“A Lesson from the N’seeim–the Tribal Leaders”
(updated and revised from Naso 5765-2005)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, is almost always read after the festival of Shavuot, with very few exceptions, 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 bound to the festival of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. By reading the longest of the weekly parashiot, either immediately before or right after Shavuot, the Jewish people demonstrate to G-d their love for His Torah, and their preparedness to devote however much energy they must, to the study of Torah.

Perhaps the primary reason that parashat Naso is so long is because the Torah, in Numbers 7, goes into extraordinary detail when describing the gifts and offerings of the twelve נְשִׂיאִים–N’seeim–the tribal princes, all of whom brought the exact same gift. However, instead of describing one set of gifts and noting that all the princes brought the identical gift, the Torah repeats the gifts of each 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 are to be gleaned from the long narrative concerning the offerings of the N’seeim, the tribal leaders.

It was on the first day of the month of Nissan, one year after the exodus from Egypt, on the day that the מִשְׁכָּן–Mishkan–the Tabernacle, was first consecrated, that the princes of the twelve tribes brought their own personal offerings in celebration of this momentous occasion. The Torah, in Numbers 7:3, states 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): קַח מֵאִתָּם, וְהָיוּ לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְנָתַתָּה אוֹתָם אֶל הַלְוִיִּם, אִישׁ כְּפִי עֲבֹדָתו, Take [this gift] from them, and they [the wagons and the oxen] shall be 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 conclude from the words in the verse, קַח מֵאִתָּם–“Kach may’ee’tahm”–take it from them, that Moses was reluctant to take these gifts. Why was Moses hesitant? The rabbis suggest that it was, perhaps, because the gifts of the princes had not been divinely authorized. After all, the last time an unauthorized gift was brought, it ended with the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought a strange fire. Other rabbis suggest that Moses did not feel that the wagons and the oxen were an appropriate gift, since it meant that part of the Tabernacle would be transported on the wagons, rather than carried by hand–perhaps a sign of disrespect. There are those who even speculate that the princes themselves were reluctant to give this gift, since it may be construed as being disrespectful to the holy utensils. Therefore, it was necessary for G-d himself to confirm, “Kach may’ee’tahm–take it from them, this is a worthy gift, this is entirely appropriate for My sanctuary!”

Is it disrespectful to transport the heavy planks 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 sacred of the holy utensils–the Ark, the candelabra, the table of the showbread, the golden altar and the brass altar were transported on the Levites’ shoulders. However, the pillars, the columns, the bases, the cords and the curtains were all moved by wagon. After all, does not the Torah emphasize the mitzvah of צַעַר בַּעֲלֵי חַיִּים–tzar baalei chayim–not causing undue pain to animals? Surely, we need to be at least as concerned about not causing undue pain to human beings! It’s just common sense.

Unfortunately, common sense is not very common. That is perhaps why we often see today the propensity of 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 and 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 My honor or the sanctity of the utensils to transport the vessels on wagons. To the contrary, My sanctity is intimately related to human sanctity, and with concern for human pain. That is far more fundamental.

Another vital lesson that we may learn from the N’seeim, is the manner in which they brought their gifts. Our rabbis underscore how anxious the princes were to bring a fitting 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, personally. 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 themselves and personally delivered by the princes. The princes refused to rely on their servants or their shepherds. G-d said, “Kach may’ee’tahm,” “take it from them,” specifically because the princes have given their gifts with a willing heart and with much enthusiasm.

While each of the princes brought an ox, it took two princes to bring a wagon, again, showing the princes’ concern for one another, their desire to work together, and their love for their fellow Jew. And 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 subsequent days, vied to outdo Nachshon. Remarkably, each prince brought the exact same offering–one prince each day for the next twelve days.

The fact that the Torah goes into such detail, and goes to such great lengths to describe the gifts of the princes, should be an obvious message for us, that there is much to learn from the actions and behaviors of the tribal princes.

May we learn these lessons well.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3,336 years ago is observed this year on Tuesday evening, June 11th, and continues through Thursday night, June 13, 2024.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy, festive and healthy Shavuot.