It’s the eighth day of the Tabernacle and the Israelites understand that this time, Moses will not break down the structure at the end of the day. To commemorate this occasion, the heads of the tribes line up to bring their gifts and sacrifices.
The first one is Nahshon Ben Aminadav, the prince of Judah. Why is he first and not the head of the tribe of Reuven, the first-born? Is it because Nahshon was the first to enter the Red Sea, an act that split this body of water to allow the Israelites to cross? Could be. But if one swan dive was all it took, then perhaps Nahshon should join Mark Spitz at the Olympics rather than head the lineup at the Tabernacle?
After Nahshon came Netanel Ben Tzuar, the prince of Issachar. Now, Reuven is really fuming? Why have I been skipped over for somebody far younger than me? Doesn’t the first-born count for anything?
In the larger scheme of things, perhaps not. Nahshon led not only his tribe but the millions of Israelites to cross the Red Sea to freedom. He would be the ancestor of the kings of Israel, starting from David. His importance is not when he was born but what he did with his life. He was a selfless leader, and that is what every nation needs.
Netanel’s tribe was known for its devotion to Torah. The tribesmen would spend their days and nights toiling in the word of G-d. Indeed, it was Netanel who advised the other tribal leaders on what was appropriate to offer the Tabernacle. Nahshon might have established the framework of the future kingdom, but Netanel represented the raison d’etre — following G-d and observing His commandments.
He brought his offering of one silver bowl weighing one hundred and thirty [shekels], one silver sprinkling basin [weighing] seventy shekels according to the holy shekel, both filled with fine flour mixed with olive oil for a meal offering. One spoon [weighing] ten [shekels] of gold filled with incense. One young bull, one ram and one lamb in its first year for a burnt offering. One young he goat for a sin offering. [Numbers. 7: 19-22]
The Midrash examines the offerings brought by Netanel and his colleagues. Every item is filled with meaning. One reflects the six days of creation; the other, the 70 nations of the world, a third marks the lineage of Judah — from Peretz to David. All of them, the Midrash says, were completely righteous and bearing good deeds with the scent of the incense brought to the altar.
One offering was meant to atone for the sins of Israel. The goat was a reminder of the sin of Judah himself. Hundreds of years earlier, he had advised selling his brother Joseph to the Ishmaelites, then taking his tunic and dipping it in goat’s blood. Joseph’s tunic was then presented to his father Jacob, meant to convince him that his favorite son had been torn apart by animals.
The idea that descendants should atone for the sins of their forefathers has not been accepted in modern society. Immediately after World War II, David Ben-Gurion declared that West Germany was not the same country as that ruled by Hitler. The Israeli prime minister pretended that the entire population under Hitler had either been replaced by innocent babes or killed during World War II. Not surprisingly, that was the position of Ben-Gurion’s new friend, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who eventually agreed to give Israel hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1950s and 1960s.
What are the sins of our fathers that we must rectify? Was it the refusal of the American Jewish and Zionist leadership to shake heaven and earth to save the six million? Was it the mantra of assimilation that led to the sharp reduction of Jews in Europe and America? Was it the agreement made by the Israeli leadership to allow Egypt and Syria to attack in 1973, which led to nearly 3,000 dead in less than three weeks?
And what sins will future generations be asked to atone? Will it be the needless hate that we see today, led by the very people who only recently held the highest positions of authority in the State of Israel? Will it be those who now goad millions of Jews with the slogan “Religious people, get out of Tel Aviv”?
“The ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionist politicians are the Jewish jihad,” former General Security Services chief Karmi Gilon, quoted by Haaretz, told a rally on May 20. “They are an existential and certain threat to the State of Israel.”
What exactly makes the Religious Zionists — who regard the army as a divine service — “jihad”? Is it the fact that they are religious? Or is it that they are Zionists? Or is it the mix of Judaism and Zionism?
Moses Ben Nahman, known as the Ramban, tells us that one of the gifts brought by Netanel commemorated the 15 kings of Israel. Some of them, he said, were righteous; others were average, and the rest were downright rotten.
Where do we fit in?
The atonement for the betrayal of Joseph was not arbitrary. The hate of the sons of Jacob toward their younger brother nearly destroyed Israel. That hate has carried on until today and threatens to wreak the same results. Hate has its roots — jealousy, ego, fear. But the only direction hate takes a family or a nation is down.
So, perhaps it is not coincidental that the princes of Israel needed to take stock when they approached G-d’s house. They needed to draw lessons from the past and see what must be corrected for the future. They might not have been directly responsible for the sins of their ancestors, but without soul-searching and repentance, they would simply repeat the mistakes of the past.
We will read this Torah portion of Naso on the day after Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. There are no specific commandments for Shavuot, just the joy of Torah. Every nation has its book, and we were blessed with the oldest bestseller and the only one given by G-d. It’s a guide for life, a guide for nationhood.
Some Jews might want to trade the Torah for the US Constitution or the English Magna Carta. Some simply want to destroy it with lies and hate. It’s been tried before, and it’s being tried now.
It won’t work.
More than 20 years ago, there was an iconoclast television program in the United States called “Freaks and Geeks,” a series on high school that launched the careers of most of its young performers. There is one episode in which a guidance counselor, Mr. Rosso, spots a couple of kids playing hooky. He drives his car alongside them and tells them about one of his old students Frank, who never learned anything and now pumps gasoline at a nearby station. In a sentence, Rosso lays it on the line.
I could have you expelled for this. But I’m going to give you a break. Learn from Frank. Or you’ll be Frank.