The Torah does not waste words: It is a book in which every space and every letter can teach us something. We will see that this is perhaps most true in this week’s Torah portion of Naso.
Parshat Naso describes the inauguration of the new tabernacle, the mishkan, which the Jewish people built while they were travelling in the desert from Egypt to the land of Israel. In order to mark the significance of this major event, the head of every tribe offered sacrifices, prayers, and gifts in the new sanctuary.
Something surprising occurred during the ceremony: Every person brought the exact same gift! Imagine what this would have been like: The first leader gets up and everyone “oohs and ahhhs” at the silver bowl and the golden spoon that he brought. Then the next one comes up and in the audience one person excitedly says to their neighbor “I wonder what this one will bring?” to which the neighbor responds “His gifts are usually out of this world!” Lo and behold…their faces disappointedly drop as they see him bring the exact same silver bowl and golden spoon as the leader of the previous tribe!
We all know how embarrassing it would be to show up at a party in someone’s home having brought the same apple pie as every other guest that came: We would be mortified! Yet, the leaders of the tribes were not mortified at all. In fact, they had planned it this way.
Nachmanides, the thirteenth century Spanish exegete, explains that the leaders gathered in advance of the ceremony and agreed to bring identical offerings. Each one wanted to ensure that there would be no one-upsmanship, competition, jealousy, or strife among them. They did not wish to compete with each other in this realm of spirituality or any other realm. They wished to be exemplars of moral character for the nation they were leading.
This is a beautiful example of the modesty of not wanting to show off in front of others, of the humility of not thinking we deserve to outdo everyone else, and of having respect for our fellow human beings. Since moving to Connecticut I have been so impressed by the modesty of many of our communities. Nevertheless, as down to earth as we try to be, there are times when we still feel the pressure of our materialistic world to “keep up with the Jones’.” How refreshing it is to read that from the very first moments of our nationhood four thousand years ago, our leaders tried to counter this trend. At their moments of glory they chose not to stand out, but to retreat; what a lesson to each of us. However, according to Nachmanides, there is an even deeper lesson contained in this story.
Instead of just saying that all the twelve leaders of the tribes brought gifts containing a silver bowl and golden spoon etc…, the Torah actually repeats the entire itemized list of identical gifts twelve times! The Torah, which is usually so careful with words, quite uncharacteristically uses seventy one verses to repeat over and over the exact same donations for each tribal leader!
Nachmanides explains that this repetition is meant to show us that even though the gifts appeared to be the same, they were actually quite different since each leader had a different feeling, a different intention, and a different emotional attachment to the gifts. Each gift was impressed with the individual seal of the giver making it qualitatively different than the rest.
In Jewish life we all do what appear to be identical acts: We say the same prayers, we attend the same classes, we engage in the same tikun olam. Yet, in the eyes of G-d every single act is different. The emotional charge and the intention that a person attaches to a mitzvah causes a spiritual echo to resound from the act that is different from the echo of anyone else performing the same mitzvah. The effort, sincerity, commitment, and substance that we put into each mitzvah is what makes the mitzvah our own and is what can make the crucial difference in our lives.
Every mitzvah is broad enough to allow the individual to find his or her place and meaning within it forming a distinctive connection with G-d.
Rabbi Brahm Weinberg is spiritual leader of Young Israel of West Hartford.