Naso: Seventy Nations, One God

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This weekend we read the portion Naso, which concludes with Moshe setting up the Mishkan [portable
Sanctuary] and all the leaders of the tribes bringing offerings as
gifts for its dedication. Each leader brought a similar offering of
silver, gold, flour, and animals:

“On the second day, Nethanel son of Zuar, chieftain of Issachar, made
his offering. He presented as his offering: one silver bowl weighing
130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary
weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal
offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull
of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt
offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of
well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling
lambs. That was the offering of Nethanel son of Zuar.” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 7:18-23)

One thing that is striking about this passage (which is repeated to
describe the offering of each tribal leader) is its detail of weights,
measures, and numbers: the bowl weights 130 shekels, the basin weighs
70, the ladle weighs 10 shekels, one bull, one ram, one lamb, for the
burnt offering, and so on. Our friend Rashi sees the gifts as
symbolic, sometimes finding the numbers to allude to other verses in
the Torah and sometimes using a technique called gematria- adding up
the numerical value of the letters- to link each gift to another idea
or verse.

Without getting into the specifics- which you can check out in the
links below, which give you Rashi’s entire commentary in English- it’s
interesting to me that Rashi sees the first gift – the silver bowl- as
alluding to Adam, and the second gift, the basin, as alluding to
Noach, who is really the “father” of all humankind after the flood.
Rashi makes this point clear by connecting the 70 shekel weight of the
basin to the “70 nations” of the world who emerged from the line of
Noach- in other words, all of humankind.

Rashi connects the gold ladle to the Torah, and its weight of ten gold
shekels is for him an allusion to the Ten Commandments. The animal
offerings, for Rashi, are allusions to the Israelite patriarchs and
leaders: Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon. Each gift,
and even part of a description of a gift, is connected to another
verse in the Torah by connections of words and numbers, but it’s not
the methodology that I find most compelling.

What I find striking about Rashi’s symbolic interpretation of the
chieftain’s gifts is how he sees these gifts as alluding to both our
universal humanity and the particulars of Jewish history and
peoplehood. To put it another way, if the gold ladle alludes to the 70
nations of the earth – i.e., the diversity of humankind- then
precisely in the most specifically “Jewish” place- the Mishkan- we are
reminded of our link with all other peoples. It’s not surprising to me
that he would find hints of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov in these
gifts- after all, in their lives begins the covenant which is
expressed most dramatically by the Mishkan itself.

On the other hand, when Rashi says that the gold and silver bowls and
basins are reminders of Adam and Noach, he’s reminding us that
spiritual practices are always done in the context of a particular
tradition, but they lead us to transcend the particulars of tribe,
community, denomination, or nationality. In this way, religion is a
like a language; for example, love is experienced among all peoples,
but love poems can only be written in a particular language, whether
English or Persian or Chinese. This, to me, is the significance of
Rashi’s interpretation of the gifts of the Mishkan: it’s precisely by
doing our particular practices well that we come to deeply understand
that all people are made in the Divine Image, which has been given to
all people, in all seventy nations, across the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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