Anyone who has ever flown will be familiar with a key tenet of the pre-takeoff safety-drill which is as universal as Coca-Cola: “If it should be necessary to utilise oxygen masks these will drop down from above the overhead lockers. Please make sure to fit your mask before fitting the masks of others, including children.”
A colleague active in the field of Jewish education once expressed his discomfort with this instruction. Surely, he said, as a parent your first concern is for those utterly dependent upon you, namely your children. Isn’t it natural to want to look after their needs first, before yours? Only after he enquired of a senior steward did he understand the wisdom of the instruction. “In the beginning” said the well-informed steward “airlines used to practise emergency drills with volunteer groups of dummy passengers of all ages including young families and they found, through experience of those mock emergency drills, that when parents who haven’t fitted their own masks attempt to put masks on their young children they encounter resistance. The kids want to know: why are we being expected to wear these horrible things when mummy and daddy aren’t! We discovered that when the parents don their own masks first, the kids are far more likely to co-operate!”
In today’s sidra, no fewer than eighty-eight verses are taken up with the dedicatory offerings of the nesi’im (tribal leaders) for the newly-assembled mishkan (desert sanctuary). We first encounter these nesi’im towards the end of Sefer Shemot (Ex. 35) in a passage chronicling the accounts of the peoples’ generous but unchecked contributions for the mishkan construction. On that occasion, the leaders did not come forward immediately to donate. Instead they opted to wait until everyone else brought after which they would make good what was lacking. Says the Midrash (Bemidbar Raba 12:16): they did not act correctly. Consequently the word nesi’im is spelt minus its two yuds (Ex 35:27). Yud denotes a hand or a handle; and here the nesi’im did not have a handle on the situation! They failed to realise that as leaders they needed to be seen to lead by example. Today the people are enthusiastic in this new venture; tomorrow it may be a different story. Like children on a plane observing their unmasked parents, the people are liable to ask why their leaders aren’t donating and reassess their generosity.
Now when it comes to dedicating offerings for the inauguration of the completed mishkan the nesi’im have learnt their lesson well. They lead from the front – and, moreover, provide a model example of concerted and inspiring leadership. Donating, they teach, is not just a matter of generosity; it is also a matter of sensitivity. Often when donating to a cause, well-endowed sponsors like to play the intoxicating game of ‘one-upmanship’. Many charities publish brochures of donor-lists plus the amount each pledged, knowing full well that Mr. Gross will want to be seen as giving more than Mr. Klein.. Only maybe this year Mr. Gross suffered heavy financial losses and is unequal to either the larger amount or the embarrassment of having his name alongside a much smaller amount.
The nesi’im are admirably sensitive. They each concertedly donate an identical offering. While recognising their requirement as leaders to be in the vanguard when it came to donations, they do not seek to be in the limelight as individuals. Again to offer an aircraft analogy: on board a plane we are happy to encounter the stewards, customer-relations officers, supervisors, even the captain. But the one person we don’t expect to meet is the pilot! He doesn’t come and have us sing his praises as we disembark. An effective leader leads from the front but he does so modestly, sensitively, without fanfare and without vainglory.
This is the lesson the nesi’im teach us. As a consequence and as a reward for their concerted and sensitive determination to avoid not only ostentatiousness but also one-upmanship by each donating identically, their offerings are all recorded in full, spanning almost ninety verses. After all there is no risk of any negative fallout such as envy or embarrassment. To the contrary, their actions deserve the most blazing publicity, serving as they do as a shining example for posterity..