“A Lesson from the N’seeim–the Tribal Leaders”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, is almost always read on the Shabbat following the festival of Shavuot, except after a leap year when it is read before Shavuot. It is no coincidence that parashat Naso, the longest parasha of the Torah with 176 verses, appears to be intimately bound to the festival of Shavuot, the festival marking the giving of the Torah. By reading the longest of the weekly parashiot either immediately before or after Shavuot, the Jewish people demonstrate to G-d their love for His Torah, and their preparedness to devote the required energy to the study of Torah.

The primary reason that parashat Naso is so long is because Numbers chapter 7 goes into overwhelming detail describing the 12 identical gifts and offerings that the twelve N’seeim–tribal Princes brought. Instead of describing one set of gifts and noting that all the others Princes brought the same gift, the Torah repeats a full description of each of the gifts of the twelve leaders again and again, resulting in a chapter that is no less than 89 verses in length. There are, however, many lessons that may be gleaned from this unusually long and repetitious narrative.

It was on the first day of Nissan, one year after the Exodus from Egypt, on the day that the Mishkan–the Tabernacle, was first consecrated, that the Princes of the twelve tribes brought their own personal offerings in celebration of the momentous occasion. The Torah, in Numbers 7:3, tells us that collectively the Princes of the tribes brought six covered wagons and twelve oxen–a wagon for every two leaders and an ox for each leader. G-d then tells Moses (Numbers 7:5): “Kach may’ee’tahm, v’hah’yoo la’ah’vod et ah’vo’daht ohel mo’ayd. V’nah’tah’tah o’tahm el ha’L’vee’im, eesh k’phee ah’vo’dah’to.” Take [this gift] from them, and they [the wagons and the oxen] shall be used to perform the work of the Tent of Meeting. You shall give them to the Levites, each man according to his work.

The rabbis in the Midrash note that the words in the verse, “Kach may’ee’tahm,“–take it from them, imply that Moses was reluctant to take these gifts. The rabbis suggest that Moses’s hesitance was perhaps attributable to the fact that the Princes’ gifts had not been divinely authorized. The last time an unauthorized gift had been brought resulted in the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu who brought a strange fire. Others suggest that Moses did not feel that the wagons and the oxen were appropriate gifts, since the Tabernacle would now be transported by wagon, rather than carried by hand–perhaps a sign of disrespect. There are those who even speculate that the Princes themselves were reluctant to give these gifts, since it may be construed as a display of disrespect to the holy utensils. Therefore it was necessary for G-d Himself to confirm, “Kach may’ee’tahm”–take it from them, this is indeed a worthy gift, and is entirely appropriate for My sanctuary!

Is it disrespectful to transport the heavy planks of the Tabernacle and the heavy coverings on wagons, rather than have them carried on the Levites’ shoulders? Apparently, the Princes of the tribe decided that it was not disrespectful, and G-d concurred. Surely, the most holy utensils–the Ark, the candelabra, the table of the showbread, the golden and the brass altars were transported on the Levites’ shoulders. However, the pillars, the columns, the bases, the cords and the curtains were all moved by wagon.

While it is true that the Al-mighty confirmed the decision to use the wagons to transport the Tabernacle, how did the tribal leaders and Moses conclude that it was permissable? It is well known that the Torah frequently invokes the priciple of “Tzar Baalei Chayim”–not causing undue pain to animals. Surely human pain should be at least as much a concern as animal pain? It’s simply common sense.

Unfortunately, common sense is not very common. That is perhaps why we frequently encounter today a growing propensity among many Jews to burden themselves with more and more oppressive observances, ostensibly to honor G-d, but ultimately making it impossible for them or their children to truly enjoy or appreciate their Judaism. When G-d says “Kach may’ee’tahm,” He is in effect saying that it is not at all a diminution of G-d’s honor or the honor of the utensils to transport them on wagons. To the contrary, since G-d’s dignity is intimately related to human dignity, it is a greater honor to transport the utensils by wagon!

Another lesson that may be gleaned from the N’seeim is the manner in which the Princes brought their gifts. Our rabbis underscore how concerned the Princes were to bring an appropriate gift to the Tabernacle, and that even though each of the Princes represented true nobility, they did not hesitate to bring the wagons and the oxen themselves. Even the offerings that the Princes brought on subsequent days–the silver bowls and the silver basins filled with fine flour and mixed with oil, the gold ladle filled with incense, the bulls, the rams, the sheep, the he-goats and the cattle, were all brought by the Princes and personally delivered by the Princes. The Princes refused to rely on servants or shepherds. When G-d said, “Kach may’ee’tahm,” take it from them, it was specifically because the Princes had given their gifts with a willing heart and with much enthusiasm that G-d accepted their gifts.

While each of the Princes brought one ox, a wagon required the joint donation of two Princes, again displaying the Princes’ preparedness to work together, their love for each other and their concern for their fellow Jews. We see this underscored by the fact that although Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, the Prince of the tribe of Judah brought the first offering on the first day, none of the Princes who brought their gifts on the subsequent days vied to outdo Nachshon. Remarkably, each Prince brought the exact same offering–one prince each day for the next eleven days.

The fact that the Torah goes into such extraordinary detail, and to such great lengths to describe the gifts of the Princes, serves as an obvious message to us that there is much to learn from the actions and behaviors of these noble tribal princes.

May we all learn these lessons well.

May you be blessed.