“Finding Variety in the Seemingly Identical”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, is the longest parasha of the Torah. It is usually read on the Shabbat that immediately follows Shavuot. However, since the past Hebrew year was a leap year, it is one of the rare occasions that Naso is read prior to the festival of Shavuot.

The close connection of Naso, the longest parasha of the Torah, to the festival of Shavuot, underscores the love affair of the Jewish people with Torah-–the longer the parasha, the better! (Perhaps, that is the reason that this week’s Torah message is longer than usual, as well).

Although there are many fascinating themes in this week’s parasha, the most prominent is the dedication of the Tabernacle that was celebrated for 12 days, starting on the first day of Nissan in the second year after the exodus. Specifically highlighted are the gifts that were brought each day by another one of the 12 tribal princes.

The rabbis tell us that the princes of the tribes were eager to donate at the dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. This was in contrast to their attitude when the appeal for materials was proclaimed for building the Tabernacle. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), commenting on Numbers 7:3, states that at the time of the construction of the Tabernacle the princes were reluctant to donate because they were certain that the people would be unable to donate sufficiently, and that they would have the privilege of donating the materials that were needed to complete the Tabernacle. How wrong they were. The appeal for materials was so successful that word had to go out to the people to stop donating. The princes did not wish to be embarrassed again at the dedication of the Tabernacle, so they donated first.

The princes’ donations for the dedication of the Tabernacle consisted of two parts. First, all twelve princes together donated six wagons and twelve oxen. These wagons and oxen were to be used by the Levite families of Gershon and Merari to transport the heaviest parts of the Tabernacle.

Following the contribution of wagons and oxen, each prince, representing his own tribe, donated a series of identical gifts to the Tabernacle. Their contributions are recorded at great length by the Torah.

In Numbers 7:12, the Torah reads: “Vah’y’hee hah’mak’riv bah’yom hah’ree’shohn eht karbah’noh Nachshon ben Aminadav, l’mah’tay Yehudah.” The first [tribal prince] who brought his offering on the first day was Nachson the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah. The Torah then records that Nachshon’s offering consisted of one silver bowl that weighed 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, both of them filled with fine flour mixed with oil for the meal offering. Additionally, Nachshon brought one gold ladle of ten shekels filled with incense, one young bull, one ram, and one sheep in its first year for a burnt offering. Added to all this was one he-goat for a sin offering, and for a festive peace offering–-two cattle, five rams, five he-goats, and five sheep in their first year. The Torah then concludes by stating: This is the offering of Nachshon the son of Aminadav.

The Torah narrative then simply repeats the contents of the gifts of each prince, virtually verbatim, for 71 verses.

Of course, the Torah could have easily described all the princes’ gifts in only six or seven verses, stating that all the princes brought the identical gift. But, for some unknown reason, the Torah, which is usually extremely brief, becomes atypically verbose, expending many verses on the description of the gifts.

It is a well-known psychological fact that different people perceive the same things differently. As they say, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” So, for instance, for many millennia “charity” to the Japanese meant specifically helping one’s own family. People from collectivist cultures, such as China, think of themselves as deeply connected to other people in their lives, while Americans have a much stronger sense of individuality. East Asian cultures value submissiveness, while Western cultures value dominance, and this, of course, impacts on the way people perceive those from foreign cultures. In a psychological study, Chinese participants responded more to objects superimposed on incongruent backgrounds than to objects that matched their surrounding. Americans don’t appear to be affected by background at all. People from Japan are far better at judging the length of a line relative to the size of a box in which it is drawn, while Americans are far better judging the absolute lengths of the same line. They attribute this difference to findings that show that Americans pay more attention to details, and Asians pay more attention to context.

To one person, the term “black spot” may mean a stain on clothes. To another, it may be a stain on one’s moral character. A third may imagine the pupil of a human eye, while another might think of it as a spot on the sun or the pigment of a Dalmatian’s hair.

Although the tribes of Israel were descendants of 12 brothers, the sons of one father, Jacob, each tribe of Israel had values of its own. Even though the gifts of the 12 princes were identical, each prince imbued his tribe’s gift with the values that best reflected the values of the tribe that he headed. No two leaders of the tribes of Israel saw their gifts as identical in meaning. Each prince perceived his tribe’s gift as unique, a reflection of the personality of his tribe.

The commentators and the rabbis who comment on this extraordinarily lengthy portion, expend a great deal of effort struggling to explain how each silver bowl, golden ladle and even each sin offering, represented an important and unique value for each tribe.

The primary tribal values are most prominently reflected by the order in which the tribal gifts were donated. The princes and their gifts were not presented in chronological order, according to the birth order of the twelve tribes, but rather in a special order that reflected the special value of each tribe.

The first gift was brought by the tribe of Judah, whose prince was Nachshon the son of Aminadav. According to tradition, Nachshon was the first Israelite to march into the Red Sea and demand that G-d split the water. It was Nachshon’s tribe, the tribe of Judah, which became the leading tribe of Israel and from whom the kings of Israel descended. To Nachshon and his tribe, every one of the gifts was in some way a reflection of monarchy, kingdom, and dominion.

On the second day, Nethanel the son of Zuar, the prince of the tribe of Issachar, brought his tribal gift. The tribe of Issachar followed the tribe of Judah, because according to tradition it was Issachar’s idea for the princes to bring identical gifts. Another reason was that the tribe of Issachar also represented a monarchy, but in another realm, becoming “princes” of scholarship and Torah.

The third prince to donate was Eliav ben Chalon of the tribe of Zebulun. Jewish tradition speaks of the famous symbiotic partnership between Zebulun and Issachar. Zebulun, a great seafaring entrepreneur, used his resources to support the Torah study of the tribe of Issachar.

Only then, on the fourth day of celebration, was the prince of the tribe of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur, invited to bring his gift. Even though Reuben was the oldest of Jacob’s children, the three other tribes were given precedence because of their unparalleled devotion to people and to G-d.

The tribe of Reuben was given the honor to follow the first three tribes because it was Reuben’s idea to rescue Joseph after Joseph had been thrown in the pit by his brothers.

The tribe of Simeon donated its gift on the fifth day, represented by its prince, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. Again, a tribe is honored because of the extraordinary brotherly devotion, in this case it was Simeon’s rescue of his sister, Dinah, from the hands of the violent people of Shechem.

The tribe of Gad was selected to bring its gift on the sixth day, because even though the tribe of Gad settled on the eastern side of the Jordan, they volunteered to send their soldiers to fight for and to conquer the west bank of the Jordan from the Canaanites, refusing to return home until the land of all the tribes was fully conquered.

On the seventh day, the gift of the tribe of Ephraim was brought by Elishama the son of Ammihud. Ephraim received that privilege because of the great righteousness of his father, Joseph, and for Joseph’s unusual devotion to Shabbat, even before the Torah was given.

Following Ephraim, on the eighth day, came the tribe of Menashe, represented by Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. He also was rewarded in the merit of the righteousness of his father, Joseph, who refused to submit to the seductions of Mrs. Potiphar.

It is Joseph’s brother, Benjamin, who donated on the ninth day, represented by its tribal prince, Abidan the son of Gideoni. The righteousness of Benjamin is reflected in the fact that it was in Benjamin’s territory, Jerusalem, that the holy temple was eventually built.

The tenth tribe presenting its gift was the tribe of Dan, represented by Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. Its merit was the heroism of Samson, which was attributable to Samson’s righteousness in that he was a Nazarite.

The eleventh tribe to donate was Asher, represented by Pagiel the son of Ochran. The name “Asher” means praiseworthy or blessed. The tribe of Asher reflects the praiseworthiness and blessedness of Israel.

Last of all the tribes was Naphtali, represented by Ahira ben Enan. The tribe of Naphtali donated its gift on the twelfth day. The strength of character of the prince of Naphtali is particularly evident in that he resisted changing the tribal donation. Instead, the tribe of Naphtali was satisfied to bring the exact same donation that the eleven preceding princes had presented before him. This indeed was an act of great courage and humility. The name “Naphtali” also represents the sweetness and pleasantness of the Torah. The last two letters of the name, “lamed and yud” are equal numerically to the number 40, alluding to the 40 days and nights that Moses studied with the Al-mighty on Mt. Sinai before the Torah was delivered.

Clearly, there are many wonderful lessons to learn from this “repetitive narrative.” Most of all, we learn that nothing is repetitive or boring when personal meaning is infused into the experience. Even though seemingly identical gifts were delivered repetitively, each prince felt the very special individual significance of his own tribe’s gift.

How important this lesson is in our own lives: Those who pray every day, three times a day, can easily feel bored and apathetic, or can invigorate each prayer with a stimulating, fresh focus. We can return home each evening to the same spouse and feel indifference, or we can exude excitement and exhilaration. We may approach our jobs with dread or discomfort, or feel a new sense of vigor and vitality every single day. Even a blade of grass may be viewed with a new sense of intrigue and fascination, as if it were the first time we beheld its beauty.

How profound are the gifts of the princes of Israel, and how profound is the richness of the message that has been bequeathed to us.

May you be blessed.