inference from that which is stated: “The daughter of Amminadav,” do I not know that she is the sister of Nahshon, as Nahshon was the son of Amminadav? What is the meaning when the verse states: “The sister of Nahshon”? From here one learns that one who marries a woman needs to examine her brothers. The reason is as the Sages taught: Most sons resemble the mother’s brothers.

The Sages describe Elisheva as having known great joys but also terrible loss. Shir Ha’Shirim Rabba interprets the verse “Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke,” as a description of Elisheva. Elisheva knew great joy: her brother in law (Moses) became leader of Israel, her brother (Nachshon) became chieftain of Judah, her husband (Aharon) became high priest. When the children of Israel celebrate the inauguration of the Tabernacle, her two sons, Nadav and Avihu, serve as deputy priests. In the midst of this great joy, disaster strikes: Nadav and Avihu are consumed by fire. From the mother of priesthood, who “cometh up out of the wilderness,” Elisheva becomes a bereaved mother, “pillars of smoke.”

Human life is fragile, and joy is ephemeral and mixed with sorrow. Elisheva’s story conveys the painful, unexpected shift from great joy to terrible loss, the way joy is mixed with sorrow. The poet Philip Larkin describes the experience of a man walking in the fields accompanied by the terrible void that is grief:

There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps.

Silken it seems at a distance, yet
When it is drawn up over the knees and breast
It brings no comfort.

Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?

What loads my hands down?

   ~Philip Larkin, Going

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