Nasso: Gifts and Hope

Copyright 2013  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nasso

On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle . .  the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before the Lord . . . .(Bamidbar/ Numbers 7:1-3)

Good morning! I hope everybody who just celebrated Shavuot had a lovely holiday with good Torah learning and the appropriate dairy treats. Ironically, we turn immediately to the Torah portion Nasso, which includes among its various laws the rules of the Nazir, who chose a more ascetic life. . . but we’ll deal with that another day. Today I’m more interested in a little detail at the beginning of Chapter 7, which is one of more unusual chapters of the Torah, in that it repeats the same story 12 times. Each of the tribes of Israel sends a nobleman to offer gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), and as it turns out, each set of gifts was exactly the same, listed identically in the text.

That’s interesting, but even more interesting is a rabbinic understanding of who these 12 princes were, and for that, we need to go back to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. You might remember that the Egyptians set the Israelites a certain quota of bricks, and held the captains of the people responsible when the people didn’t produce the required amounts:

And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. “Why,” they were asked, “did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?” (Exodus 5:14)

This interpretation, cited in early works of midrash, involves a bit of Hebrew wordplay, the details of which are less important than the narrative idea: that these men, who suffered greatly at the hands of their oppressors, and who were caught between the Egyptians and the Israelites in a morally impossible position, could nevertheless bring notable gifts to the Mishkan. Granted, there is some controversy as to why they brought their gifts last rather than first – that is, back in Exodus when they were first collecting materials for the Mishkan–  but to me, what stands out in this reading is faith in human resilience. After the princes were beaten by the Egyptians, they turned bitterly to Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but here they are, standing together with them to create a Sanctuary in the midst of the people.

There are those who suffer, and withdraw from the world, and there are those who suffer, and learn from that suffering to live life at even higher levels of compassion and generosity. To put it more plainly, what the ancient rabbis seem to be saying is this: the princes of the people had been beaten and morally tormented, and nevertheless had gifts to offer. That is a message of profound hope to all those who have experienced pain, injustice or darkness: do not think that you are broken and shamed, for you too have gifts to offer, gifts which bring the Presence of the Holy One into this world, gifts which are the equal of that which anyone else might offer. Do not despair- you have gifts to offer, and the world needs you.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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