“It’s What you Give and How you Give it”
72 verses of which 48 of them are repetitive! These are the verses the Torah spends on describing the gifts the heads of each tribe brought on the twelve days of the dedication of the mizbeach. Needless to say, the verbosity and redundancy are very unTorah-like. So why does God insist upon having this lengthy conclusion to Parshat Naso?
To answer this ‘famous’ question, we must first return to the action which preceded these lengthy descriptions of contribution, because the gifts for the dedication of the mizbeach were actually the second present these leaders gave! The beginning of this section states, ‘and it was on the day that Moshe finished erecting the mishkan, and he anointed it, sanctified it and all its vessels, etc.’. Immediately afterwards, the Torah tells us that the heads of the tribes approached Moshe to present God with a gift of six covered wagons along with 12 oxen to pull them, ‘a wagon for every two leaders, and an ox for each [leader]’. God then tells Moshe that he should give these wagons and oxen to the Leviim to assist in their charge of transporting the mishkan. It is then that the leaders bring another gift; this time the Torah states explicitly that the contribution was specifically for the dedication of the mizbeach. God’s instructions to Moshe this time is to make sure that the twelve leaders’ gifts are presented ‘one leader each day’, for twelve days.
Two questions: 1) from the fact that God had to quickly step in with instructions concerning what to do with the wagons and oxen it would seem that Moshe was somewhat puzzled regarding what to do with the gift – but why was he confused? 2) seemingly the second gift was less confusing to Moshe because the only instructions God gave was how to dedicate them, not where or to whom it should go – why was this contribution less confusing and (our original question) why the need to present it over a twelve-day period?
The Torah states that Moshe had just completed the mishkan, anointing and sanctifying everything within it – the show’s over, the monumental construction is done, the expert craftsman, Betzalel and Oholiav, are sipping well-deserved cold drinks, nursing calluses and receiving the accolades from appreciative brethren – when suddenly the tribal leaders arrive with a nonspecific contribution to the (completed) mishkan! Moshe’s bewilderment is now perfectly logical, and God tells him to give it to the Leviim because, practically, they were the ones that could make the most use out of it. However, is there a different explanation, beyond the ‘logical’ and ‘practical’ approach, which can lend a deeper significance to this event?
To answer this question, we must ask and answer another one (or three). Parshat Bamidbar describes the first stage in counting the entire nation, as commanded to Moshe and Aharon in Ki Tisa, with its ultimate completion in next week’s parsha with the counting of the Leviim. Three questions: 1) why is the nation counted now? 2) Why are the Leviim left out of this initial census? 3) As prescribed in Ki Tisa, each person counted needed to donate a half-shekel to the mishkan as a ‘ransom for his life so as to avoid bringing upon himself a ‘plague’ [death]’ – why would a shekel-less counting constitute a death sentence?
We must first understand the context of this counting event: after Har Sinai, the tragedy with the golden calf and the completion of the mishkan, and immediately before the nation is ‘scheduled’ to travel into Eretz Yisrael (see RaSHBaM and others), God tells Moshe and Aharon that it is time to count all the army-aged men of the nation; the Leviim are excluded from this census – but are to be counted later – and this opening scene closes with the outlining of the rules concerning the formation of nation when it travels (Leviim accompanying the aron in the middle, with the rest of the tribes flanking on all four sides).
Whichever opinion you choose to agree with concerning the chronology of the event of the golden calf (i.e. before or after the mishkan), at this point in time both have occurred and therefore there are two ‘facts’ that the nation must contend with: a) after the erroneous sin, God told Moshe that He would send a messenger with the nation when they enter Eretz Yisrael, for He, Himself, will not be accompanying this infuriatingly stubborn nation (for their own good) (Shemot 33; 3), and b) a structure has been erected which, for all intents and purposes, relegates God’s presence to a specific location vis-à-vis the nation. The similarity between both these new realities is that God has in essence removed Himself from any overarching presence amongst the people themselves (although certainly still dwelling within the ‘camp’).
And now they must be counted. In the parsha’s haftarah, Hoshea tells Bnei Yisrael that, “and the numbers of Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of [God] saying to them, ‘you are not My nation’, He will say to them, ‘[you are] sons of a living God’!” It would seem from this declaration that not being countable leads the people to a heightened Divine relationship while being numbered and measured renders the nation “not God’s”. This, along with the two realities mentioned above, expresses the true nature of this census: God is illustrating through His command to count the nation that they are now ‘on their own’, and that the enumerated soldiers will form an army to conquer their promised Land founded strictly upon their own leadership and military might. And this explains why a ‘ransoming’ half-shekel for the mishkan was required from every counted person, because through the counting they are being removed from a personally involved God presence, separated from His Divine connection and in order to counter the (enforced) forsaking of God (a ‘deadly’ sin) they were required to contribute to, and therein maintain and affirm, a connection to the symbol which represented the ‘separated’, yet ever-present Godly existence in their midst – the mishkan.
And why, immediately after this ‘transformation’, is the nation told that they will march surrounding the aron? Because it serves as a perfect illustration of their newly established relationship with God: while He must be found at their ‘center’, God will nonetheless remain distinct from them, screened by the encircling Leviim, the very tribe who will need their own, distinct census because theirs is for the exact opposite reason than that of the nation’s! Their counting will serve to incorporate them into God’s ‘army’ – ‘all who will come to serve in the army of performing the services of the ohel moed’’ (4; 23) – elevating them to an even higher level of Divine connection. And why does God state that the Leviim must divide the nation from the mishkan in the center, ‘so that there will not be an anger (‘ketzef’) on the nation (‘eidah’) of Israel’ – and the only other time this combination of ‘ketzef’ and ‘eidah’ is used is in Yehoshua (22; 20) speaking about when Achan had stolen from the God-apportioned spoils of Yericho, and having ‘violated the sacred booty, an anger struck the nation’. The mishkan remains in the nation’s center, but a closer, personal approach by anyone except the Leviim is prohibited.
Returning to our parsha: understanding that the counting of the nation was used to express a distinct separation between the (iniquitous) people and God; the mishkan then became a representation of that separation – God’s undeniable presence within the camp but His disconnection from a personal relationship with the people themselves (they couldn’t approach the mishkan). So, when the leaders bring their first gift in this week’s parsha, the Torah (brilliantly) labels them as, ‘the princes of Israel, the heads of their father’s houses…the ones who were in charge of the counting’! With this specific introduction, the Torah has immediately put this gift-giving in the context of the counting message, allowing us to recognize a deeper motivation behind Moshe’s bewilderment and a more significant reason for God’s subsequent instructions.
Moshe had just completed the mishkan, the most outward symbol of the newly modified relationship between the nation and God; and suddenly the very same men who facilitated the counting which was the very action which established this diminished relationship approach and want to contribute a personal gift to the ‘unapproachable’ mishkan! Moshe is slapping himself on the forehead wondering why these people are still not getting the message! God immediately steps in to repeat the lesson (from last week’s parsha) that these leaders (and the nation) needed to absorb and accept: He commands that this personal gift for the mishkan be given to the Leviim, the tribe who, through their own, separate census, were established as the only people who would be personally connected to God (and were therefore appointed as ‘guardians’ of the mishkan, denying everyone else’s ‘approach’). In essence, God is saying, ‘you want to bring a personally motivated gift to the mishkan? No problem, but it goes directly to My middle-men, because that’s ‘as far’ as you go. Now are we clear?’
And now we can understand why Moshe didn’t display any confusion regarding the second gift. It was explicitly earmarked for the dedication of the mizbeach, the instrument which represents the connecting of someone to God through the medium of flour/an animal and the servicing Kohain! So when the leaders then gave their second gift, this time specifically for the consecration of the mizbeach, they perfectly expressed their understanding of the lesson just recently taught to them through their first gift-giving: an enrichment of the paradigmatic ‘middle-man’ vessel. And this is why God tells Moshe to spread these gifts over twelve full days giving each leader his own, personal day; in essence, God is declaring that this method of connecting to the mishkan (and Him) is not only acceptable but expected, and therefore must be demonstrated not as a mere one-time expression of Divine dedication but rather as a more significant, constant and necessary laudatory behavior.
Rav Jonathan Bailey