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

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 03, 2020



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, creating proactive momentum to their morning. This allows themto choose what to think about and what to focus on, enabling them to accomplish their goals throughout the day. Instead of allowing external stimuli guide their first waking thoughts, they replace that with mindful, guided, and goal-oriented thinking. Davening in the morning accomplishes this exact goal, 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. Chazal explain that these donations were intended to be a tikkun (rectification) of their previous sin. Earlier, in Parshas Vayakhel, the Nesi’im are criticized for their inappropriate calculation regarding their donations for the building of the Mishkan (Rashi- Vayakel: 35:27). 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.


However, it is important to note that their intentions were pure. They planned to wait and see what was still needed in the Mishkan after the rest of Klal Yisrael finished donating, and they intended to donate whatever was still needed. 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 then fill in the gaps, ensuring that the donation process was properly completed.


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. 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. As the pasuk in Tehillim says, "Olam chesed yibaneh" (Tehillim 89:3), the world was built through chesed. Hashem created this world as an act of pure kindness, with the goal of giving to each and every one of us, and we are sustained by His continuous giving. When we give to others, we thus emulate Hashem. 


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 would be giving him money, but this is far from ideal. Short-term monetary gifts do not solve a long-term struggle with poverty; this man 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. A far better option is to extend a loan, as this will enable him to retain independence and dignity. However, the greatest level of chesed is helping this person get a job or 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, gomel literally means to wean, as in when a mother stops breastfeeding her child. This seems like the antithesis of chesed, as it describes 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 someone off of reliance and dependency, allowing them to spread their own wings. This is the chesed Hashem has done for us. He created us with an independent ability to choose, and in doing so, He gives us the ability to earn our own reward. We are not given out 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. Once 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 Mishnah in Avos (1:2) which states "He'emidu talmidim harbei," which is usually understood to mean "teach many students". However, it literally means "stand up" many students. In other words, a great teacher gives his or her students their own, independent legs to stand on.


Two Forms of Chesed


Aside from 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; the input results in the output. 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 was 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 you, 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.[1]


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, nothing external causes your desire to give, 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.[2]


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 always open, informing travelers that they were always welcome. On the third day after his bris milah, the most painful time period of the healing process, he sat outsidein the blazing sun, waiting and hoping for travelers whom he could help. Rashi (Bereishis 18:1) 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 painful for Avraham to not to do chesed than to help guests while in this physical state. Hashem therefore sent hm the three angels as guests. Avraham had a constant, overwhelming desire to perform chesed. Consequently, when Sedomwas 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). The most famous example of chesed in the Torah is this story of Avraham serving these three malachim food. However, according to many opinions, these angels were not human, even when encountering Avraham, and therefore could not eat the food that Avraham served them. And even if they did eat the food, it was simply out of courtesy- as angels, they had no need for food. 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 stem from within Avraham to give, but Hashem gave him a case where he could give so purely that the recipients didn't even need what he gave them.


Examples of Proactive Chesed


In a similar sense, Hashem created this world in a completely proactive way. 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.


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 travels 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. 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 and giving their gifts last, the Nesi’im displayed a slight lack in their love for Hashem.


Their Tikkun


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


But there is another unique feature of these gifts. The commentaries note that all twelve of the Nesi’im gave the same exact gift at the Chanukas Ha'Mishkan. Yet, the Torah enumerates every single gift individually, repeating the same exact description over and over again. This seems repetitive and unnecessary- why give the same exact thing as eleven of your fellow Nesi’im? 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 Navi’s shevet. The external may have been the same, but the internal 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 gift that the Nesi’im ended up giving originally, during the building of the Mishkan. After Klal Yisrael donated everything for the Mishkan, the only gift left for the Nesi’im to give was the Avnei Milu'im, the twelve beautiful stones that were placed within the Choshen(breastplate worn by the Kohen Gadol). Commentaries explain that the twelve unique stones represent the twelve shevatim, each destined to fulfill their own unique role and purpose. All the shevatim then 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'imare 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, and even individual, unique, and separate pieces can connect into the oneness of a greater whole.


Nadav and Avihu


The midrash states that Moshe was hesitant to accept the Nesi’im’s gifts, as they were not specifically commanded to give them. After Nadav and Avihu’s extremely harsh punishment for offering an unrequested ketores offering, 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[3]. Since the current stage was not nearly as potent, it did not pose as big of a 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 theydecided that this was the ratzon Hashem. The Nesi’im, however, gave identical gifts, revealing that there was no ego involved in their giving. Nadav and Avihu attempted to connect to Hashem as individuals[4]. 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] Another possible motivation is to prevent potential self-hatred. If you walk away without helping this person in need you may feel like a rotten person. Therefore, to save yourself from this emotional pain, you may help this person out.

[2] 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 givingthat knows no boundaries and is given to where it should not be received. (Kedoshim 20:17)

[3] 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.

[4] It is worth noting that even Nadav and Avihu went as a pair. However, there are commentaries that suggest 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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