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From Last to First: The Story of the Nesi’im (Parshas Naso)

parsha sefer bamidbar May 20, 2021


It had been a long time since he had spoken with his father. Too long. A few months back they had gotten into a heated disagreement, and things hadn't been the same since. It wasn't always like this, of course. His father was his role model, his hero growing up. He was an only child, and his father had been his teacher, his mentor, and in many ways, his best friend. Many of his greatest memories featured time spent bonding with his father. And now, he couldn't help but wonder how they had gotten to this point. They never fought, ever. That's it, he thought, I'm going to call him, I'm going to set things straight and schedule a special breakfast for next week. He was about to pick up the phone, when he looked at his schedule. He was pretty booked for the next few days, so it made more sense to call to schedule for next week. He also had a meeting in fifteen minutes, so their conversation would be curtailed if he called now. He phoned his secretary:

"Hi Sharon, can please remind me to call my father next Monday morning?".

"Sure thing," she said.

He smiled to himself, proud that he was being the bigger person, and went back to preparing for his meeting.

That Sunday he got the call. He almost dropped the phone. His father had been in an accident and had passed away on the spot. He couldn't control himself, he burst out in tears. Not only because he had lost his father, but because he never had the chance to tell him how much he loved him, how important he was to him, how much he treasured their relationship. If only he had made that call, if only he had been more spontaneous. Now, it was too late. The opportunity was lost forever.


How Do You Start Your Day?


When you wake up in the morning, how do you start your day? Many people immediately take out their phones, look at their messages, and are bombarded by a rush of incoming data. But in doing so, we begin our day in a reactive state, allowing external stimuli to become the foundation of our day. With that starting point, it is all too easy for the entire day to become one long reactive experience.

Highly successful people do not immediately look at their phones upon waking. Rather, they engage in mindful, productive tasks upon waking, generating proactive momentum to their morning. This allows them to choose what to think about and what to focus on, enabling them to accomplish their goals throughout the day. Instead of allowing external stimuli to guide their waking thoughts, they replace it with mindful, guided, and goal-oriented thinking. Davening in the morning accomplishes this exact objective, providing us with a structured way to begin our day with mindfulness and directed thought.


The Nesi’im


Parshas Naso features the Chanukas Ha’Mishkan, the inauguration of the Tabernacle. At this ceremony, the Nesi’im (princes) of each shevet contributed spectacular gifts towards the Mishkan.[1] Chazal explain that these donations were intended to be a tikkun (rectification) for their previous sin.[2] Earlier, in Parshas Vayakhel, the Nesi’im are criticized for their inappropriate approach regarding their donations towards the building of the Mishkan[3]. They delayed in donating gifts for the Mishkan, and in the interim the Jewish People donated everything needed for the Mishkan, leaving the Nesi’im with nothing to give.[4]

However, it is important to note that their intentions were pure. They intended to wait and see what was still needed in the Mishkan after the rest of Klal Yisrael had finished donating, and they would then donate whatever was still needed, filling in the rest. The Nesi’im assumed that if everybody donated simultaneously, there would be many overlapping gifts, while other essential things might be left out completely. The Nesi’im wanted to fill in the gaps, ensuring that the donation process was completed properly. 

However, when the giving stopped and the dust settled, there was nothing left to give. Klal Yisrael had surpassed all expectations, donating every single required item and even exceeding the required quotas.[5] The Nesi’im, due to their delay, lost out on their chance to contribute towards the Mishkan.

The Nesi’im are criticized for their lack of alacrity in donating to the Mishkan, and it is apparent that they realized their mistake, as they tried to rectify it by contributing elaborate gifts during the Chanukas Ha’Mishkan. However, we must ask what the Nesi’im did that was so improper. After all, their calculation seems sound, if not ideal. Why donate something that has already been given? Isn't it worthwhile to ensure that your gift will be useful? Why then do we view their actions, or lack thereof, in such a negative light? Furthermore, how do the Nesi’im's gifts in Parshas Naso rectify their mistake? In order to understand this episode, we must first understand the nature and meaning of chesed, loosely translated as kindness and giving.




The spiritual concept of chesed is the ability to expand beyond one’s limited self and contribute towards others.[6] As the pasuk in Tehillim says, "Olam chesed yibaneh", the world was built through chesed.[7] Hashem created this world as an act of expansion and pure kindness, [8] with the goal of giving to each and every one of us.[9] Thus, when we give to others, we emulate Hashem.[10]


Levels of Chesed


Within the basic character trait of chesed, there are varying levels and degrees. For example, if a person is in financial need, there are several different ways one can help him. The most obvious form of chesed is giving money, but this is far from ideal. Short-term monetary gifts do not usually solve a long-term struggle with poverty; the person will therefore remain dependent and poor. Being dependent on another is shameful, and we do not want recipients of charity to feel dependent and incapable of earning their own sustenance.[11] A far better option is to extend a loan, as this enables a person to retain independence and dignity. However, the greatest level of chesed is helping a person get a job or develop a means of sustaining themselves, as this provides both sustenance and genuine independence. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

This principle is at the root of a phrase we read every day in Shemonah Esrai. In the first bracha, we describe Hashem as “gomel chasadim," the One Who bestows kindness. However, the Hebrew word “gomel” literally means to wean, as in when a mother stops breastfeeding her child. This seems like the antithesis of chesed, as it is an act of cutting someone off and the cessation of giving. However, there is an intrinsic connection between chesed and weaning: the greatest chesed is to give someone independence, to wean them off of reliance and dependency, allowing them to spread their own wings. This is the chesed Hashem does for us: He gives us the independent ability to choose, and in doing so, He gives us the ability to earn our own reward.[12] We are not given our reward for free; we earn it through our choices, our internal moral victories, and our constant existential struggle to grow.

This is often the biggest challenge of a parent: letting their child go, letting them blossom and flourish. Only once children are given independence can they finally learn to become themselves. This is also why the greatest teachers don't create dependent students, they create independent thinkers, students who continue to grow and flourish long after they leave their teacher's classroom. This is the deeper meaning behind the unusual language of the Mishna in Avos, which instructs us "Ha'amidu talmidim harbei," which is usually understood to mean "teach many students".[13] However, it literally means "stand up" many students. In other words, a great teacher helps their students develop their own legs to stand on.[14]


Two Forms of Chesed


Beyond the varying degrees and levels of chesed, the Maharal explains that there are two distinct forms of giving. The first is responsive, when a person gives only that which is needed. This means giving only when a person sees a need, or when someone asks for help. The drawback of this form of giving is that it is only done because it is compelled, it is caused by an external need. If this individual had not seen another in need, he would not have helped. While giving in this situation can still be done with pure intentions, there is a possibility that the giving is motivated by guilt, or to avoid feeling the emotional pain of another person’s lack. If you see a person in dire need of help, looking much less fortunate than yourself, you tend to feel bad for them. You want to help them, but you also want to make yourself feel better, to assuage your own feelings of guilt.[15]

The second form of chesed is proactive, when you give purely for the sake of giving. This reflects a compelling desire to give and help others. In this case, there is no external cause for giving, rather it stems from a deep internal desire to expand outwards and help others. Instead of waiting reactively for people to come to you, you proactively seek out opportunities to help. In a deep sense, this form of chesed does not stem from someone else’s need to receive, but from your internal desire to give. You will therefore happily give to someone, even if they aren't in need, even if they already have what you wish to give them.[16]


Avraham: Ish Chesed


This is why Avraham is the ultimate paradigm and exemplar of a ba'al chesed. The four walls of his tent were continually open, declaring to travelers that they were always welcome. On the third day after his bris milah (circumcision), the most painful point of time in the healing process, he sat outside in the blazing sun, waiting and hoping for travelers whom he could help. Rashi[17] explains that Hashem actually made that day unusually hot with the specific intent to discourage people from traveling; this way, Avraham could have a day off to rest, free from travelers. However, it was more distressing for Avraham to be unable to perform chesed than to help guests while in this physical state. Hashem therefore sent him the three angels as guests. Avraham had a constant, overwhelming desire to perform chesed. As such, when Sedom was destroyed and travelers stopped coming his way, Avraham moved his tent so that he could continue hosting guests and perform chesed.

There is an interesting question that arises from the story of Avraham and the three malachim (angels). Much attention is given to Avraham’s exemplary chesed when he fed and hosted these three malachim. However, according to many opinions, these angels did not become human, even when encountering Avraham, and therefore had no need for the food that Avraham served them. And even according to the opinions that they did eat the food, it was simply out of courtesy. Why, then, is this the ultimate paradigm of chesed?

Based on what we have said, the answer is clear. The ultimate act of chesed is one that is spontaneous, proactive, and stems from an inner desire to give, as opposed to originating in someone else's desire and need to receive. In this case, not only did the desire to give stem completely- and proactively - from within Avraham, but Hashem gave him a situation in which he could give so purely that the recipients didn't even need that which he gave them. In other words, he was able to give without being compelled by the recipients’ need.


Examples of Proactive Chesed


The ultimate paradigm of proactive chesed was Hashem’s decision to create the world. There was no external recipient when Hashem created the world, there was no "need", and there was no external force pressuring Hashem to "give" the world existence. As the Rambam, the Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem's decision to create the world was spontaneous and proactive, stemming only from His desire to give.[18]

This is also the Jewish approach to spirituality. We don't wait for spirituality to come to us, we proactively seek it out. We don't let time wash over us, we actively ride the waves of time. For the Shalosh Regalim, all of Klal Yisrael travel towards Yerushalayim, proactively seeking out holiness from the point of its physical origin, the Beis Ha'mikdash. On Friday evening, we proactively greet Shabbos through Kabbalas Shabbos. This practice stems from the great sages who used to proactively go out into the fields to greet Shabbos and bring it in.[19] They also accepted Shabbos early, in order to play an active role in bringing Shabbos in, and we emulate this as well.


Understanding the Nesi'im


We can now understand the mistake, and the subsequent rectification, of the Nesi’im. When it came to the building of the Mishkan, the Nesi’im were reactive. Their calculation may have been rational and sound, but that itself was the problem. When you truly love someone, you give for the sake of giving, spontaneously, as an expression of overwhelming love. If you love Hashem, you eagerly give to the Mishkan - for the sake of giving - even if there may be overlap between the gifts. The practical concern of specific inventory can be dealt with at a later stage. By waiting until the end to give their gifts, the Nesi’im displayed a slight lack in their love for Hashem.


The Nesi’im’s Tikkun


The Nesi’im rectified their mistake at the Chanukas Ha'Mishkan when they gave their gifts spontaneously and proactively. Whereas they gave last when it came to the building of the Mishkan, they gave first at its inauguration. 

But there is another unique feature of these gifts. The commentators note that all twelve of the Nesi’im gave identical gifts at the Chanukas Ha'Mishkan. Yet, the Torah enumerates each gift individually, repeating the same exact description over and over again. This seems redundant and unnecessary - why did each Nasi give the same exact gift as their fellow eleven Nesi’im, and why does the Torah detail all twelve of them? But this, in fact, was their ultimate rectification. Their sin lay in being reactive; their tikkun came through proactivity. Their sin lay in over-calculating and worrying about overlapping their gifts; their tikkun came specifically through giving the same exact gift, an explicit expression of repetition, and a true expression of giving for the sake of giving.


Same Gifts?


There is an additional layer to this as well. While it appears that each of the Nesi’im gave the same gift, that is true only on the surface level. The midrash explains that while each Nasi gave an identical gift, each gift reflected the unique spiritual essence of the Nasi’s shevet. The external packaging may have been the same, but the internal meaning was fundamentally different. This idea is essential to our own lives as well. We say the same words of shemonah esrei three times a day, but each and every tefilah should be unique. We say the same physical words, but each time we have the opportunity for a new and elevated internal experience of connection and meaning. The thoughts and feelings that infuse the words of this prayer will never be the same as those which shape another prayer.

This idea is deeply connected to the one gift that the Nesi’im did end up giving originally, during the building of the Mishkan. After Klal Yisrael donated everything for the Mishkan, there was still one gift left for the Nesi’im to give: the Avnei Milu'im, the twelve beautiful stones that were placed within the Choshen (breastplate worn by the Kohen Gadol). Commentators explain that the twelve unique stones represent the twelve shevatim, each destined to fulfill their own unique role and purpose. All the shevatim come together to create a single klal, a single nation, where the individuals come together in such a brilliant way that the result transcends the sum of its parts. So too, each of us is destined to fulfill a unique role in the world, to embark on our own unique journey to greatness, and to become part of something infinitely greater than ourselves.

The gifts of the Nesi’im teach us a powerful lesson: the stones of the Avnei Milu'im are each unique and separate on the surface, but they come together into a collective whole, reflecting the deeper spiritual oneness of Klal Yisrael. The second gifts of the Nesi’im appeared the same on the surface, while their uniqueness lay within. The physical surfaces mirrored one another, but internally, each Nasi had their own unique intentions and thoughts. These two sets of gifts teach us both sides of an essential principle:

  • Things which appear the same on the surface can be entirely unique within.
  • Even that which appears individual, unique, and separate on the surface can connect into the deeper oneness of a greater whole.


Nadav and Avihu


The midrash[20] states that Moshe was hesitant to accept the Nesi’im’s gifts at the Chanukas Ha’Mishkan, because they were not specifically commanded to give them. After Nadav and Avihu’s extremely harsh punishment for bringing an unrequested ketores offering,[21] perhaps such gifts should not be accepted. However, Hashem assured Moshe that the Nesi’im’s intentions were pure and that he should accept their gifts. This is puzzling though, because according to most opinions, Nadav and Avihu's intentions were pure as well. What then is the difference between them and the Nesi’im?

One possible answer may be the timing. While Nadav and Avihu gave their gift during the inception stage of the Mishkan, the Nesi’im gave theirs at a later stage in the process.[22] Since the current stage was not nearly as potent, it did not pose the same problem.

Another possible resolution lies in the idea we just developed. Nadav and Avihu’s offering was tainted by a trace of ego. Hashem did not command them to bring the ketores offering, but they decided that this was the ratzon Hashem. The Nesi’im, however, gave identical gifts, revealing that there was no individual ego involved in their giving. Nadav and Avihu attempted to connect to Hashem as individuals.[23] The Nesi’im went as a collective whole, representing all of Klal Yisrael and reflecting the oneness of the shevatim. With no ego involved, the problem of "eino mitzuveh" did not apply. 

Additionally, we can suggest that while Nadav and Avihu gave their gifts without any justification, the Nesi’im did so as an expression of genuine teshuva, showing Hashem that they had learned from their mistakes and wished to return to their true selves. Since these gifts were a rectification of a previous sin, they did not create a problem of "eino mitzuveh".


Living Proactively


This brings us full circle. When you wake up in the morning, how do you start your day? Are you reactive to that which comes your way, or do you proactively pave your path? Success does not come by accident, it comes from mindful planning, intense commitment, and consistent execution. If we live a reactive life, we will wake up one day and wonder why we are so far from our desired destination. True success requires proactivity. And the virtue of proactivity stems from the middah of chesed, proactively seeking ways to do good, to help others, to improve the world around us. May we be inspired to become so full of love that we proactively seek out ways to contribute to those around us.


[1] Bamidbar- Perek 7.

[2] See Rashi- Bamidbar 7:3 and Sifrei- Naso 1:150.

[3] Rashi- Shemos 35:27.

[4] However, there was still one gift left for the Nesi’im to give: the Avnei Milu'im, the twelve beautiful stones that were placed within the Choshen (breastplate worn by the Kohen Gadol).

[5] Shemos 36:5.

[6] Chesed is expansion and outflow. Gevurah – or Din – is restriction, limitation, and boundaries. Tiferes is the perfect harmony and balance of these two attributes.

[7] Tehillim 89:3.

[8] Not only was the original act of creation an act of kindness, but the world is continuously sustained by Hashem’s active will, an act of continuous giving. For more on Hashem’s constant creation of the world, see article on Parshas Ha’azinu, section: “A Cosmic Mask.”

[9] For more on this topic and the underlying purpose of creation, see article on Parshas Tetzaveh.

[10] For more on the mitzvah to emulate Hashem, see Shabbos 133b and Shemos 15:2 (Mah hu rachum, af atah rachum- just as Hashem is merciful, so should you be merciful). See also Sotah 14a.

[11] For more on this concept, see article on Parshas Tetzaveh, section: “We Only Enjoy That Which We Earn”.

[12] See article on Parshas Tetzaveh for more on this topic.

[13] Avos 1:2.

[14] The ideal teacher does not create dependency, but rather stands the students on their own feet, as independent and strong thinkers. Thus, even when the teacher is gone, they can continue learning, growing, and thinking - and ultimately, teach students of their own. See also Tosafos Yom Tov- Avos 1:2.

[15] Another possible motivation is to prevent potential self-hatred. If we walk away without helping this person in need we may feel like a rotten person. Therefore, to save ourselves from this emotional pain, we may help this person out.

[16] This form of chesed can be misused as well. If you give to someone who cannot receive, you will do more harm than good. If you teach too much wisdom to one who cannot contain it, you will most likely do more harm to their mind than good. The same is true for all areas of life: if you have no filter on your outflow, then you cannot give properly. This is why the Torah uses the word chesed for immoral relationships, reflecting a giving that knows no boundaries and is given to where it should not be received. (Kedoshim 20:17) The underlying principle is as follows: too much or too little giving is destructive; too little rain results in a drought (gevurah/din), too much results in a flood. (unlimited chesed). The ideal is a perfect balance, the perfect amount of chesed (tiferes).

[17] Bereishis 18:1.

[18] For more on this topic, see article on Parshas Tetzaveh, section: “Two Fundamental Prerequisites.”

[19] Bava Kama 32b

[20] See Rashi- Bamidbar. 7:3.

[21] See article on Parshas Shemini for a deeper analysis of Nadav and Avihu’s mistake.

[22] Even though the Nesi’im’s gift still occurred during the Chanukas Ha'Mishkan, it was at a later stage, and therefore not as problematic. See article on Parshas Shemini for a deeper analysis of Nadav and Avihu’s mistake, and why the root stage of a process is infinitely more delicate.

[23] It is worth noting that even Nadav and Avihu went as a pair. However, there are commentators who suggest that they went as individuals, with the intention of doing it themselves, and “happened” to find the other one there when performing the avodah. In other words, they were two individuals, not a group of two.

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