After celebrating the Shavuot holiday, on which we received the Torah, today’s parsha (which almost always comes right after Shavuot) describes in detail the actual inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that served as “God’s place” in the Israelite camp. While a superficial reading shows the princes of the 12 tribes each bringing the exact same gift – one prince per day – a closer reading reveals a subtext that, of course, begs for exegesis. Today we will discuss two very different explanations.
On the day that Moshe finished erecting the tabernacle and anointing and sanctifying it and its utensils, the princes of the tribes brought their gifts – six carts with 12 bullocks to pull them. God tells Moshe to take them and give them to the Levites serving the Tabernacle, as needed. Question: Why did Moshe have to be told to take the gifts? Why did he have to be told what to do with them?
The answer cited by Rabbi Shimon Felix is that this gift was evidently not in the original plan. This, he says, is an example of new “technologies” being introduced. Moving the Tabernacle entailed its dismantlement and then its transport on the shoulders of the Levites as the people made their way through the desert. Imagine carrying hundreds of kilos of wood, cloth and utensils, including a solid gold Menorah. Here, God says, the princes are bringing carts and bullocks. Use them to transport the goods! I didn’t mean for you to serve as pack donkeys!
Note that the princes presented this gift of carts and donkeys together as a group. They didn’t bring 12 carts, only six, one for each two princes. The 12 bullocks were one from each of them. Cooperation! How nice.
A few verses later, the same princes bring their sacrifices to the altar. At this time, God says one at a time. Each day a different prince will sacrifice what he has brought. Each prince should have the kavod, the honor of presenting his gift individually.
Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein takes a more critical view of the difference between the two sets of gifts. He says that the first gift of carts and bullocks showed the princes as leaders of the best kind. They had allowed the people to bring their own gifts for the building of the Tabernacle (as we read in the book of Shmot), and suddenly they realized there was almost nothing left to bring. They surveyed the situation and saw that while the Tabernacle had been taken care of, nobody had thought of the Levites. So they brought the carts and bullocks to assist them. Moshe had also missed that aspect.
But in this scenario, according to Adlerstein, such self-effacing behavior seems to have dissipated somewhere between verses 2 and 10. After their altruistic behavior, they now seemed to be scrambling to be first to present their own personal gifts, and they all swooped down on Moshe. They were seeking personal kavod, honor.
At this point, God said, Cool it! Wait. One at a time. Imagine them sitting, watching the other princes bringing their sacrifices, and eating their hearts out. Only the first prince could feel really honored, and that was Nachshon son of Aminadav, prince of the tribe of Judah, the number one tribe, and a man with sterling credentials, according to CHAZAL.
What both interpretations are hinting at, especially the second one, is that leadership is a fine art. Leaders who are attentive to their people, in this case regarding the bringing of gifts, let them go first and then supplement whatever is missing. They are like the shamash in the Chanukiah. They are there to serve the people. Those who are more attentive to their own position and needs than to their followers’, take steps they think will bring them the honor befitting the leader of the people, even if it entails stepping on the feet and necks of others.
Obviously, a balance has to be found. A leader cannot always be led – King Saul followed the people’s wishes instead of God’s and was deprived of a dynasty. On the other hand, leaders cannot always be heavy-handed. If we learn anything from reading the books of the Prophets – and of history – it is that no empire, no superpower, no strongman, maintains power forever. The hubris of power and the rot that it engenders sow the seeds of its own destruction.
Check the newspapers, the stories not about corona, and we see some leaders around the world flaunting their power with braggadocio (and toasting themselves with bleach). A reader with apocalyptic tendencies might think that history is repeating itself yet again.
We can only hope that the three-fold priestly blessing that precedes this chapter casts its protective shield over us all: May God bless you and keep you, May God shine his countenance upon you and be gracious to you, May God lift up his face to you and give you peace.