We’re All Individuals

Knowing as we do how careful and sparing the Torah is in its use of words, it is particularly surprising to read, in the second half of this week’s long parsha, how the Torah records each leader’s identical celebratory offering in honor of the Tabernacle. The uniformity of the twelve sets of gifts is absolute, each price seemingly being totally conformist to his predecessor.


The great Spanish commentator, Ramban, cites the Midrash, which explains, inter alia, that the idea occurred to each one of the leaders independently to bring a dedication offering for the Altar, and that it should be of the particular size detailed in the verses. However, Nachshon, the prince of the tribe of Judah, intended with this amount one reason (reflecting the succession of monarchy), and independently of him each of the other leaders intended this same amount for a separate reason (Netanel of the tribe of Yisachar offered his donation as a symbol of the Torah, while the leader of Zevulun offered his donation in correspondence to the fact that his tribe would engage in maritime commerce, and from its earnings sustain Yisachar and take an equal reward with him in the Torah study engendered; etc.)


In the words of Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb: “Although the gifts all shared common explicit language, the thoughts and emotions behind each gift differed from prince to prince. Each lent a different kavanah, a distinct unspoken meaning, to his gifts. And that meaning was based upon the unique nature of each prince and the tribe he represented. The gifts were all the same; the underlying intentions were as different as one can imagine. The lyrics were identical; the melody, different.”


Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (RaLbaG), a French commentator and philosopher living around the same time as the Ramban, suggests a very different answer. Ralbag notes the ethical lesson that the Torah is impressing upon us: “It is not appropriate for a person (X) to deviate from his fellows’ behavior, when they have agreed to carry out a certain beneficial, public act, to enable him to lord it above them or to shame them, when people will say: X acted in this manner, while Y and Z only did this. Therefore, the Torah went out of its way to relate the praise of the princes, who were equal; none of them deviated from his fellows’ behavior, and for this reason their intentions approximated those of God Himself.”


Our parsha indicates that the Torah sanctions individualistic behavior (consider the examples of the convert, the Cohen, the Nazirite etc.), and the need, at times, to go against the trend. However, one should not be different purely for the sake of being different. Where there is no good reason to the contrary, one can assume that the majority is right and worthy of emulation.


Shabbat shalom!


By Simon Jackson

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Posted in: Hebrew Language Gems & Torah Insights

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