Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
This Shabbat, we’ll read Parashat Naso. It has 176 verses, making it the longest Parasha in the Torah (incidentally, it has the same number of verses as the longest chapter of Tehillim, and there are 176 pages in longest tractate of the Babylonian Talmud). Many of these verses describe the sacrifices offered by the princes of the tribes on the day the Mishkan was consecrated in the desert.
Here’s a brief chronology: The people of Israel left Egypt in the middle of the month of Nissan. Seven weeks later, during the month of Sivan, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai – an event we marked last week, on Shavuot. Forty days later, Moshe descended from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law, which he broke as a result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. After eighty days of praying, on Yom Kippur of that year, Moshe came back with another set of tablets and some news: Hashem had ordered the construction of the Mishkan. The nation enthusiastically gathers the necessary materials, and the consecration of the Mishkan takes place on the first day of month of Nissan, on the second year after the nation had left Egypt. A detailed description of the consecration of the Mishkan appears in the book of Vayikrah.
The book of Bamidbar, which we began reading last week, opens with an account of the censuses Moshe conducts on the first day of the month of Iyar. These events precede a mass migration of hundreds of thousands of people toward the Land of Israel. The journey itself took place on the twentieth of the month of Iyar (an event we’ll read about next week).
In view of this chronology, we ask why the Torah needed to mention the sacrifices the princes had offered during the previous month. This isn’t just a matter of anachronism. Semantically, it makes more sense to juxtapose the chapter dealing with the sacrifices alongside the other activities surrounding the consecration of the Mishkan, rather than just before the nation begins their journey in the desert. That is, unless the Torah deemed it suitable to convey a message to us at this point in the reading, as the nation prepared for the journey to the Land of Israel.
I’d like to dwell on the very special verse describing the princes who brought the sacrifices. The Torah relates the following: “The princes of Israel, the heads of their fathers’ houses, presented . They were the leaders of the tribes. They were the ones who were present during the counting.” The Torah uses no less than four expressions to describe them: princes, heads of their fathers’ houses, leaders of the tribes, and those present during the counting. Some of those titles seem contradictory, since a prince is the head of a tribe, whereas the head of a father’s house is ostensibly the leader of an extended family within the tribe. Why, then, did the Torah attach so many titles to this group of people?
Rashi’s brilliant commentary caught my eye. He decides to associate the princes with the Egyptian taskmasters: “They were the officers over them in Egypt, and they were beaten on account of them”. These princes weren’t nobility, and didn’t owe their jobs to family connections or nepotism. These men were in Egypt, among their suffering brethren, and they had been beaten when they had tried defending the slaves who hadn’t completed their expected daily work quotas. They bore the pain of the entire nation on their shoulders, and thus, they earned the right to lead their people through the desert. This interpretation coins another connotation of the word nasi (prince). Two words can denote a leader – rosh (head) and nasi (prince). A rosh is the leader who leads with his mind and spirit. A nasi, however, is something else. A nasi carries a people on his shoulders, feels its pain, finds remedies for its pain and addresses its needs. The nation of Israel was setting out on a journey to the Land of Israel, and the Torah wants to show us who these princes were. On the day the Mishkan was consecrated, each of them wishes to offer sacrifices to atone for the sins of their tribes, and so that the tribes could persevere. They were entirely engrossed in their concern for their tribesmen, and they would be the ones to lead them on the journey. Perhaps this is why they are also called “the heads of their fathers’ houses”. They viewed each tribesman as their own children.
Once, I heard the following story from Rabbi Singer, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Mekor Hayim (the Yeshiva that two of the teenagers who were abducted last year had studied in): Late one night, he visited the boarding school his pupils were studying in, in Gush Etzion, where he saw a counselor looking at a sheet of paper his students’ names were printed on, and praying. When asked what he was doing with this sheet of paper, the counselor replied that he wanted to pray that each of his students succeed in his studies, and in all other important aspects of life. The rabbi was awestruck by the response. If this man was feeling the pain of his students and praying for their success, in addition to all of the educational work he was doing, he deserved to be a counselor.
A tribal prince isn’t a cushy job. It’s the destined role of those who feel that this work is a way for them to live up to their responsibilities toward their tribes. These tribes were travelling to Land of Israel, where they would have to withstand such complex tests. It is vitally important for us to be able to trust in our leaders, and rest assured that they have made our concerns their first priority. They must be willing to be beaten on our account, and to sacrifice animals on our behalf, and if all that is true, they will surely lead us down the safe path to our homeland.
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