“We’re All Individuals”
Parashat Naso
Le’Zecher Marat Chaya Chana bat Yona HaCohen

By Simon M. Jackson

 Legal Adviser to Torah MiTzion

Knowing as we do how careful and sparing the Torah is in its use of words, it is particularly surprising to read (and even harder for the Ba’al Keriah to maintain everyone’s interest when reading!) of how each leader’s identical celebratory offering in honor of the Mishkan is repeated no less than 12 times by the Torah, in identicallanguage. Indeed, our parasha is the longest in the entire Torah, with a grand total of 176 verses (the same number of verses as in the longest Psalm (119) and the same number of folios as the longest tractate in the Talmud Bavli – Bava Batra)!
“Lift the Head”
Nehama Leibowitz suggests that the Torah thus emphasizes “the importance and uniqueness of the individual, repudiating the ideology that regards the human being as a cog in a vast machine and as an indistinguishable member of a mass.”
Or as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks eloquently puts it: “In any census, count or roll-call there is a tendency to focus on the total: the crowd, the multitude, the mass… any nation tends to value the group or nation as a whole. The larger the total, the stronger is the army, the more popular the team, and the more successful the company”.
However, “Counting devalues the individual and tends to make him or her replaceable. If one soldier dies in battle, another will take his place. If one person leaves the organization, someone else can do his or her job… people in a crowd become anonymous. Their conscience is silenced. They lose a sense of personal responsibility… G-d tells Moshe to ‘lift people’s heads’ (as in the beginning of our parsha – naso et rosh) by showing that they each count; they matter as individuals… We each have unique gifts. There is a contribution only I can bring. To lift someone’s head means to show them favor, to recognize them. It is a gesture of love.”
Perhaps this is why, in last week’s parsha, in the census taken of the people, the Torah counts each person, not only by number, but by name – “be’mispar shemot” )Bemidbar 1:2). In the words, of the Akedat Yitzchak, each individual “has an importance all his own, like a king or priest, and this is the reason why they were all mentioned by name. They were all equal in station, but uniquely separate in their equality.”
Different People – Different Intentions
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.)
“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 Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb).
Going With the Flow
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 activity, 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 contributions of the princes, each of which 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 act differently purely for the sake of being different. Where there is no good reason to think otherwise, one can and should assume that the majority is right and worthy of emulation.
Shabbat shalom!
Comments to: simon@jacksonadvocates.net