12 identical gifts can help unwrap a truism


Bamidbar/Numbers 4:21–7:89

Shoftim/Judges 3:2-25

I can’t go back to Las Vegas anytime soon — but not for the reasons you might think. You see, I spent Shabbat there 13 years ago for this week’s Torah reading of Naso. I went to synagogue and was called to the Torah for the sixth aliyah, which it just so happens I know by heart.

Originally the person called to the Torah was the one who read it, so I asked on the spot if I could read. Were they ever impressed! They assumed I was a world-class reader who knows the Torah sight unseen — and going back would quickly ruin their fine impression.

I don’t know many Torah portions flawlessly by heart, but this one is easy. It describes the gifts given toward the inauguration ceremony of the Tabernacle by the princes of each of the 12 tribes of Israel, and they are identical. Not similar, mind you: identical. They all gave the same gift. So once one knows how to read the several verses that describe it, reading this lengthy aliyah effectively means repeating the same lines over and over.

For 12 straight days they arrived, day after day, with the same offering. Why were all the gifts the same? If you see someone on the day before giving your gift, wouldn’t you run to the store to get something else? Furthermore, why repeat each and every prince’s gift? It makes this the longest parshah in the Torah!

There are those who suggest a message of unity. In the Tabernacle’s dedication, the leadership was together and offered matching gifts. This is fine and well, except that a seemingly unnecessary hint of sibling rivalry is also inserted into the picture. The tribe of Yehudah fittingly went first, as it was the tribe of kings, the political leadership. Who went second? You would think Reuven the eldest, or maybe Ephraim the most populous. But instead it was Yissachar, the ninth child. Why set up the trigger for a fight?

The Midrash notes the unusual wording used to introduce Yissachar’s gift and suggests that the other tribes clamored to follow Yehudah. Each one claimed to be more worthy than the others. But HaShem explicitly chose Yissachar to go second because of devotion to Torah study. Hmm. Are we saying that because of Yissachar’s dedication to Torah and tradition that it goes second? Why not first? Are politics ahead of beliefs and values?

The Chafetz Chaim explains that the princes had not coordinated their gifts in advance. Yehudah went first with a truly fine offering; but wouldn’t the next leader try to out-do that with something more impressive? Then the next, and so on?

All the princes would be inclined to do this except for one: Yissachar. And why the difference? As Torah scholars, they worked not on a relative system of value based on looking at others, but rather on an objective system of looking into the Torah. The student of Torah judges himself not by comparison to society but rather by using the objective standards of tradition Torah itself. He looks not over his shoulder, but into the Book.

When Yissachar went second, its prince offered the same gift as the tribe of Yehudah in order to set a pattern. After that, everyone fell into line and offered the same as a symbol of unity.

Yissachar wasn’t focused on whether it was “better” than Yehudah, but rather on whether the gift was worthy. Its prince knew a good idea when he saw it. Yisssachar was placed in the second slot in order to set the pattern; putting another second would only leave the others to try and compete.

Too often we bear concern that we know or practice less than other Jews, or conversely feel smug that we are more Jewishly connected than our neighbors. The bottom line, though, is that we are not in competition with one another.

We are meant to work with the objective standard of where Torah can fit into our lives, not the subjective comparison to the lives of those sitting to our left and right. We aspire to develop our own personal positioning and relationship with HaShem. Being great is not about being better than anyone else. Being great is about being great.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].