Archive for March, 2000

Shemini 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

Last week, Aharon and his sons were dedicated as priests to serve in the Mishkan. This week, in Shemini, the altar itself is dedicated, and the priestly service begins- but on a tragic note. Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, bring a “strange fire” on their own initiative, and die right then and there. God warns Aharon directly that priests may never perform their service while drunk. Rules are given for the disposition of the day’s korbanot. The last section of the parasha lists which animals, birds, fish and insects are permitted or forbidden as food.

IN FOCUS

“Moshe said to Aharon: ‘Approach the altar and make your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, to atone for yourself and for the people, and then offer the korban for the people, to atone for them, as God has commanded.’ ” (Leviticus 9:7)

PSHAT

Moshe instructs Aharon as the priestly service begins: first he must make a “sin-offering” for himself, and then a general sin offering for the Israelites. These offerings were made to atone for inadvertent or accidental transgressions; they are called chatat offerings, which is related to the more familiar word chet, which is often translated as “missing the mark.” After the sin-offerings, the regular sacrifices could begin.

DRASH

Once again our parasha study begins with a comment by Rashi that gets expanded and explained by later scholars. Rashi picks up on the apparently superfluous phrase “approach the altar” in the verse quoted above. It’s not necessary to include this instruction- if Moshe had simply said, “make your burnt offering,” Aharon would have to “approach the altar” to do it!

So Rashi sees the extra instruction- “approach the altar”- as a sign that maybe Aharon hesitated for a minute. Thus Rashi writes:

    Aharon was timid and afraid to touch [it]. Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this you were chosen!”

Rashi’s comment can be read as simple encouragement; perhaps Aharon was in awe of his task, or didn’t feel confident, or didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to do. On the other hand, all of those possibilities could be answered by noting that Moshe and Aharon had been together all throughout the Exodus adventure, and had been through experiences like the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the giving of the Torah, any of which might have been more awe-inspiring than performing the priestly service! Furthermore, Moshe was right there to supervise. So it still begs the question: why does Rashi think that Aharon might have hesitated at that moment, the moment of the inauguration of the Mishkan ceremonies?

A later commentator offers a psychological explanation of Aharon’s moment of holding back:

    The Midrash says that the altar looked to him like a calf [i.e, that image filled Aharon’s mind], and that was why he hesitated. As is known, a person’s imagination is a product of those matters which are on his mind, and that’s what he dwells on. Aharon could not forget what happened with the Golden Calf- he always remembered this sin! This is like what is written: “My transgression is always before me.” (Psalm 51:5) Thus, he saw the altar as a calf [again, that image was predominant]. Thus, when Moshe said: “for this you were chosen,” he meant: “because of this, because you always remember your transgression and are humbled from it, you were chosen to serve as the High Priest.” (from Mincha Belulah, a 16th century Torah commentary by the Italian rabbi Avraham Rapa, quoted in Itturei Torah. Translation mine.)

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Rashi tells us that Aharon’s sin-offering was, in fact, a young cow; the Mincha Belulah postulates that the image of the cow made Aharon feel ashamed and unworthy, because he remembered his role in crafting the Golden Calf that Israel made while Moshe was up on the mountain receiving the Torah. (See Exodus 32.) The Mincha Belulah goes on to make a midrash that it was precisely because of Aharon’s humility that God chose him to serve as the priest who atoned for the people.

To me, the Mincha Belulah’s midrash contains a twofold lesson. First, even Aharon, the High Priest, “misses the mark” sometimes; even Aharon has to bring the chatat offering for inadvertent transgressions. Yet even a lapse of good judgment as problematic as making the Golden Calf doesn’t mean one is banished from God’s Presence or disqualified from Divine service! The rest of us rarely craft idols which earn God’s fiery wrath (again, see Exodus 32-33), but we all make mistakes and “blow it” sometimes, and if Aharon can still approach God, then by all means, so can the rest of us.

The second teaching of our midrash concerns the importance of acknowledging our imperfections. Yes, we all make mistakes, and no, they don’t disqualify us from serving God, but recognizing our own fallibility its own form of spiritual growth. Aharon could be the one to bring the people close to God because had no illusions of being God himself- he knew (according to this reading) that he was just a mortal, imperfect person like anybody else, capable of mistakes, and just as capable of fixing them.

We might even theorize that it would be especially important for Aharon to have this kind of humility because he (and the other priests) would perform the “sin offerings” of the regular Israelites- and how could he help someone else put their mistakes behind them if he didn’t have empathy for what it felt like?

Coming to understand and accept our own imperfections and mistakes can help us feel compassion and empathy for our fellow fallible humans. Seen this way, the right kind of humility helps us come closer to God and others. The wrong kind holds us back, because we think that we’ve messed up so bad nothing can be done about it. To paraphrase Rabbi Nachman of Breslov : “if you believe you can sin, then believe you can fix what’s broken!”

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Tzav 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

The first part of Parshat Tzav deals with various kinds of korbanot [sacrifices or ritual offerings] that we’ve already heard about in the previous portion. The difference is that last time, Moshe was addressing the entire people, instructing them on the sacrifices that anyone might bring, but this time, he is specifically addressing the priests, and giving them their particular instructions. New details include the service of taking the ashes from the Mishkan out of the camp; rules for the eating of meat; and keeping the “eternal flame” going on the altar. The second part of the parasha describes the ceremony wherein Aaron and his sons were dedicated for service as priests.

IN FOCUS

“God spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the elevation offering. . . . . ‘ ”

PSHAT

God gives Moshe instructions to give to Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron’s sons, who share the hereditary office of the priesthood. The olah, or elevation offering, is also sometimes called the “burnt offering,” because it was totally consumed on the fire of the altar in the Sanctuary. This kind of offering may be voluntary on the part of an individual, or it may be part of an individual’s atonement for not fulfilling certain commandments, or it may be part of communal holy day observances. The olah offerings could be cattle, flock animals, or doves, sometimes depending on a person’s means.

DRASH

Rashi notices something unusual about the first sentence of our Torah portion: why does God tell Moshe to “command” his brother Aaron? Usually, God tells Moshe to “speak” or “tell” the people something. In fact, we could say that this is theologically problematic, because it should be God who “commands,” not human beings!

So Rashi’s interpretation is that “command” implies zealousness, not only in the present tense but for future generations. In other words, don’t just perform this commandment in a perfunctory or apathetic way, but really pay close attention to getting it right. Rashi then goes on and quotes a teaching from the Talmud:

Rabbi Shimon said: There was a special need for the text to urge zealousness in any case where there was monetary loss.

It’s not immediately clear why Rashi connected Rabbi Shimon’s saying to the burnt offerings, other than the idea of urging energetic attention to the specific task under consideration. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., a Hassidic rabbi, psychiatrist and prolific author, sees in Rashi’s comment an insight into human nature. R. Twerski reminds us that the priest’s livelihood and sustenance was based on receiving a portion of other kinds of sacrifices that were brought on a regular basis. According to R. Twerski, the priests had more than enough to eat from all the sacrifices brought to the Temple; only the burnt offerings were totally consumed in the fire. In other words, the burnt offerings represented a “loss” to the priests in the sense that no part of them was available to the priests as food. Theoretically, that shouldn’t have been a problem, or even a consideration, given that they had so much else from which to sustain themselves.

R. Twerski goes on to propose that the reason the Torah uses the language of “commanding” zealous attention in our verse [according to Rashi’s reading] is precisely that the priests could derive no personal benefit from the olah offerings. It’s not difficult to imagine that the priests paid more attention to the sacrifices that were partially “theirs” than the sacrifices that were a “loss” to them; maybe they even resented having to perform certain rituals purely for others and for God, when so much of their service resulted in immediate material gain for themselves. R. Twerski calls this the trait of “miserliness,” which he defines as an irrational desire for endless material gain- and resentment at the perception of “loss”- even if one’s needs are more than satisfied.

Rashi, as explained above, sees the special “command” of zealous attention as applying not only for the future but for right now. Twerski understand this to mean that even Aaron, the High Priest, who was there with Moshe at the Burning Bush and all the way through the Exodus, even Aaron needed this special urging:

    He [Aaron] had to be urged and cautioned not be derelict in a service which was of no tangible benefit to him.

    Is this even thinkable? Is the High Priest Aaron. . . one who shared Divine communication with Moses, to be suspect that he would be lax in the Divine service because he would not get a piece of meat from it? Is this not the height of absurdity?

    Apparently not. The Torah knows human nature better than we do. In spite of being the greatest scholar and leader, one who is in every other way totally devoted to God, a person may retain a streak of miserliness within himself. The Torah teaches us that no one is immune. Miserliness or stinginess is a character defect which can affect the great and mighty as well as the average person. . . . .Regardless of who or what we are, we are vulnerable humans and subject to the most irrational traits. (Abraham Twerski, Living Each Day , essay on Tzav)

Contained within R. Twerski’s interpretation of our verse is a challenge, a challenge to become more “zealously” generous and truly altruistic. I don’t think this means that we should expect emotional perfection from ourselves; our ability to act in a selfless and giving manner varies from time to time. Rather, I think R. Twerski is asking us to think over those times we’ve secretly resented having to do something for somebody else- or for God- if it didn’t bring us some immediate benefit. Sometimes that benefit is material, and sometimes it is intangible: honor, recognition, power, influence, acclaim. These things are not bad in themselves, but seeking them as the price of “good behavior” can lead to disappointment or anger if they’re not forthcoming.

Thus, even the High Priest was warned: be careful, lest your disappointment at not “getting anything” mar the joyfulness and spirituality of your service. Service to God and others is ideally its own reward, bringing with it the joy of giving and the satisfaction of partnership with God in the work of Redemption.

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Vayikra 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
With this week’s parasha we begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, called Vayikra, which means “He called”, the phrase that opens the book. The Book of Vayikrah is also called Torat Kohanim, or the “Instruction of the Priests,” as its main topic is sacrifices, purity regulations, and other technical religious details of the priestly religion. The first Torah portion sets introduces us to different kinds of sacrifices: voluntary offerings; offerings made to atone for accidental transgressions; and offerings made to atone to God after reparation has been done in a civil or criminal case. Offerings may be herd or flock animals, birds, or grains. The important thing to remember is that all these offerings were called korbanot, from the root “to come close;” the book of Leviticus offers us a window into a religious system that had at its core the idea of coming close to God through ritual action.

IN FOCUS
“God spoke to Moshe, saying: If a person sins and transgresses against God by lying to his fellow-person, [in the matter of a] pledge, or [in the matter of a] a loan, or a robbery, or [if] he defrauds his fellow-person. . . . ” (Leviticus 5:21)

PSHAT
This passage, from 5:21-25, deals with various kinds property crimes or criminal dishonesty; for example, if a person denied that he had borrowed money from someone, or tried to keep a pledge for a loan once it had been paid back. Such a person must make full material restitution to the victim of his or her crime, and add a fifth of the value of the property under consideration. Only then can the cheater or liar bring an atoning sacrifice to God.

DRASH
The great Talmudic sage R. Akiva asks a great question: why does our verse say that the sin is “against God?” Presumably the cheater or thief stole from his neighbor, not from the Creator of the Universe!

R. Akiva explains:

    A creditor and a debtor or people making business negotiations don’t make or accept loans or make transactions except with legal documents and witnesses, and thus if somebody lies/ denies [the transaction], he lies/denies the [validity of] the documents and the witnesses. But someone who gives something to his neighbor as a pledge [or deposit], doesn’t want anybody to know about it except for the Third One between them. [In this case], when one denies the transaction, one denies the Third Party [i.e., God.] (Sifra, quoted by Rashi, Nechama Leibowitz, Da’at Hachamim, and others. My translation.)

On the simplest level, R. Akiva seems to be explaining the context of the verse to apply to a relatively smaller number of cases, those in which only the debtor and the creditor knew about the transaction. In such cases, it’s one person’s word against another’s, and it’s obviously hard to decide unless one party has conclusive proof.

Yet R. Akiva is also making a theological proposition here: God sees everything and knows what’s going on in this world, and is the ultimate Witness to ensure people are dealing fairly with one another. For Akiva, that probably meant that our fear of God’s punishment in this world and the next should be enough to keep us in line- not to mention, of course, the possibility of reward for good behavior, again in this world and the next.

R. Akiva’s midrash also reminds us that there’s really no distinction between ethics and spirituality in Judaism- how we treat each other is a direct measure of our faith, and our faith must always be made manifest in our manner of being in the world. Sure, God watches over us (and surely we can understand that proposition in different ways), but we are also, as liberal rabbis are fond of saying, partners with God in the work of perfecting the world. You want to have a spiritual experience at your office? Then choose to experience God as the Third Party to any contract, and live up to your word in such a way that your faith and ethics are made clear to all who meet you.

The story is told of R. Shimon ben Shetach, who bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite. His students found a precious stone hanging around the donkey’s neck! They told the rabbi, and quoted a verse to prove that God had made this miracle in order to reward the rabbi for his righteousness.

Rabbi Shimon replied: “I bought a donkey, not a precious stone!”- and went immediately to return it to the man who sold him the donkey. The story ends with the Ishmaelite, grateful and amazed at the rabbi’s honesty, blessing and praising the God of Shimon ben Shetach. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3)

Now, most of us don’t usually have the opportunity to return lost diamonds. I would wager, however, that most of us we make promises we don’t really intend to keep, or borrow possessions or money for a little longer than we should, or tell little distortions of the truth when we’ve been irresponsible, or take advantage of other people’s trust at times when we’re rushed and stressed out. The challenge is to remember R. Akiva’s teaching, and remind ourselves that there is a Third Party to any human relationship or interaction, One Who urges us to be our best selves at all times: at the office, at home, between friends. Turned around, this challenge contains its own reward, because every interaction between human beings can become a meeting place for the Holy One.

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Pekudei 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
Parshat P’kudei is the final weekly portion of the Book of Exodus; usually, but not always, read with the preceding parasha. P’kudei relates the final details of the building of the Mishkan, and takes its name from the accounting of all the gold and other precious metals used in its construction. With all the details build and ready to go, God finally gives Moshe explicit permission to complete the Mishkan and dedicate not only its vessels and adornments but also the priests who were to serve within it. The final paragraphs of Exodus are the dramatic climax of the entire story of the Mishkan: once all the tasks were completed, God’s palpable Presence rests in it, in the centre of the Israelite camp, a Presence so powerful that even Moshe could not approach the innermost parts of the Sanctuary. The Presence appeared as a cloud by day and as fire by night, and lead the people in their long journey.

IN FOCUS
“These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of Witnessing, which were reckoned at Moshe’s instructions. . . ”
(Exodus 38:21)

PSHAT
Once most of the work of building the Mishkan is completed, Moshe apparently wants to make an accounting of all the precious metals used in its construction. The workers who did the crafting and all the specific amounts of gold, silver and copper are listed, as well as how much was donated from various sources and what was made from the metals.

DRASH
This is an interesting verse, for several reasons. Morally, one could ask why Moshe felt it necessary to make such a thorough listing of all the precious metals used in the Mishkan; after all, he himself, along with Bezalel and Oholiab, who were chosen by God, supervised the collecting and crafting! Most commentators understand this to be an example of ethical responsibility: even though Moshe himself supervised the collection of the gold and silver, he owed it to the people- the donors- to account for every single coin. To put it another way, if the Mishkan was to attract the love and loyalty of the entire Israelite people, there could not even be the possibility of suspicion of the slightest financial impropriety. One commentator makes a comment to the effect that God’s Presence would dwell only in a place with absolutely “kosher” financial accounting practices! Tell that to Revenue Canada!

Our verse also presents a stylistic challenge: why is the Mishkan given two names? The first time it’s merely called ” the Mishkan,” and the second time it’s called ” the Mishkan of Witnessing” [Mishkan Ha’edut]. Ibn Ezra offers what is is probably the simplest and most direct explanation: the Mishkan is called the “Mishkan of Witnessing” because at its centre it has the “Ark of Witnessing,” [see 39:35], which contained the two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai. The Tablets are also in places called the “Tablets of Witnessing” [luchot ha’edut; see 34:28-29, among other places.] For Ibn Ezra, the Mishkan gets its designation from the holy objects within it, which perhaps get their name from the idea that the people “witnessed” the giving of the Torah and thus willingly accepted the covenant that the Tablets represent.

Rashi has a less practical, more homiletic commentary: he says that the Mishkan is called the “Mishkan of Witnessing” here because it “witnesses” to Israel that they were able to reconcile with God after the sin of the Golden Calf- the Presence of the Shechina was a “witness” to God’s forgiveness of the people’s idolatry. A great Hasidic master, R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, [usually known by the title of his most famous book, the Sefat Emet] picks up on this this idea of the Mishkan being a “witness” to the reconciliation between God and Israel:

    Why did they need this witness? Israel had been deeply disgraced by that sin. Now God gave the [people] the tabernacle as witness, in order to strengthen their hearts, to show that had indeed repaired the damage wrought by their sin. The fact is that Israel are God’s witnesses, as it says: “You are My witnesses” [Isaiah 43:12] But how is it possible that Israel, who were created to bear witness to God’s oneness, could themselves worship idols? This thought caused Israel to neglect their witnessing, until God had to demonstrate that the sin was incidental to who they were, brought on by “mixed multitude.” Thus they really were worthy to witness God, just as they had been previously. The rabbis in fact teach that “Israel were not deserving of such a sin; it came upon them only to teach them the way of teshuvah.” It came to teach every person who returns not to let himself fall to low in his own eyes, for by teshuvah we really are restored to what we were before. [The Language of Truth*, 140-141]

The quote above was taken from a new translation and commentary on the Sefat Emet by the contemporary rabbi and scholar of Jewish mysticism Arthur Green.* Continuing the chain of commentary, Rabbi Green, in his explanation of the passage quoted above, challenges us not to despair in our spiritual strivings:

    The insight that guilt is the great impediment to true religious life is one that was well known to Hasidic masters, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov himself. Among the most essential innovations of Hasidism is the insistence that expressed here that teshuvah, return to God, really does work, and that the one who returns is fully renewed in God’s presence. The real task is to be sure that our witness goes forward, not interrupted by our own sense of inadequacy to the task. If we wait until we are perfect to attest to God, we will never do our job. [ibid.]

This whole line of interpretation is quite amazing: apparently, Rashi and those who follow him propose that the entire narrative of the Mishkan, which takes up a major portion of the book of Exodus, has at its symbolic core the repairing of the relationship between God and Israel. The Sefat Emet says that even the sin of the Golden Calf, which was ostensibly the cause of the problem in the first place, was actually only to teach Israel how to return! Taken literally, this is a problematic statement, as we would then have to assume that God caused the people to sin as a pedagogical device. However, as Rabbi Green points out, the inner meaning of these midrashim is to encourage and strengthen us in our spiritual strivings; the Sefat Emet is concerned with the psychology and emotions, not systematic theology.

Most of us don’t do anything as dramatic as build a golden idol, but many of us sometimes feel like we’re not going anywhere, we’re not growing or feeling any sense of spiritual wholeness or relationship with the Holy One. The Sefat Emet says: keep trying, and never let yourself believe that you are unworthy of a relationship with God. That’s not to say that living your life in the light of God and Torah (however we understand the term) is easy; after all, the Israelites had to build the Mishkan, with great effort and sacrifice and attention to detail. No less would be expected of anybody trying to repair a broken relationship; the extraordinary promise of the end of the book of Exodus is that broken relationships can be healed and broken souls can again be whole with God.

*The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translated and with commentary by Arthur Green, Jewish Publication Society, 1998.

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Vayakel 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

Parshat Vayekhel tells the story of the actual building of the Mishkan; before this, we’ve only read the instructions for building it. Moshe tells the people to bring all the materials necessary for the Mishkan: the altar and Ark within it, the menorah [lamp], the curtains, the planks, the coverings, the special garments of the priests, and so on. All the people, men, women, leaders, and regular Israelites, brought their gifts, so much so that Moshe had to call off the collection because they had too much! The actual artisans who built the Mishkan are named: Bezalel and his “first mate” Oholiab, who possessed extraordinary talents and abilities for building, construction, and beautiful crafting. It was to be the visually pleasing and spiritually uplifting centre of the Israelite people.

IN FOCUS

“The leaders brought the shoham stones and the stones for the settings of the Ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:27)

PSHAT

It’s an extraordinary scene: Moshe puts out the call that materials for the Mishkan are needed, and all the people respond with generosity and enthusiasm, bringing “gifts of the heart.” (Cf. verse 21) Some women donated gold from their jewelry, while others brought cloth that they had spun and woven. Some men brought animal skins, and others brought precious metals and other kinds of wealth. The chieftains, or leaders [presumably this means something like heads of clans, or sheiks, as it were] brought gemstones for the ritual garments of the High Priest, who wore gemstones called shoham stones on his shoulders and other gemstones set into the breastplate which went on top of the tunic called the Ephod.

(See the archived discussion of the Torah portion Tetzaveh for more on the priestly garments.)

DRASH

One of the earliest Torah commentaries, dating from the early rabbinic period (about the first few hundred years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.) is called Midrash Rabbah, or “the great midrash,” which is a collection of homilies and interpretations and comments from the ancient sages. One such sage noticed that in the verse quoted above, the spelling of the word “leaders” is defective; ordinarily, the word nasi [plural nesi’im] would include the Hebrew letter yod, but in this verse it doesn’t. (This sage is unnamed in my edition of Midrash Rabbah but Rashi and others who quote this midrash- possibly from another source- identify him as R. Natan, which works for me.) R. Natan says this is no scribal accident, but offers an interpretation of it, based on the story of the “leaders” rushing in to bring gifts and sacrifices on the day that Moshe and Aaron dedicated the Mishkan. (Numbers chapter 7.)

R. Natan builds his interpretation backwards, noticing that in Numbers 7, the leaders were first in line to offer gifts and sacrifices, while in our verse, Exodus 35:27, they seem to be last. He imagines that the later story is a consequence of the earlier story, so his interpretation goes something like this:

    Why were the leaders so quickly zealous to bring offerings first [In Numbers 7], while in the building of the Mishkan they held back and only offered the gemstones later? Because when Moshe asked all those with willing hearts to bring an offering for the work of God’s Sanctuary, he didn’t speak to them. [I.e., apparently Moshe didn’t go out of his way to give the leaders a special invitation.] They didn’t like that Moshe didn’t speak to them [in a special invitation.] They said: “Let the people bring what they will, and we’ll fill in what’s missing.” All of Israel felt joy to help build the Mishkan, and they enthusiastically brought their donations. . . . After two days, the leaders wanted to bring their offerings, but they couldn’t, as Moshe had already instructed: “A voice went out in the camp, saying: ‘Men and women, don’t bring any more. . .’ ” [Verse 36:7] The leaders were bitter that they did not merit to bring any donations for the Mishkan, so they said: “Since we didn’t merit to bring donations for the Mishkan, let’s bring offerings for the garments of the High Priest.” Thus it is written: “The leaders brought the shoham stones, etc.”

    . . . The Blessed Holy One then said: “The ones who brought with enthusiastic quickness, let it be written that they brought “excess.” [Cf. 36:7], but the leaders, who held back, let a letter be missing from their names.” Thus, the yod is missing from their designation. However, when the Mishkan was built, they brought their offerings with enthusiastic quickness, saying: “When offerings are given in great joy, the Shechina [God’s felt Presence] supports the work of our hands.” Since the Mishkan was already built and not missing anything, what could they do? They brought wagons, so the Mishkan could be carried on them. . . this was a comfort for what happened earlier. [Midrash Rabbah Numbers, 12:6, my translation.]

Rashi relates essentially the same interpretation in a more compact form, but he leaves out the nuance that the leaders felt slighted when Moshe didn’t give them the honour they felt they were due. This seems important to me, because one could perhaps argue that the VIP’s were not unjustified in feeling a little miffed when they didn’t get acknowledged. Rashi, by leaving that part out, leads us to conclude that R. Natan’s midrash is a parable about enthusiasm for the task at hand: never mind getting special honors, if something is needed from you, don’t hold back but offer quickly, honestly, and generously. If you offer grudgingly, or selfishly, or only because you can’t avoid it, then something is missing, just like the letter from the word leaders.

About 700 years after Rashi, the Chafetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir HaCohen, a leader of Eastern European Orthodoxy) added another twist to the story. He points out that in Numbers 7, each family leader is named specifically, along with their gifts- even though their gifts were exactly identical! In our passage, however, all the leaders are lumped together in one verse, unnamed.The Chafetz Chaim writes:

    [see] how beloved it is to the Blessed Holy One when people perform [their service] with enthusiasm and connection with the community, instead of a person being haughty with another. . . thus, when the leaders held back from joining with the community in bringing offerings, they got a letter taken from their names. But when they offered willingly, the Torah recorded their service in an honored places and didn’t give them just the right letters, but a whole chapter, each leader with his own paragraph! [Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah, commentary on parshat Vayekhel, translation mine.]

According to the Chafetz Chaim, then, the leaders were missing not only enthusiasm, but also humility- they were too proud to join the rest of the community in making the offerings. This is another common character trait, one most of us share, to some degree: thinking that some tasks are beneath us, or best left to others of lesser station. In the general world, one who attains a high position rarely performs menial tasks, and in fact would be criticized for doing so; in the spiritual realm, according to the Chafetz Chaim, one attains growth and merit precisely by being humble enough to pitch in when needed.

However, I would like to add one more interpretation to R. Natan’s midrash. I think Rashi is correct in pointing us to the conclusion that the leaders were in the wrong (or at least just kind of immature, or “missing something”) to hold back from offering their gifts with enthusiasm and open generosity. Yet R. Natan’s midrash isn’t only about the leader’s character deficiencies, it’s also about their personal growth. He sees the two stories as evidence of their ability to learn from their mistakes. They may have missed one opportunity, but they grabbed the next one, and that’s the really important thing.

It would be great if we could always “get it right the first time.” As human beings, we can’t; we’re imperfect, and sometimes we act and react in in ways that aren’t the best. R. Natan is telling us: you’re going to miss the boat sometimes- just be sure to catch the next one. In fact, if we take seriously the comments of the Chafetz Chaim, one who is humble enough to learn from their mistakes and grow from the experience can earn special mention in the Torah itself.

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